Book Review: Decided On The Battlefield

Decided On The Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864, by David Alan Johnson

On the positive side, this book is easy to read and presents a somewhat straightforward narrative case for the importance of military victory in the course of the election of 1864. Early stalemates had led to a feeling of despair and gloom in the North that the war would never be over, which was overturned by victories in Mobile Bay, the Shenandoah Valley, and Atlanta, giving Lincoln a 10 percentage point margin of victory and victories in all but three states participating in the election, and allowing the Civil War to be won on the field the next year. In many ways, the history is sound and the narrative is enjoyable told in a conventional but pleasant narrative historical fashion. The author may not be a proficient Civil War historian, but at least he is able to cite plenty of excellent sources and to provide a glimpse of the relationship between political and military matters that ought to be appealing to many readers. In the course of the book, a few of the author’s various pet theories are included about sabotage and the German generals that opposed Hitler, but for the most part this is good history. Particularly praiseworthy is the way that the author examines the importance of personal grudges to the course of the Civil War, looking at the toxic relationship between Jefferson Davis and Joseph Johnston as being decisive in leading to victory because of the resulting problems when the cautious Johnston was replaced with the reckless John Bell Hood, whose intelligence the author particularly enjoys mocking.

In terms of its structure and contents, the book has a chronological and topological structure. The overall chapters are written chronologically, starting with the meetings before the campaign of 1864 opened, the confidence that Lincoln had in Grant because of Grant’s willingness to take responsibility and not demand endless reinforcements, and so on. The author contrasts the laconic Grant with the nervous, anxious, and high-strung Sherman, whose mental health is frequently poked at by the author as well, a bit uncharitably. For the most part, the author focuses on Grant and Sherman, and occasionally broadens his focus to look at Farragaut in Mobile Bay, Porter at Fort Fisher, Schofield at Franklin and Thomas at Nashville, but among the subordinate leaders only Sheridan, with his brave black horse Rienzi, receives a great deal of attention for his victories. For whatever reason the taciturn but immensely talented Thomas was not colorful enough for the author to discuss in larger detail, and General Terry, for whatever reason, was not listed at all for his contribution to Union victory at Wilmington.

In many ways, this book manages to distill the more scholarly works that have been written about aspects of the importance of the 1864 campaigns and their role in Northern victory [1]. That said, the book has some obvious and serious shortcomings and flaws as well, most notably the way that the author engages in very dodgy counterfactual history in order to state the importance of Lincoln’s election in future world history [2]. Likewise, the author holds to the bogus opinion that tariffs and trade were just as important as causes of the Civil War as slavery, without recognizing that even the subsidiary causes of the Civil War and regional rivalry between North and South had slavery at their base. Most of these flaws are most visible at the end of the book, after the author has presented a reasonable historical case from sound reading, and do not greatly mar the book, even if they make its conclusion less satisfying than it would have been had the author not wished to insert his own pet theories and mistaken ideas as a way of placing the election of 1864 into a larger historical and counterfactual picture.

[1] See, for example:

[2] It reads something like this, while being less entertaining and detailed:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Decided On The Battlefield

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