Victors in Blue – Albert Castel with Brooks D. Simpson

How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled each other, and Won the Civil War

This book caught me a little bit by surprise.  I’ve read some of Castel’s work in the past, notably his large work on the Atlanta CampaignDecision in the West.  He’s a good historian, but since then he has been working in the Trans-Mississippi Theater or writing biographies which aren’t high on my list.  One notable feature of DitW was that it was fairly critical of Sherman.

Now, Uncle Billy is a favorite of mine, but even so some of his points were good ones.  Sherman was not a fan of the large battle, and tended to view them as annoyances to be tolerated on the way to the good stuff.  Some later historians, like Lidell Hart, have used this to tout their own strategic fads.  But it is pretty clear that through the overall objectiveness of the book, Castel personally isn’t a Sherman fan.

Then I read the preface and it was pretty clear that in this book, Castel was taking the gloves off to say the stuff that he might have passed over in the rest of his career.  When you say that the co-author can “write his own book to clear his name” you aren’t mincing words anymore.  It seems clear that this is his last book – or that he plans it that way now.

So I feared a bit for Uncle Billy, but in the end Castel didn’t take the cudgels to him again. Or not too badly.  The scope of the book is above tactical details – except from the details of the generals elbowing for jobs and favor.  And also, because this is about winning the war rather than making press clippings, the action in the west has much more discussion than the stalemate against Lee in the east.

Who gets the kudos – Grant, of course, and Sherman as his sidekick.  Phil Sheridan gets some praise, and it is clear that Castel likes him – which is sometimes hard to do.  The interesting twist I didn’t see coming is the boosting of Rosecrans.  He tends to get overlooked as the ‘anti-Grant-and-his-family’ crowd more often seize on Thomas as the their man who should have gotten more chances.

Both had talent – but Rosecrans had the additional talent of annoying his bosses with lecturing messages and delays, so they weren’t keen on dealing with him once they had an alternative.  Thomas was in a similar position – having had a rough start with Grant when Halleck put Thomas in command of Grant’s army after Shiloh, making Grant “Second in Command” with little to do, Thomas made things worse by being fairly cool with him years later in the Chattanooga campaign when Grant was ascendant.  He might have been annoyed at Grant firing Rosecrans to give Thomas the job.  Either way, this cold shoulder meant that he to would be shouldered aside by those more congenial to work with, like Schofield.

McClellan gets some smacks, but the unkindest cut is by hardly mentioning him and his antics in command of the Army of the Potomac.  Once chapter is called “Nobody at Antietam” to match “Meade at Gettysburg” or “Grant at Shiloh”.  With Little Mac’s vanity, that had to sting.

But that is a harsh, but fair assessment of the fellow.  And that’s how this entire book is, a relatively open judgement of the generalship of the north and the details of some of the army political moves they had to make or failed to make to give them the chance to get at the actual enemy in the field.  It reads like a bull session over drinks more than a scholarly tome with all the juice squeezed out of it.  But there’s a lot of content too.

One of the better Civil War books I’ve gotten in a while.  Thanks, Mr Castel.

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