Book Review: A Politician Turned General

A Politician Turned General: The Civil War Career of Stephen Augustus Hurlbut. By Jeffrey N. Lash. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2003. xii, 300 pp. Cloth, $49.00, ISBN 0-87338-766-x.)

In recent years, readers of Civil War history have enjoyed a spate of works detailing the lives and contributions of so-called “political generals,” those elected officials, North and South, who received important military positions in recognition of partisan service to their respective sections. Books by James Hollandsworth and Richard Kiper have, for example, presented nuanced looks at Nathaniel P. Banks and John A McClernand respectively, two of the more notable politician-soldiers employed by the Union. As a practice, the awarding of general’s stars to rank amateurs strikes most modern students as at best cynical politicking, and at worst as a monstrous roll of the dice—many soldiers paid dearly for these battlefield neophytes’ lack of military acumen. Yet it must be remembered that military professionalism, now accepted as an article of faith in Western culture, was a nascent phenomenon during the middle nineteenth century. Early American society generally held career officers at arms length, preferring, in a paean to republican simplicity, the presumed talents of the virtuous citizen-soldier, one who dutifully left his civilian post to provide sagacious leadership in a military setting. Moreover, political generals, as Thomas J. Goss cogently argues in his important study The War within the Union High Command, played a vital role in garnering and maintaining national backing for war. To the growing list of quality volumes on such figures as Banks and McClernand we now include the work of Jeffrey N. Lash, whose A Politician Turned General examines the lesser-known (but no less controversial) Stephen A. Hurlbut.

The author’s chief contribution to the literature is one that, on the surface, appears to be purely semantic, but is in fact essential to understanding Hurlbut’s long and tumultuous Civil War career. Defining Hurlbut as neither a soldier-politican (like the West Point-trained Ulysses S. Grant, who would exploit military triumph into a successful run for the U.S. presidency) nor as a typical amateur militia officer given a general’s commission, Lash instead characterizes his subject “fundamentally as a militarily inclined party politician” (viii), one who used his newfound elevated rank as a means to expand an already extant political base. Indeed, Hurlbut, a moderate-to-conservative Republican from rural northern Illinois, was an important player in the so-called “Illinois Clique” (ix), a cohesive anti-slavery bloc including such notables as President Abraham Lincoln, Lyman Trumbull, Elihu Washburne, Grant, John A. Logan, and numerous others. This fact perhaps alone seems to account for Hurlbut’s durability, for his checkered battlefield performance, record of administrative negligence, and routinely scandalous personal conduct would likely have resulted in his dismissal had he not cultivated important political connections.

Lash harvests numerous manuscripts and published sources in creating an always critical look at a contentious character. Hurlbut, though born in South Carolina in 1815, was by ancestry of New England stock; throughout his early manhood, young Stephen (following his father Martin L. Hurlbut) identified most closely with the Whiggish, nativist, and Unionist faction in Charleston, a minority party led by the eccentric James Louis Pettigru. After reading law under Pettigru, Hurlbut rose quickly within Charleston Whiggery, and, as a means to further his political prospects, joined the Washington Light Infantry, a local militia company, in 1840. His early success was, however, impaired by his own private extravagance and intemperance, attendant pecuniary difficulties, and an alarming penchant to commit fraud. By 1845 Hurlbut was forced to flee South Carolina under a cloud of allegations. Relocating to faraway Belvidere, Illinois, Hurlbut at once resumed his legal practice and militia connections, eventually seeking a leadership position within the new Illinois Republican organization. As the nation lurched towards war in early 1861, Lincoln called upon the Carolina native (along with Ward H. Lamon) to seek a diplomatic solution with Palmetto State authorities. This duty, though futile, helped solidify Hurlbut’s standing as an Illinois party principal. Because of his faithful Republican service, ability to raise support for the conflict at home, and reputed military expertise, Lincoln, in spite of personal misgivings, awarded Hurlbut a volunteer brigadier generalship in June 1861.

Hurlbut’s Civil War experiences conformed to previously established behavioral patterns. Yearning always to gain political stature against the backdrop of war, the general sullied his already shaky reputation in his first battle, Shelbina in Northeast Missouri, in September 1861. Arrested by a subordinate officer after the battle on charges of intoxication, Hurlbut nevertheless endured his dishonor, eventually receiving divisional command within Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in early 1862. An unexpectedly solid showing at the bloody Battle of Shiloh helped gain Hurlbut two stars; by November, Grant (who was Hurlbut’s onetime subordinate) named the general military commander at Memphis, the critical Mississippi River supply depot. Hurlbut’s stay there was characterized by his own heavy drinking, squalid camp and prison conditions, few operational initiatives, and wholesale smuggling of Southern cotton (a process in which the general played a leading part). Relieved from his Memphis command in April 1864 by William T. Sherman, Hurlbut subsequently found himself that autumn in charge at a still loftier locale, New Orleans, where his smuggling activities reached monumental proportions. There Hurlbut finally overreached himself: his bold disobedience of Federal cotton regulations and opposition to Lincoln’s reconstruction policies in Louisiana sparked his investigation by a special military commission. By April 1865 the general, disgraced yet again, departed New Orleans; two months later he was allowed to resign quietly from national service.

If it is true that many a biographer has become an apologist for his or her subject, then it is axiomatic that others unswervingly flog history’s more disreputable actors. Lash, however, does a splendid job maintaining a level of academic detachment rare in Civil War biography, a real feat given Hurlbut’s mainly infamous nature. Yet there are some methodological and stylistic issues that hinder this otherwise fine volume’s overall effectiveness. Chiefly, Lash’s cumbersome, pedantic prose might displease casual enthusiasts or other non-scholars, and the vast amount of narrative detail spent on secondary (and tertiary) issues/figures can be taxing even to the Civil War specialist.

Furthermore, the volume’s maps, taken from early twentieth-century sources, fail to illustrate key places mentioned throughout the text. Also, the leading authority on American Whig political culture—Oxford University’s Daniel Walker Howe—is incorrectly identified as “David W. Howe” (220, 279). Lastly, the book’s penultimate chapter, a compact and dense look at Hurlbut’s postwar career (featuring, among other things, the erstwhile general’s divisive one-year term as president of the Grand Army of the Republic and his equally tempestuous stint as American ambassador to Peru) reads like a hurried afterthought. Such criticisms aside, A Politician Turned General has much to recommend it for those interested in nineteenth-century politics, Civil War military affairs, and Union occupation policies in the Western theater.

Christopher S. Stowe
University of Toledo