With a Sword in one hand
& Jomini in the other:
The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North
192 pp., $30.00
Review by Gordon Berg
In spite of the descriptive title given to Carol Reardon’s Steven and Janice Brose Lectures on the Era of the Civil War delivered at Penn State University, she concludes that “Jomini and the entire body of antebellum military thought he represented provided far less useful guidance than the Civil War generation required for the dimensions of the challenge they faced.”
In three succinct chapters, Ms. Reardon examines the public debate that exploded in the North over what military strategy would best defeat the Confederacy; the characteristics that made the best commanders; and the human element of war, a topic largely ignored by the military theorists of the day. Her conclusions are based on voluminous research into archival material, newspapers and periodicals, contemporary and historical works on military theory, and a prescient sampling of today’s rich Civil War historiography.
In the North a “cacophony of voices,” professional and amateur, inundated the Lincoln administration and the general public with detailed conceptual frameworks and hair-brained schemes, all designed to bring the war to a swift and successful conclusion. Unfortunately, no strategic Rosetta Stone materialized.
Second only to strategy in the public discourse was who best to command the Union forces, a professionally trained military intellectual or a natural born military genius who arises from the common people to lead the nation in a time of great peril like George Washington or Andrew Jackson did. Ms. Reardon notes that Northerners debated this issue “with enthusiasm and not a little vitriol.”
Finally, Ms. Reardon uses the Overland Campaign to assess how Union commanders painfully learned that victory doesn’t always lie with the best plan or the biggest battalions. Effectiveness against the enemy also depended on the physical, mental, and emotional state of the men in the ranks, a reality learned “at a high cost from practical experience.” These are issues still debated among military strategists today.