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Over Lincoln's Shoulder

The Committee on the Conduct of the War

Bruce Tap

368 pages, 8-12 photographs, 6 x 9
Modern War Studies
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1426-4, $19.95

Book Cover ImageShortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate such matters as military contracts, trade with the enemy, treatment of the wounded, and the causes of Union defeat. But its greatest efforts were directed toward a more vigorous war effort--endorsing emancipation, the use of black soldiers, and the appointment of fighting generals--leading President Lincoln to fear that this watchdog committee would become little more than an "engine of agitation."

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War generated controversy throughout the war, and its legacy sparks debate even today over whether it invigorated or hampered the Union war effort. In the wake of both critical and sympathetic appraisals, Bruce Tap now offers the first history of the committee's activities, focusing on the nature of its power and influence on military policy in order to show conclusively what the ultimate impact really was.

Tap presents solid evidence, including examples of contact between Congress and the military, to show that the committee produced little good and no small amount of harm. The committee's principal members entertained simplistic notions about warfare that led to rash judgments about its conduct, and because its goals were congruent with Republican ideology, its principal criterion in evaluating military leadership was adherence to antislavery beliefs. As a result, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War polarized Congress and the army, limited strategic options, demoralized the Union's top generals, and inflated the reputations of incompetent soldiers. As Tap demonstrates, it was in many ways a serious impediment to the war effort, due not to its fanaticism or vindictiveness, as some historians have suggested, but rather to its members' total ignorance of military matters.

Over Lincoln's Shoulder is a revisionist account that corrects prevailing images of the relationship between Republican politicians and the army during the Civil War. By examining the conflict between Congress's constitutional right to investigate and the impropriety of its actions, the book raises questions that are applicable today about the ability of legislative bodies to function in areas where specialized knowledge is required.

"Tap's case is one worth making. He argues that the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War produced little good and some harm, polarizing politicians against professional soldiers, limiting strategic options, and inflating the reputations of military incompetents. These errors, he shows, stemmed from ignorance of military art and from partisanship. Although his conclusions will raise some eyebrows, he provides good evidence for his case. A solid and readable old-fashioned political history, this book will correct our image of the relationship between Republicans and the army in the Civil War."--Mark E. Neely, Jr., author of The Last Best Hope of Earth

"This book fills a major gap in the study of the Civil War and does so in a way that is authoritative and probably definitive. It will achieve a permanent place in Civil War scholarship."--Albert Castel, author of Decision in the West

BRUCE TAP is an independent historian who resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and has published articles in Civil War History and other journals.

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