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With a Sword in One Hand & Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North

 Carol Reardon; University of North Carolina Press

Carol Reardon concludes that Napoleonic war analyst Antoine 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 chapters based on lectures delivered at Penn State University, Reardon examines the public debate 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 military theorists of the day.

In the North, Reardon notes, a “cacophony of voices,” professional and amateur, inundated the Lincoln administration and the general public with detailed conceptual frameworks and harebrained schemes, all of them 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 the question of who could best 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. Reardon points out that Northerners debated this issue “with enthusiasm and not a little vitriol.”

Reardon uses the 1864 Overland Campaign to assess how Union commanders learned that victory doesn’t always lie with the best plan or the biggest battalions. Effectiveness against the enemy also depends on the physical, mental and emotional state of the men in the ranks, a reality learned “at a high cost from practical experience.” These same issues are still being debated among military strategists today.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.