Partners in Command

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The venerable historical cliché, that the American Civil War was “the first modern war,” is still worth pondering because of its essential truth. While the conflict was in many ways the first modern war, nowhere is this more evident than in the area of command and leadership, where literally centuries of military doctrine and practice were tested under the ordeal of combat, and either substantially altered or discarded. Factors such as advances in technology, developments in military thinking, and the arrival of political ideology led to the inescapable result that the Civil War made a profound and lasting difference in how wars are fought, and changed what generals and their political superiors did to fight those wars.

This shift in the patterns of military leadership is ably charted in Joseph Glatthaar’s Partners in Command, which uses case studies of the leading Union and Confederate commanders to explore their relationships with one another and with their governments, especially their respective presidents, to see how the dynamics of these partnerships affected the course of the war. Elegantly and convincingly, he demonstrates how the practical changes in military science, combined with the individual psychologies of the men involved, combined and transmuted under the alchemy of combat.

When it came to changes in technology and its effect on the conduct of warfare, the American Civil War was simply without parallel. The largest prior conflicts, the long-running series of Napoleonic wars, were far less complex in all aspects—strategy, tactics, and, above all, logistics. Even though Napoleonic armies were often widely dispersed across an immense expanse of territory, their fundamentally simple composition and missions allowed a single commander to remain in charge. By 1860, this had become impossible. Key changes were the advances in transportation, especially the railroad; in communications, in particular the telegraph; and in weaponry, notably infantry rifles that fired more quickly and accurately, and at longer distances than ever before. Civil War armies could move faster, farther, and longer, and inflict more destruction more quickly, more often, and more comprehensively, than any other military forces before them. Armies had literally reached the level at which no one general, however powerful his intellect or keen his attention to detail, could command them. What was true of individual armies was multiplied manyfold in theaters where several forces attempted to coordinate operations. At the national level, the complexities were staggering.

These difficulties were in part met, and in part exacerbated, by changes in military science, which evolved responding complexities of its own—complexities that, again, made it impossible for a single individual to command an army as Wellington or Napoleon had done. For one thing, armies had not only become larger, but also had become more specialized, with specific units and services designed to meet particular needs. More important, changes on the battlefield were forcing changes in tactical and, eventually, strategic thinking.

While the high casualty rates of the Civil War clearly show that tactics were in too many cases mired at the Napoleonic level, certain commanders successfully put old strategies to new and effective uses. This was especially true of William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, whose large-scale raids through southern territory proved to be enormously effective in weakening the Confederate war machine and undermining political and civilian support for the struggle. As Glatthaar demonstrates, these new strategies required commanding generals to act in teams, rather than as individuals. One striking example is Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, which was undertaken without overt control from Grant as commander of the Union armies. There could have been no such control, Glatthaar notes, since there was literally no communication between the two generals until Sherman emerged at Savannah on the Georgia coast. Grant’s trust in Sherman is evident, but the underlying message is that both men had recognized, and accepted, the risk of being cut off from communications in exchange for the potential returns of a successful raid on a large scale. They were right.

The major difference, however, between this conflict and all previous ones, was political. Ideology was the dominant feature of the American Civil War, and it influenced military operations in ways that had never been considered, much less dealt with, before. In a real and immediate sense, politics and ideology had caused the war, and politics and ideology determined its course. This close interrelationship between political reality...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)