I hadn’t gotten far into my project of working on lawyer-generals before I discovered that I knew next to nothing about the Civil War. Although I’m something of a military history buff, my interest is largely confined to ancient and medieval military history. I can tell you a lot more about the Roman Civil War battles between Caesar and Pompey than I can about the American Civil War battles between Grant and Lee. This means that when reading accounts of the careers of the various generals, I cannot put them into the context of the entire Civil War. I decided to correct this deficiency by suspending investigation of individual generals until I had learned more about the Civil War as a whole.
My first self-inflicted reading assignment was James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, a one-volume history of the war which runs to 909 pages. The first 1/3 of the book, which deals with the lead-up to the war, was interesting and informative, but I was impatient to get to the fighting. Once Fort Sumter was fired on, the book became much easier to read. It seemed to me to be equal parts narrative and analysis, and it opened my eyes to what a close-run affair the war actually was. I had always been under the impression that the South never had a chance to win and had committed cultural suicide by seceding from the Union. McPherson seems to be saying that the South had a good chance to win, and he can’t quite figure out why it didn’t.
I next picked up a copy of Bruce Catton’s Civil War, which is a one-volume compilation of his trilogy on the Army of the Potomac. It’s only 730 pages, but the print is much smaller. So far, I’ve gotten through the first volume, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, and the lesson it seems to teach is that if the North’s generals hadn’t been a gaggle of incompetent boobs, the North would have won the war in 90 days. Actually, I’m overstating somewhat. Catton seems to like George B. McClellan, blaming much of McClellan’s timidity on false intelligence given him by Allan Pinkerton. It seems Pinkerton had a penchant for grossly over-estimating the size of the Confederate forces arrayed against McClellan. Catton seems to think that if Lincoln had kept McClellan in charge after Antietam, McClellan could have whipped Lee. If past performance is any measure of future performance, Catton’s assessment is wrong.
There’s a joke about two types of trial lawyers. One type is “always ready, never prepared.” The other is “always prepared, never ready.” I think this contrast captures the difference between Lee and McClellan. Lee was always ready to give battle, even when he was outnumbered and his troops were bedraggled and used-up. No matter how prepared McClellan was, he always needed just a few thousand more men, a few more cannons, a little more rest for his men, or a better alignment of the stars before he was willing to risk action. When Lee had his adversary on the ropes, he went for the jugular. When McClellan had Lee on the ropes, he let him escape. McClellan just didn’t have the killer instinct that Lee and Grant had.
Catton contends that what kept the North in the Civil War during the first year was the fact that the men of the Army of the Potomac were far better than their generals. The picture he paints shows the fighting spirit of volunteer enlisted men mitigating the blundering of amateur generals. It is reminiscent of the legions of Republican Rome during the Second Punic War. Rome’s citizen militia led by blundering amateur generals suffered repeated defeats at the hands of the military genius Hannibal. The Roman Legions kept coming back time after time until finally they crushed Hannibal at the Battle of Zama. The Army of the Potomac kept coming back time after time until finally it crushed Lee at Appomattox.
Catton’s appraisal seems to be echoed by the Confederate attorney-general Clement A. Evans, who wrote a brief history of the Civil War as part of the twelve volume Confederate Military History. Evans had this to say: “The courage of the several great Northern armies which struggled often and long with the army of Northern Virginia, will never be questioned by Confederate soldiers.” Confederate Military History, Volume 12, page 218.