Civil War Generals in Defeat

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Commanders who serve on the losing side of a battle, campaign, or war are often harshly viewed by posterity. Labeled as mere "losers," they go unrecognized for their very real abilities and achievements in other engagements. The writers in this volume challenge such simplistic notions.

By looking more closely at Civil War generals who have borne the stigma of failure, these authors reject the reductionist view that significant defeats were due simply to poor generalship. Analyzing men who might be considered "capable failures"-officers of high pre-war reputation, some with distinguished records in the Civil War-they examine the various reasons these men suffered defeat, whether flaws of character, errors of judgment, lack of preparation, or circumstance beyond their control.

These seven case studies consider Confederate and Union generals evenhandedly. They show how Albert Sidney Johnston failed in the face of extreme conditions and inadequate support; how Joe Hooker and John C. Pemberton were outmatched in confrontations with Lee and Grant; how George B. McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign and Don Carlos Buell at Chattanooga faced political as well as military complications; and how Joseph E. Johnston failed to adapt to challenges in Virginia. An additional chapter looks at generals from both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg, showing how failure to adjust to circumstances can thwart even the most seasoned leader's expectations.

"There is far more to be learned in trying to understand how and why a general fell short," observes Steven Woodworth, "than there is in multiplying denunciations of his alleged stupidity." Civil War Generals in Defeat successfully addresses that need. It is a provocative book that seeks not to rehabilitate reputations but to enlarge our understanding of the nature and limitations of military command.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This collection of case studies argues that success as the standard of merit in combat distorts an objective appraisal of the pivotal decisions made in battle. In provocative essays examining the careers of Union generals George B. McClellan, Don Carlos Buell, and Joseph Hooker and Confederates Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, and John C. Pemberton, editor Woodworth (Jefferson Davis and His Generals, LJ 7/90) provides a deeper understanding of the two armies. The reasons for rebel and federal military failures offered here are surprisingly uniform: formidable antagonists, difficulties with subordinates and superiors, the inability to read and adapt to changing battle conditions, a lack of resources, conflicting military philosophies, and low morale. A final chapter demonstrates how Gen. George G. Meade overcame some of these difficulties while his counterpart Robert E. Lee fell victim to spotty intelligence, staff recalcitrance, and personal indecision. The essays are authoritative and engagingly written. Recommended for Civil War buffs as well as public and academic libraries.--John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens
Contains seven case studies evaluating Confederate and Union generals who might be considered "capable failures": officers of high pre-war reputation, some with distinguished records in the Civil War. Explores the various reasons these men suffered defeat such as flaws of character, errors of judgment, lack of preparation, or circumstances beyond their control. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A wide-ranging look at various Civil War generals and their defeats, as well as their places in the accepted Civil War history, edited by Texas Christian University historian Woodworth (Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1998). Woodworth's contributors, academics from throughout the US, look at how and why a variety of Northern and Southern generals were defeated and what those defeats did to their military careers. The generals studied, including such notables as Albert Sidney Johnston, Joe Hooker, and George B. McClellan, are all considered "capable failures," with excellent prewar reputations and whose defeats make them ripe for analytical study. Essays cover such ground as "In Defense of Joe Hooker," "Misused Merit: The Tragedy of Joh Pemberton," and "If Properly Led: Command Relationships at Gettysburg," a look at both Northern and Southern commands. Throughout the volume, the guiding idea is to look at what exactly constituted failure and how hindsight has shaped our perceptions of them, notably in the case of Hooker. Stephen Sears looks at Hooker's famous loss of nerve at the battle of Chancellorsville and debunks the myth of a post-battle confession by Hooker to Abner Doubleday that he lost faith in himself. Sears looks at the details of that reported conversation and determines that it could not have taken place, thus altering the historical record. Although it doesn't change what took place at Chancellorsville, it certainly does change history's perception of Hooker and casts him in a far better light. As in many edited volumes, writing quality and style vary from piece to piece, but overall, Woodworth offers a worthy look at CivilWar command by looking at the losers. (History Book Club alternate selection) .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700609437
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 1/28/2004
  • Series: Modern War Studies (Hardcover) Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 250
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Table of Contents


1. When Merit was Not Enough: Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate Defeat in the West, 1862, Steven E. Woodworth

2. "The Responsibility Is Great": Joseph E. Johnston and the War in Virginia, Alan Downs

3. Fighting for Defeat? George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign and the Change of Base to the James River, Ethan S. Rafuse

4. Generalship on Trial: Don Carlos Buell's Campaign to Chattanooga, Stephen D. Engle

5. In Defense of Fighting Joe Hooker, Stephen W. Sears

6. Misused Merit: The Tragedy of John C. Pemberton, Michael B. Ballard

7. "If Properly Led": Command Relationships at Gettysburg, Brooks D. Simpson





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