Book Review: How The North Won

How The North Won: A Military History Of The Civil War, by Herman Hattaway & Archer Jones

Undaunted by the book’s more than 700 pages of main text and explanatory and statistical appendices, which make use of fundamental insights about tactics, strategy, and logistics, as well as the use of Lancaster’s power rule on the effectiveness of military units, I requested this book from one of our area’s local library systems. The book ended up not being precisely what I expected. As someone who not infrequently reads books that seek to delve into the causes of victory or defeat in wars [1], I expected this book to look at various reasons or arguments about how (and why) the North won. And, to be sure, the book’s authors did discuss these matters, at least somewhat. However, the book ended up being more of a straightforward narrative history, albeit a fairly technical one that is most of interest to those who already have a working knowledge of the historiography of the Civil War and who appreciate a narrative history of the Civil War that focuses on issues of strategy and logistics [2], that has fairly dense prose but is livened up by the witty quotes of generals as well as of historians like Bruce Catton [3], which makes this book enjoyable to read, full of thought-provoking revisionist history, but not quite the book I had expected.

In terms of its structure and contents, the authors take the conventional course of the Civil War, from Fort Sumter to just after Appomattox, and divide it up into twenty chapters, together taking over 700 pages for the main narrative, averaging around 35 pages apiece. Some of these chapters are narrative in nature, taking a look at various battles or campaigns, paying a great deal of attention to the Western and Trans-Mississippi fronts of the war as a way of demonstrating the interconnection between these areas of the war, in contrast to the usual histories that focus only on the largely indecisive Eastern front. For example, the book contains several chapters that talk about the simultaneous advances in early 1862 for both Grant and McClellan and the Southern response to these at Shiloh as well as Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’ battles. The author also discusses the Union Offenses at the end of 1862 that culminated in the sanguinary repulses at Frederickburg, Chickasaw Bluffs, and Stones’ River, and, more happily for the Union, the symphony of Vicksburg, Tullahoma, and Gettysburg, as well as the final simultaneous advances that led to Union victory in 1864. On the other hand, besides these chapters that connect the various penetrations and raids and counterraids and frontal assaults and turning movements and the like, the authors also intersperse chapters that deal with matters of high command, logistics and strategy, and they close with a chapter on soldiers and civilians that point out the various political and military-strategic concerns of the Union and Confederacy.

The book is a worthwhile one, although it demands a substantial investment of time and attention, and is the sort of book that would work best for a graduate level course on military history, or a historical course at a military college. The author’s revisionist claims, taken from a high-level view that praises Lincoln for his political savvy, show Bragg to have been a better general than he is thought to be, point to the importance of the Western concentration blog of Confederate generals that was at times opposed to Lee’s efforts to focus on the indecisive Eastern front, and that point to the continual difficulty faced by Confederates in finding sufficiently competent generals to lead armies given their unsettling interpersonal drama and their prickly demands for honor and dignity. In the main, the authors do, at least implicitly, provide some reasons for Northern victory, and they are not so unconventional or unimportant after all: superior naval strength, a larger pool of talent for leading armies competently and providing essential staff duties, greater strength in logistics, more politically savvy civil and military leadership. Those who take the time to read this book to its end will likely find much more to respect about the balancing act that many leaders took, as well as have more to ponder and reflect on when it comes to balancing military and political matters and showing concern for issues of logistics, areas that are all too often forgotten by the large population of armchair generals that exist.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] Some of Catton’s quotes are particularly felicitous:

“It was a test of what men can nerve themselves to attempt and what they can compel themselves to endure, and at shattering cost it proved that the possibilities in both directions are limitless (407).”

Or take this description of Ulysses S. Grant by Assistant Secretary of War Dana:

“Grant was an uncommon fellow–the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could ever disturb, and a judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom. Not a great man, except morally, not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered. When the time came to risk all, he went in like a simple-hearted, unaffected, unpretending hero, whom no ill omens could deject and no triumph unduly exalt. A social, friendly man, too, fond of a pleasant joke and also ready with one; but liking above all a long chat of an evening, and ready to sit up with you all night (369).”

Or take this frankly racist poem that fits the mood of the Union army about the enlistment of black troops well, coming from Lt. Col Charles G. Halpine, a staff officer for General Hunter:

“Some tell us ’tis a burnin’ shame
To make the naygers fight;
And that the thrade of being’ kilt
Belongs but to the white;
But as for me, upon my sowl!
So liberal are we here,
I’ll let Sambo be murthered instead of myself,
On every day in the year (271).”

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.

7 Responses to Book Review: How The North Won

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