JOHNSON: Decided on the Battlefield (2012)

Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864 by David Johnson. Prometheus Books, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 1616145095. $27.00.

Author David Alan Johnson, a biographer of J. Edgar Hoover, makes his first foray into Civil War history with this vivid though ultimately flawed account of Lincoln’s re-election campaign and the final year of the federal war effort. Aiming for a popular readership, Johnson’s book opens in a cigar smoke-filled parlor of Cincinnati’s Burnet House Hotel, where Grant and Sherman met in March 1864 to discuss designs for the impending campaigns in Virginia and Georgia. Johnson’s rather prosaic argument is that northern disillusionment with battlefield blunders, seemingly endless casualty rolls, and internecine Republican feuding predetermined that if either Grant or Sherman failed, “the Democrats would win in November and the war would be over” (81).

An opening chapter contextualizes the election, recounting the fitful first years of the war for Union armies in the eastern theater. Infusing the narrative with a keen sense of biography, Johnson introduces readers to the contending factions on the northern political landscape. Subsequent, briskly paced chapters narrate the military campaigns of the spring and summer of 1864, making grisly stops at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Rocky Face Ridge and Resaca. After devastating frontal assaults bloodied Grant’s men at Cold Harbor and Sherman’s forces at Kennesaw Mountain in June, and in the wake of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early’s daring advance on Washington, D.C., in July, Lincoln grew increasingly cynical about his prospects at the ballot box. Johnson captures the gloomy mood of the “summer of disappointments” reasonably well, accenting a northern press lukewarm to the war, as well as the perpetual challenge of conveying military strategy to an agnostic electorate (105-135, 166-167).

The Democrats faced their own thorny dilemmas, as the author makes clear. Torn between delegates who thought that the war was “an unwinnable fiasco” (175) and those who were unwilling to negotiate peace without victory, Democrats ultimately stumbled into the general election with their candidate of choice, War Democrat Major General George Brinton McClellan, rejecting the peace plank of the party’s Chicago Platform.

Ultimately, however, in Johnson’s retelling, the decisive events unfolded not in the conventional hall, but on the battlefield. Sherman finally scored the military victory Lincoln had yearned for when he captured Atlanta on September 2. More auspicious news arrived at the White House when Phil Sheridan decisively defeated Jubal Early at Cedar Creek, Virginia, on October 19. Johnson insists that Lincoln remained skeptical of electoral success until the end, but less than a month later, with northern spirits buoyed, Lincoln secured just over 55 percent of the poplar vote, while McClellan garnered 45 percent of the ballots cast. Johnson emphasizes the strength of common soldiers as a voting bloc for Lincoln. “Voting for McClellan,” he writes, “would . . . have meant giving up and declaring that the war had been a failure” (227).

Johnson chronicles the collapse of the rebellion and brings the narrative up through Lincoln’s second inaugural on March 4, 1865, deliberately closing the book before Ford’s Theater. “Exactly what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln has not been re-elected in 1864,” Johnson writes, “is open to the wildest sort of speculation” (279). Disappointingly, the author opts to engage in precisely this sort of conjecture, concluding the book with a counterfactual narrative that extends nearly twenty pages. Beginning with the McClellan’s presidential inauguration, Johnson imaginatively (and, at times, rowdily) details a balkanized United States acting on the international stage throughout the twentieth century.

Not surprisingly for a book aiming at a readable synthesis for a lay audience, the book relies almost entirely on secondary sources. Yet unfortunately, Johnson’s sparse endnotes demonstrate little serious engagement with some of the most important works on his subject. Most conspicuously absent are David E. Long’s dazzling Jewel of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln’s Re-Election and the End of Slavery [1997]; Brooks D. Simpson’s encyclopedic body of scholarship on Ulysses S. Grant; John F. Marszalek’s careful treatment of William Tecumseh Sherman; and bookshelves of recent work on northern politics, wartime dissent, and emancipation. Vigilant readers will also blanch when noting that classic battle and campaign studies are neglected for citations to Time-Life volumes and Wikipedia entries.

There are a few factual errors – John Pope commanded the short-lived Army of Virginia, not the Army of the Potomac (27), and the Chancellor House functioned as Joe Hooker’s headquarters at the Battle of Chancellorsville (32) – but far more distracting are the author’s tendencies to advance cavalier claims (“If getting drunk disqualified anyone from being an officer, probably 80 percent of the Union’s officer corps would have been disqualified,” 12) and to level direct comparisons to more recent events (“The Peace Democrats sounded very much like the anti-Vietnam War Democrats in 1968,” p. 23, and “Eighty years later, a British general would calculate that General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grin was worth an army corps. Grant went several steps farther,” 133). There are also several more serious issues of interpretation. The author’s treatment of “clubfooted” Thaddeus Stevens, for example, is barbed with the old animosities of the Dunning School (“Anyone who did not agree with him became a potential target for his withering mockery,” 20, and “Stevens wanted a Carthaginian peace,” 19). Johnson also tends to oversimplify the contest between Lincoln and the Radicals, placing partisan political calculations ahead of substantive policy disagreements and draining most all of the principle from Lincoln’s so-called “policy of leniency” toward the Confederacy. Indeed, the book presents an altogether anemic treatment of the politics of emancipation and the admittedly complicated course of presidential reconstruction.

As a storyteller, Johnson succeeds; ultimately, however, he falls considerably short of replacing writer John C. Waugh’s Re-Electing Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency [1997] as a convincing treatment of Lincoln’s re-election campaign for a popular audience. Only the most amateur Civil War students will find something new here.

Brian Matthew Jordan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at Yale University and the author of Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory (2012).

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