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Books: The Men Who Failed

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LINCOLN FINDS A GENERAL, Vols. I & II (902 pp.)—Kenneth P. Williams—Mac-millan ($12.50).

If ever a war seemed in no need of refighting, it was the Civil War with its long shelves of massed documentation. But to the orderly mind of Indiana University Mathematics Professor Kenneth P. Williams, the job of scholarship seemed imperfectly done. A onetime World War I artillery officer whose only books had been about mathematics and astronomy, he had long felt that the Union armies and Union generalship had never gotten their due.

Armed with years of reading and research, Williams determined to refight the war from the opening shots at Fort Sumter. The result is no amateur’s awkward foray. The first two volumes of Lincoln Finds a General (two more to come) already look like the soundest military history of the North yet written.

Back to the Stacks. Williams’ central thesis is simple enough: until Grant was called from the West, Lincoln never had a general with the brains, the character and the ruthlessness to finish off Lee. That much any good student of the war knows. What Williams has uncovered in proving his thesis will send many a chagrined professional historian back to the library stacks. No one comes off worse than Major General George B. McClellan, whose reputation, even for his conduct of the disastrous Peninsular Campaign of 1862, had improved under the ministrations of recent historians. Williams makes it hard to believe that “Little Mac” was anything but a stuffed tunic, an ambitious parade-ground dandy whose timidity in combat was close kin to cowardice. In battle, Confederate generals relied on McClellan’s fears just as Lincoln came to be sure of his incompetence. Writes Williams: “No blow by [Stonewall] Jackson could be quite as paralyzing as an order by McClellan.” ‘

The Northern commanders who followed Little Mac fare better, but none of them (Burnside, Hooker, Meade) had the considered aggressiveness that was needed when the battle was the payoff. Even when he outsmarted Lee, “Fighting Joe” Hooker (a nickname he didn’t earn and didn’t relish) failed to follow up effectively because he lacked Lee’s (and Grant’s)

Intuitive grasp of the military situation. What Williams shows, in detail and with documentation, is where and why each Northern general failed.

Three Words. Like Douglas Southall Freeman’s more floridly written Lee’s Lieutenants, Lincoln Finds a General is essentially a study in command. It recapitulates old battles not to recapture the horror and flavor of battle but to evaluate the leadership which was often more important than numbers and weapons. Crisper, more critical, less reverent of big names than Freeman, Williams shows Lee and Jackson as the great leaders they were, but quite capable of errors in command (e.g., Lee’s slips at Gettysburg, Jackson’s boner at Port Republic) which most of their admirers have glossed over. With Grant only an offstage noise in these first volumes, Williams’ real heroes are the shrewd and patient Lincoln, efficient Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and the fighting soldiers of the Union army. Williams winds up his critique of the Battle of Gettysburg with this blunt praise: “It would seem that every possible excuse has been put forward to explain Lee’s failure at Gettysburg. But the real explanation can be given in three words: the Union army.”

Williams writes with a soldier’s knowledge of tactics, troop movements and logistics. He also writes less like a historian than a staff officer setting down a combat analysis. The result is no placid study, but a creative rethinking of whole campaigns.

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