Richard J. Sommers
Savas Beatie, 2018, 288 pp., $29.95
Image courtesy of amazon.com
If you look around the Civil War world of study, you will always find people asking questions on the abilities of leadership, the possibilities of other generals in the position of those who failed, and the overall demeanor of them. These are questions which often time fuel the overall study of the war itself and force critical thinking when it comes to overall strategy, tactics, and generalship. Challenges of Command in the Civil War is a book that takes some of those thoughts into question by evaluating generals, mainly Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and analyzes their performances, and the ways in which they gained their reputation. And while this book might not deal with the “what ifs” of other commanders in the position, it does point out some of the criticism which these commanders faced at the time of their leadership.
Dr. Richard J. Sommers has written a number of Civil War works throughout his illustrious career. He has authored more than one hundred books, articles, etc. on the subject, one of his most famous works being Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg. He has garnered the Harrisburg Civil War Round Table General John F. Hartranft Award “for meritorious service,” and the Army War College has recognized him as a “Distinguished Fellow.” He served as the Senior Historian of the Army Heritage and Education Center until 2014. He teaches at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and he gained his Bachelors at Carleton College and his Ph.D. at Rice University.
As someone who reads a decent amount of Civil War books, there was one thing that stuck out to me in Sommers’ book, Richmond Redeemed. For one, he seemed to understand the nature of command and leadership unlike others who have tackled the Petersburg Campaign. But more than that. He took some of those commanders who have been deified in our culture and made them human. He continues that tradition in this first volume of Challenges of Command in the Civil War. The first portion of the book handles the careers of both Grant and Lee throughout the war, and their rise to that power. In his chapter on Robert E. Lee and the war in the east, Sommers makes a point that Lee overall failed not because of the fighting force which he had, but because of the foe in Grant, the man who would push him to the brink. He also credits the fact that the country could not handle the other failures around him as a reason for the inevitable end of the war. Grant is also analyzed in ways that were different than usual. Most usually handle Grant as the man who grew to great prosperity in the west and came to the east as a savior, but that was not wholly the case. Sommers mentions that Grant had his critics both before and after his relocation to the east. Of course, this first section of the book shines when Sommers begins his study on the Petersburg campaign and the generalship of the two there. I appreciate the detail he always places in that campaign; he even mentions that there was a great deal of importance there as the zenith of the Virginia campaign.
Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. This book is not just about Grant and Lee. The second section of the book handles the other generals in this American drama. Sommers takes a look at the rise, and sometimes fall, of some of these generals both in blue and gray, but more so focused on the blue since there was more fluctuation within the ranks. Portions focus themselves not only on the generals overall, but their roles in Antietam and Gettysburg. I find that his chapter on Gettysburg commanders within the Army of the Potomac pinpoints some of their finer nuances of structure, along with the controversial as well. I enjoyed the portion of the chapter that handles characters such as Sickles, Howard, and Doubleday as having difficulties while praising the leadership of Hancock. There is even a chapter chronicling the generals at Petersburg under Grant. By the time I reached the end of this book, I thought I had gained enough knowledge about these Generals and how they handled their command, but there was one last bit left in store for me. I found his chapter on Revolutionary War Relatives of Civil War soldiers to be fascinating. This is a constant study which I find all over the Civil War realm and to have a detailed section on this analysis just added a little bit more to the fine points of this book.
In the end, there is little more that I can say about this book that I already mentioned. There are some books out there that handle the subject of generalship but this one, overall, is a fascinating study. I find it to be highly accessible and a great read, especially for those who are starting serious Civil War study, and Sommers writes with such narrative that you often feel you are there on those battlefield with him as your guide. I highly recommend this book to any interested in the Civil War.