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Confederate Commissary General Lucius Bellinger Northrop and the Subsistence Bureau of the Southern Army.

Jerrold Moore's study of Lucius Northrop and the Confederate Subsistence Bureau is an important contribution to the military history of the Civil War. Northrop's personal history is so tied up in the fog surrounding the Subsistence Bureau as to require that biography and administrative history be written as one. Moore does this in a balanced study of personal motive, administrative performance, and strategic decision making. This first full-length study of the Confederate Subsistence Bureau extends the work of Richard Goff in his general history of Confederate supply. While Moore and Goff basically agree on Northrop's achievements and failures as bureau chief, Moore fills out, clarifies, and corrects the story.

Moore dispels the hitherto prevailing image of Northrop as an enigmatic character leaning at best to "peculiarities." He develops a man of principle and integrity consistent with his upbringing. He also captures the tensions of a highly intelligent (second in his West Point class of 1831) and practical man whose difficult life had by the Civil War resigned him to a somewhat disdainful patience with the practical world, providing that world did not challenge his personal integrity or display arrogance or sham. Moore further unveils a man committed both to a secular rationalism and to Roman Catholicism, faiths that helped distance him from day-to-day frustrations while sustaining him in his tasks. It was a mix of qualities bound to get him into trouble as head of the Subsistence Bureau.

Moore moves through a history of decision making in which the Confederate consensus resisted Northrop's rationalized system of centralized food supply and chose instead to defend local autonomy and individual rights. Attempts to take advantage of opportunities to trade through the lines recommended by Northrop ran afoul of Davis's principles until too late. As food supplies dried up as a result of lost territory, financial collapse, the failure of the railroad system and the Quartermaster Department, Confederate leadership implemented Northrop's recommendations. When reforms came too late to get food to the armies, Northrop suffered the blame. Worn down finally by years of frustration and criticism, Northrop turned inward and began to distrust any initiation of centralization other than his own. Finally, deciding that he was being asked to do the impossible, he resigned. His successor, Isaac St. John, the talented head of the Nitre and Mining Bureau, used his considerable energy and diplomatic skills to raise large voluntary contributions of food, but he acknowledged that he inherited a good organization and that Northrop's analysis of the situation was, as events confirmed, accurate.

To a degree Moore's study, perhaps inevitably, leads him to defend Northrop from his subject's point of view. The analysis, like Northrop, leans to a defense of rationalism and integrity at the expense of other qualifies necessary for military decision making. In fairness, the author notes that his subject lacked the tact and diplomacy necessary to wheel and deal in a complex world. Northrop no doubt would have agreed. But ultimately, whatever chance Northrop might have had to win acceptance for his system was doomed by his making enemies where he needed friends. As Moore notes, Northrop was not politically attuned. And perhaps he relied too much on his close friend Jefferson Davis turning the rational into the real, not appreciating the limits of Davis's authority. More likely, it seems that this apolitical man who failed to identify with the Confederacy either to accept or to reject it - held all politics in disdain. A frustrated early military career may have caused a similar impatience with Confederate generals. From Northrop's position and from a rational perspective, the generals who ran their own show and hoarded supplies like the politicians who failed to check them were guilty of shortsighted decision making. But no field commander, even if so inclined, realistically could have gambled on Northrop realizing his centralized design in the play of pelicans, railroad owners, the treasury, the Quartermaster Department under Abraham Myers, and other generals. Northrop's shortcoming was in not recognizing that implementing his ideas depended in large part upon his own diplomacy in dealing with generals and politicians alike. More basically, he failed to countenance that, short of a crisis so severe as to leave no alternative, his design probably was not possible in the ideological and political atmosphere of the Confederacy.

Yet as the author notes, while Northrop ultimately failed to win acceptance for his ideas until too late, he nevertheless did heroic work in keeping the Confederate armies in the field. Moore objects to the idea that Northrop was an improviser. Yet while he develops the side of Northrop that alienated those who frustrated his grand design, he also developed the side that at times patiently and successfully improvised what was possible within that design. Northrop is well cast as the heroic figure who was both an ironic victim of his own contradictions and the tragic victim of circumstances beyond his control.

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Author:Hagerman, Edward
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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