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Book Review – Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals – In Their Own Words

By Robert I. Girardi; Zenith Press; 304 pages

In junior high school and high school, it’s common for slam books to be passed around. Students can then write commentary, mostly insults, about their fellow classmates. In Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals – In Their Own Words, author Robert Girardi has taken the juvenile act of the slam book and turned it into an attempt at more personally understanding those who wore stars for the Blue and the Gray.

Many of those who went on to become Civil War generals either went to West Point together, served in the Mexican War together, or were stationed together in the small antebellum U.S. Army – sometimes all three. By the end of the Civil War, more than 1,000 men served as generals, most of them West Pointers.

A book such as Civil War Generals is only possible due to the small, tight-knit brotherhood of  those served. Many of those who went on to become Civil War generals either went to West Point together, served in the Mexican War together, or were stationed together in the small antebellum U.S. Army – sometimes all three. By the end of the Civil War, more than 1,000 men served as generals, most of them West Pointers. That so many Civil War generals were drawn from such a relatively small pool meant that many knew each other and had long-formed and deeply held opinions of their rivals and colleagues.

Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals - In Their Own Words

Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals – In Their Own Words, by Robert I. Girardi; Zenith Press; 304 pages

Civil War Generals keeps the biographical information about each general to a minimum. Beside their highest rank achieved in the Civil War is their school and class year if they attended a military school (West Point, VMI, The Citadel), commands held (corps, division, brigade), and in what armies (Army of the Potomac, Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Tennessee, etc). Also included is whether they died during their service, and where.

Girardi instead opts to let the words speak for themselves, which poses its own set of problems. Some sources seem to crop up over and over again, which occasionally leaves the book having the feel of a CliffsNotes version of those biographies from which the quotes were drawn. Although Girardi eliminated sources he saw as mere hero worshipping and selectively used sources he saw as offering fuller views, unless the reader is well versed in the web of politics that characterized the state of Civil War generalship, they may find themselves lost.

What hurts Civil War Generals, and this is no fault of Girardi, who seems to have performed thorough research, is the sometimes limited amount of quotes available regarding some generals. While there is no shortage of quotes about renowned generals such as Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson, lesser known generals are often limited to a handful of quotes.

What hurts Civil War Generals, and this is no fault of Girardi, who seems to have performed thorough research, is the sometimes limited amount of quotes available regarding some generals. While there is no shortage of quotes about renowned generals such as Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson, lesser known generals are often limited to a handful of quotes. Although one or two quotes are better than none, it’s hard to form any kind of picture about the capabilities of a general based on a few brief sentences from a contemporary. This flaw becomes more conspicuous in the chapter on Confederate generals, who, for whatever reason, seem to have been more hesitant to dish on their contemporaries.

A nice touch is the inclusion of an appendix with a list of Civil War battles and the generals in the book who participated in those battles. It’s useful to see if the generals who praised or criticized each other served with or against each other on the battlefield. Maps of some of the more pivotal battles in the Civil War are unnecessary and seem like a hasty addition.

Gen. Stonewall Jackson

A portrait photograph of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, ca. 1863. While quotes about renowned generals like Jackson are easy to come by, generals of lesser stature are often given only one or two quotes in Civil War Generals. Library of Congress photo by Mathew Brady

Civil War Generals is a fun read for those with an extensive knowledge of the personalities at play. Especially enjoyable are the insults. Maj. Gen. Heintzelman, for example, is labeled by Charles Wainwright as being “ugly as his pictures are, they flatter him; a little man, almost black, with short, coarse grey hair and beard, his face one mass of wrinkles, he wears the most uncouth dress and gets into the most awkward positions possible.” One can see modern-day parallels when Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles is written about by Robert McAllister, who is quoted as saying, “New York correspondents have cracked him up where the credit for the fighting was justly due to other brigades.” One can easily see a general today making that comment in regard to someone like Gen. David Petraeus, who has been accused of being a media darling.

“Ugly as his pictures are, they flatter him; a little man, almost black, with short, coarse grey hair and beard, his face one mass of wrinkles, he wears the most uncouth dress and gets into the most awkward positions possible.”

The book is likely to become a valuable source for those who regularly read Civil War histories. I can picture myself turning to this book as a source for further color about a general mentioned in another book. Although Civil War Generals might not provide a deeper understanding about Civil War generalship, it does give readers a valuable resource upon which to draw.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...