Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac: Sheridan’s Search for an Effective General
By Jay W. Simson
(July 2009 Civil War News)

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Illustrated, maps, notes, bibliography, index, softcover, 245 pp., 2008. McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640, $39.95 plus shipping.

By the end of the Civil War Gen. Philip H. Sheridan had ascended to the pantheon of great Union commanders. Many of Sheridan’s early biographers, including Frank A. Burr, Richard J. Hinton, and Henry E. Davies, found little fault with Sheridan.

However, increasingly since Joseph Hergesheimer published Sheridan: A Military Narrative in 1931 historians have tended to still admire “Little Phil,” but examine him through a more objective prism. In recent years authors such as Eric Wittenberg have criticized Sheridan’s generalship and his treatment of subordinates. Jay W. Simson — a journalist from Ohio — continues on this path in his Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac: Sheridan’s Search for an Effective General.

Instead of using his pen to issue an indictment against Sheridan, Simson uses Sheridan’s ill-treatment of commanders as a window into understanding the changing nature of command in the Union army. To examine this evolution Simson has chosen to use Sheridan’s treatment of four officer s— William Averell, Alfred T.A. Torbert, Gouverneur K. Warren and Ranald S. Mackenzie.

The author’s 29-chapter book is divided into four parts. Simson begins each section with a capsule biography of each general, then in succeeding chapters addresses their military accomplishments.

In the final chapter of each section Simson illustrates the issues that Sheridan had with that particular commander. The final chapter of the first three sections ably recounts the series of events that prompted Sheridan to remove officers from their commands.

Simson details Sheridan’s disgust with Averell following the battle of Fisher’s Hill for not aggressively pursuing the defeated Confederate forces. With Torbert the author illustrates Sheridan’s craftiness in granting Torbert a medical furlough to get rid of his cavalry chief in favor of Gen. Wesley Merritt. When Simson writes about Warren he aptly describes his military ability, but shows how Sheridan found fault with Warren’s conduct at the battle of Five Forks.

The author explains that Sheridan wanted these three removed from command because they lacked aggressiveness. However, the one soldier that typified Sheridan’s desired qualities in combat was Ranald S. McKenzie, the subject of the book’s final section, who gained a reputation as a hard-nosed fighter during the Civil War that carried over into the Indian Wars.

While the author illustrates how paradigms of what an officer should be shifted, a deeper examination of this book’s construction presents something troubling — the lack of reliance on published and unpublished primary source material. The author’s bibliography lists only three items from archival collections, two of which are “biographical notes” from the Warren and Averell Papers.

The limited number of endnotes and a heavy reliance on secondary source material raises questions about how much of this material is actually new. For example, in chapter 6, which deals with the battle of Fisher’s Hill, the author uses three endnotes that cite only one source to reconstruct events for the entire chapter — Jeffry D. Wert’s classic study, From Winchester to Cedar Creek.

Additionally seven of the book’s chapters have no endnotes, even when the author makes assertions that need substantiation or uses direct quotations.

While the book reads well, Simson’s work, because of the overreliance on secondary source material, does not really present anything new. For serious students who want to examine Sheridan’s treatment of subordinate commanders Eric Wittenberg’s thought-provoking Little Phil should still be the book of choice.

For those interested in understanding the changing attitudes toward command in the Union army Thomas J. Goss’s The War Within the Union High Command, a book published in 2003 not utilized in Simson’s work, remains the best source. Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac although well-written and organized, does not break any new scholarly ground.

Jonathan A. Noyalas

Jonathan A. Noyalas is a history professor at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Va., and the author or editor of four books on Civil War era history.