Book Review: Thomas J. Wood: A Biography of the Union General in the Civil War


by Dan Lee

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Pp. viii, 276. Illus., notes., biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0786471301

At Chickamauga on Sept. 19, 1863, Wood (1823-1906) followed an order he knew to be in error, sparking a major disaster to the Union forces and ever afterwards looming over his career.

In this first ever biography of Wood, Lee opens with a look at the man's early life, education at West Point, and service in the Mexican War and the Old Army. He then takes Wood into the Civil War, during which he proved himself many times, before Chickamauga, rising to brigadier general.  At a critical moment during the battle, Thomas obeyed an order he knew was wrong, which opened a gap in the Union lines through which James Longstreet’s Confederate troops promptly poured.  This unhinged the entire Union line and initiated a strategic crisis that would take weeks to resolve.  Lee carefully examines the circumstances of Wood’s “failure” at Chickamauga.  He demonstrates that the order issued by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was clearly incorrect, based on inaccurate information.  Thus, legally and morally, Wood had the right to disobey it.  But Wood chose to follow the order.  Lee concludes that this decision to obey an unrealistic order resulted from a blistering public dressing-down Wood had received just a few hours earlier from Rosecrans for questioning an order.  The result was the retreat of the Union forces, the relief of Rosecrans, and a shadow over Wood for the rest of the war.  Nevertheless, Lee argues, this made Wood a better commander, an idea that is confirmed by his subsequent service under William T. Sherman and George Thomas, and his promotion to major general. 

This is an excellent book about a rather marginalized figure in the war, which casts fresh light on the events at Chickamauga.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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