University of Oklahoma Press


Students of American military history tend to focus on the nation’s large-scale, conventional conflicts between peer forces on set-piece battlefields. This focus ignores the salient fact that in the nation’s two hundred forty-plus years, her land forces have spent most of their time and resources in low-intensity conflict: counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or peacekeeping. That cognitive dissonance makes Robert M. Utley’s new book an interesting and useful contribution. Utley, a former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and author of more than twenty books, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the American West. In The Commanders, Utley shifts his lens to a collective biography of seven officers who served as major generals for the Union cause in the Civil War, and who went on to serve as commanding generals in the American West after the war. Thus, their careers bridged both the nation’s defining conflict and the “small wars” against Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River. After an opening chapter that serves as a concise overview of the post-Civil War United States Army, seven chapters take up each general’s antebellum background, Civil War service, and role in the wars of the American West. A concluding chapter draws some general conclusions and assesses the commanders as a peer group.