Civil War enthusiasts enjoy probing the many "what if" scenarios presented by that conflict. Several focus on the hypothetical survival of prominent commanders who met an early demise, such as Stonewall Jackson or Albert Sidney Johnston. Jack C. Mason provides another example with his biography of Union Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson. Unaccountably, this is the first book-length treatment of Richardson. Mason, an instructor at the Command and General Staff College, chronicles Richardson's career from West Point through his service in the Seminole and Mexican wars, his antebellum years in scattered Western posts, and finally Richardson's rapid rise during the Civil War from regimental to divisional command. Richardson's promising generalship was cut short by his mortal wounding at Antietam in September 1862. The heart of Mason's book is a collection of Richardson's previously undiscovered correspondence totaling close to 100 letters, as well as an unfinished journal that Richardson had commenced in the 1850s. By this reviewer's count, 54 of the letters either are used as sources or are quoted directly in the text. Not surprisingly, given the relative brevity of Richardson's Civil War service and his command responsibilities, most of these letters cover Richardson's career before the war. Judging from the portions quoted, Richardson was an observant, literate officer imbued with common sense and fairness who effectively related to the common soldiers under his command. Mason uses these letters to show Richardson's evolution as a career officer who adopted positive command doctrines and practices from his various mentors, including Zachary Taylor. Mason's speculation about what might have been had Richardson survived Antietam is based on an alleged conversation between Richardson and Lincoln in the former's sick room after his wounding. Conceding that this uncorroborated account by a staff officer is thin evidence, Mason postulates that Richardson was in line to succeed George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. Given Richardson's seniority, his record as an aggressive division commander, and his close connection with Republican leaders from his adopted state of Michigan, this is far from implausible. Certainly a corps command by 1863 seems likely. Mason occasionally lapses into a common biographer's ailment and becomes effusive about his subject. He also sporadically resorts to extended quotations in the text. When the material consists of Richardson's letters, this is an attribute. On the other hand, it can be an annoyance when the source is other material, such as Mason's wholesale importation of a florid contemporary newspaper eulogy to summarize Richardson's career. Mason's narrative of Richardson's combat actions focuses tightly on the role of Richardson's commands. His description of Richardson's actions is fast-paced and highly readable. As might be expected from someone with Mason's background, his analysis of Richardson as a commander is insightful, particularly regarding Antietam. The text is accompanied by good maps showing the actions of Richardson's units in their Mexican War and Civil War battles. Richardson is an undeservedly ignored Union general, and this book ably fills an empty niche. The Richardson letters, which were written to family members, also provide a revealing look at officer life during the Seminole War, the Mexican War and at isolated western outposts. Mason's book is strongly recommended despite its minor flaws. --John Foskett"Civil War News" (01/01/2011)
About the Author
Jack C. Mason is a Department of Army civilian and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He serves as an instructor for the Command and General Staff College and has published several articles in Army magazine.