Rutherford B. Hayes may have become president after the disputed election of 1876 through Republican Party machinations, but before that experience he had been a successful volunteer unit commander in the Union Army during the Civil War. Like so many of the post-Civil War presidents, he had been a general during the war and traded on his military record in pursuing elective office. But Hayes was more than just a politician who put on a uniform when it was the thing to do to advance a career in public office. He was, even though he was a citizen soldier, a very effective regimental commander who then earned additional ranks through his excellence commanding military units in the Army of the Potomac.
This outstanding study of Hayes and his experience in the Civil War is one of the lesser known books of the august historian T. Harry Williams, long a mainstay of American military and political history. Williams received the Pulitzer Prize for biography with his 1969 book on Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who was essentially a demagogue but also a populist. In Hayes of the Twenty-Third Williams unearths the experiences of so many volunteer officers, how they entered the Union army, what training they undertook, how they approached their commands, and what they experienced in four years of a hard-fought war. Hayes was an exemplary military officer, succeeding where better trained—even West Point educated—officers failed.
Williams also spent considerable effort in this book to describe how combat tactics evolved during the war. Essentially entering 1861 with tactics tempered on the battlefields of Europe during the Napoleonic era, the technology of modern weaponry defeated the linear and box formations of an earlier time. Rifles, more accurate artillery, exploding canister shot, and a host of other new weaponry made the Civil War one of the first “modern wars.” Hayes, and his fellow commanders, learned effectively to have troops dig in and build complex trenches. Indeed, the trench warfare that became so famous on the Western Front in World War I was pioneered during the Civil War. The siege of Vicksburg, the assaults at Petersburg, and the battles at other places with dug-in fortifications served to defeat the greater firepower available to soldiers of the Civil War. This would become even more important in the years between 1865 and 1914, when such technologies as the machine gun, repeating rifles, the first automatic weapons, the tank, and even more accurate and long-range artillery would again transform the battlefield.
T. Harry Williams was justifiably proud of Hayes of the Twenty-Third Despite the fact that it did not receive the note of some of his other works of history. Although it was published nearly fifty years ago, it is still a work that offers a wealth of insight into the volunteer officer in the Civil War, the structure of the army in which that fought, the tactics that they inherited and modified as the Civil War progressed, and the experience of the troops that they commanded.