Commentary from the Bookshelves – Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond, Volume I: Generals and Generalship by Richard J. Sommers

ECW welcomes guest author Ben Powers

Sommers’ Challenges of Command in the Civil War is a series of essays that provide a comprehensive view of generalship during the American Civil War by examining the combat records of commanders throughout the war, primarily Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The book consists of ten chapters, of which the first five deal with Lee and Grant. Subsequent chapters focus on Union corps commanders, with an emphasis on the Army of the Potomac. The book concludes with a fascinating chapter on the Founding Fathers of the United States and their descendants who served as high-ranking officers during the American Civil War. While such relationships may appear to be superficial when considering the attributes required for combat generalship, Sommers convincingly argues that the descendants of Founding Fathers found great meaning in the achievements of their forebearers and were conscious  that their own actions reflected upon their families’ legacies. Preserving and adding to family reputation could be a powerful factor in inspiring commanding generals to fully perform to the extent of their ability.

The heavy emphasis on the generalship of Lee and Grant in the first part of Sommers’s book is particularly interesting. The author is extremely knowledgeable regarding Lee and Grant, particularly during the period of 1864-1865 having authored the excellent Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg. He skillfully uses the 11-month period from the Battle of the Wilderness to Appomattox to highlight strongpoints in each man’s capabilities. Lee, despite being thrown on the defensive, through skillful maneuver and an eye for the offensive hands Grant a series of tactical defeats that frustrate the Union advance on Richmond. In response, Grant maintains the strategic offensive and continues to move South to deprive Lee of the space and opportunity to maneuver while keeping focused on his strategic objective, the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. The entire campaign serves as a leadership laboratory and Sommers, as befits the late distinguished historian and lecturer at the Army War College, uses it to impart several lessons on what makes a successful commander.

Sommers’s discussions of various Union corps commanders offer a counterpoint to his examination of the attributes of Lee and Grant. He uses corps command in the Union Army to provide a framework for the discussion of generalship below the level of Army command. Sommers’s focus on corps command allows him to discuss the full range of considerations that President Lincoln faced when appointing men to high command. Whether strengthening political coalitions, rewarding combat success at lower echelons, or simply filling a vacancy with the best available man from an average lot, Lincoln faced a myriad of challenges that had to be addressed when assigning generals to leadership roles. Not every officer, whether regular or volunteer, had the attributes required for successful generalship as Sommers illustrates in this section of the book, using the Army of the Potomac as his subject of study. The result is fascinating reading.

In addition to Sommers’s depth and breadth of knowledge and fine writing style, the book features detailed footnotes to each chapter which are a delight to read. It also includes an in-depth bibliography and an excellent collection of black and white photographs. The text is accompanied by seven high quality maps that assist in following the action when Sommers discusses Lee and Grant at Petersburg. Overall, the book is very well organized.

Richard J. Sommers was just the man to author this book, the first in a planned series on Civil War Generalship. He made a career of the study of the American Civil War and taught generations of American officers at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He wrote in the epilogue that future volumes would focus on subjects such as Confederate strategy and generalship during the Gettysburg campaign, the little studied Union Fourth Corps, and an analysis of the use of Engineer officers by both armies. Sadly, Dr. Sommers passed in 2019, and it remains to be seen whether or when Volume 2 will be published. Readers will enjoy this excellent first volume on its own merits. Challenges of Command in the Civil War is a fitting legacy for a respected historian and author.

This book is available at Savas Beatie and from a variety of retailers.

Ben Powers resides in TX with his wife KC and four children Arthur, Michaela, Emma and Jordan. He retired from the United States Army in 2016, after 24 years of service. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Boston University and a Master of Arts in Military Studies, with a concentration in Strategic Leadership from American Military University. Ben is a color bearer member of the American Battlefield Trust and active in the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery project.

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