Book review

From First to Last: The Life of Major General William B. Franklin

by Mark A. Snell

(ISBN: 0-8232-2149-0 Published by Fordham University Press, 2002, New York

Publication Date: 2002)

Review by: Miles Thomson

 

Part of The North's Civil War Series published in paperback by Fordham University Press, New York in 2002 There is no price on my review copy but prices on the web range from 18 to 33!

 

This scholarly book is an expansion of the author's doctorial dissertation for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Mark Snell tells us in his introduction that he has served for "two decades in the US Army", no further details are given. The web further informs us that he is currently Director of the George Tyler Center for the Study of the Civil War. Clearly he is at home with the military history of the Civil War The book draws extensively on Franklin's hitherto unpublished letters to his wife, which give a vivid personal touch even after all these years.


The book covers not only Franklin's lacklustre and unlucky Civil War career, but his early life at West Point where he graduated first in the same class as US Grant, who was 23', and his subsequent eighteen years service in the Topographical Engineers, right through to his distinguished life after the war.

 

So why read the book? Well firstly, if you want to know a bit about the desperately formal regulation bound life of a West Point cadet read on. The Point syllabus was not exactly designed to foster independence of thought and flexibility of approach. The wretched Franklin had to learn French, inter alia, because the military engineering text books were written in that language! Also if you want a few snapshots of the ante bellum US regular army, in particular the activities of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, who, when young Franklin joined them in '43, consisted of some thirty five officers who acted basically as the US Government's consulting engineers, this book is for you.

 

Franklin goes to the Mexican war but as an engineer officer he does not command anything, being employed more as a sort of staff officer /recce officer/general headquarters factotum. After the war he instructs at West Point, and in company with several contemporaries considers leaving the army and trying his hand in civvy street, but he takes the cautious line and stays in uniform. In '60 Franklin was a captain overseeing the construction of the Capitol dome in DC where he clashed with the corrupt Secretary of War, one John B Floyd, and we all know what happened to him.

Names crop up in this pre war period which re appear again and again in any history of the war. The US Regular army was like a small club, and there are good examples of how, when the shooting started, pre war friendships and political leanings rather than professional ability ruled the roost. A good example is Franklin's close friendship with Baldly Smith, and we all know what happened to him!

 

Turning to Franklin's Civil War service, Snell leaves us with the unmistakable impression that in addition to bad luck, supporting the wrong political party (he was a Democrat), and being almost completely without practical military experience, Franklin was just not equal to the increasingly senior positions which he was given. He commanded a brigade at First Bull Run without making much impact, a division and later a provisional corps, which became the 6'", in the Peninsular - likewise not much impact. His Corps misses Second Bull Run. Back under McClellan, he is woefully slow in forcing Cramptons Gap in South Mountain and the next day virtually stops in his tracks, mesmerised by McLaws' thin screen across Pleasant Valley while the wretched Miles was surrendering Harpers Ferry. He was not engaged at Antietam although Baldy Smith commanding one of his two divisions did get a brigade among the muck and bullets.

 

Although he was widely blamed for Burnside's failure at Fredericksburg, where he commanded the left grand division, about a third of the Army of the Potomac, Cramptons Gap was possibly his worst performance. His Corps seemed to be commanded by committee, his headquarters was far too far back and out of touch, he convinced himself, without a shred of evidence, that he was overwhelmingly outnumbered, and all in all he was far too ready to rest on his fairly threadbare laurels.

After Fredericksburg he was shelved, initially by a combination of Burnside fighting for his military life, and Lincoln trying find a successful general. Later his condemnation by the influential Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, a sort of "star chamber" of politicians with a decided radical Republican bias, really fixed him. Poor old Franklin was just what they wanted, copper bottomed scapegoat material. Neither Burnside nor Halleck helped him, and even Lincoln did not do much in his defence.

After five months "waiting for orders" he was handed a bit of a poisoned chalice by being sent to command the 19'h Corps and be Banks' deputy throughout the unsuccessful Red River campaign. He was slightly wounded at Sabine Crossroads, and after an uncomfortable period trying to convalesce in Louisiana he was finally sent home, again to "await orders" which never came.

 

He retired from the Army in '66 in the rank of Col, to which he had been promoted before First Bull Run, and thereafter seemed to go from strength to strength. In the final two chapters of the book Snell sets out Franklin's not inconsiderable post war attainments. Chief amongst which were perhaps Vice Presidency of the Colt Firearms company, President of the Board of Managers of National Soldiers Home, Member of The Board of Visitors to West Point, and Chief Commissioner to the 1889 Paris Exposition.

Franklin died in 1903, a respected pillar of the establishment, who just happened not to have had a very good war - but he was not alone there. On a slightly flippant note one can't help wondering if he had not spent so much time writing to his wife he might have been able to devote more time and energy to his command responsibilities? But seriously I'm afraid that we are left with a picture of a man who was unable to make the transition from his narrow professional engineering background to the very different requirements of high command in war.

 

So there it is. The maps are quite helpful although there are some instances of map detail not matching the text, and so far as can be judged the book is accurate although, a tiny niggle, I rather think Lee surrendered to Grant on 9'h of April not the 12 'h. This is emphatically not a book of homespun campfire stories, nor is it a close range account of blood and guts in the skirmish line, but it certainly adds significantly to our knowledge of the pressures on, and preoccupations of, commanders in theUnion Army in the East. If you like that sort of thing, you'll like this, no doubt about it at all.