Editor's note: This review was
originally published in The Charger in the Winter of 2002.
When I was in the Roundtable
contingent which visited Richmond in 2000, I noticed Dan
Zeiser reading a thick book with one of Julian Scott's fine old
Civil War paintings on the cover. When Dan finished the book, he
lent it to me, and I'm glad he did.
Thomas B. Buell's The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (Three Rivers Press
1997) is an overview of the Civil War as fought by six very
different men, three on each side: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee,
John B. Hood, George H. Thomas, John B. Gordon, and Francis C.
Barlow. Buell's great innovation, and the key to his book, is to use
each man as a kind of military exemplar: Grant the Yeoman, Lee the
Aristocrat, Hood the Knight-Errant, Thomas the Roman, Gordon the
Cavalier, and Barlow the Puritan. The metaphors and comparisons are
sometimes strained, but it's an intriguing conceptual approach to
Civil War history. By and large, it works.
Buell is iconoclastic, and highly
opinionated; not for him the "on the one hand, but then again on the
other" style of some recent historians. His confident assertions,
including lavish praise of some generals (especially Thomas) and
harsh criticism of others (particularly Lee) sometimes cross the
line from historical analysis to outright advocacy. As does any
enthusiast, he sometimes strays into hyperbole. The author (no
relation to the Union general of the same name) accuses John C.
Fremont of "madness," and says that William T. Sherman was "erratic
and distraught... succumb[ing] to panic" in his botched East
Tennessee expedition in late 1861. Buell derides David Hunter as "a
nonentity who took days to find the front door [of headquarters]"
after Fremont was sacked in November of that year.
The author blasts Grant for writing
self-serving reports and lacking good tactical sense. He takes Lee
to task for misleading top Confederate authorities (including
President Jefferson Davis), and needlessly spilling blood by
continuing to fight when he knew that the war was all but lost. Lee
alone, Buell implies, would have had the prestige to make the
Confederate public acknowledge that it was time to stop the
slaughter. Sherman is raked over the coals for numerous mistakes
during the Atlanta campaign, and for embarking on the March to the
Sea without adequately dealing with Hood, thereby dumping the
problem in Thomas's lap. Buell condemns Hood for not realizing his
own limitations, being overly ambitious, and for wantonly throwing
his army away during the doomed Tennessee campaign of late 1864.
I learned the most from this book
about Gordon and Barlow, two very different men. In contrast to the
rough handling he gives Grant, Lee, Hood and Sherman, the author
seems to genuinely like Gordon and Barlow. Some of his most
enjoyable writing focuses on their early lives and backgrounds, and
their growth as military leaders over the four years of the Civil
War. After Appomattox, Gordon was a very successful Georgia
politician (and never shy about tooting his own horn, sometimes
exaggerating his military record), while Barlow briefly served in
New York politics before withdrawing in disgust at the corruption of
the Gilded Age. I knew little about either man before reading this
book, and learned a great deal.
Buell is an even greater admirer of
George H. Thomas, and praises "the Rock of Chickamauga" for solid,
capable, unflashy leadership that made the Army of the Cumberland
"the most professional and modern of all the armies in the Civil
War," Thomas won battle after battle, despite carping from the War
Department and backbiting from Grant and Sherman, and never let his
successes go to his head. I'm a Thomas fan, too, but Buell's only
criticism of the general seems to be that he didn't always
appreciate the political motivations and needs of President Lincoln
and Secretary of War Stanton. As criticisms go, it's a pretty minor
one, and it ends up being a compliment, anyway: Thomas as an
apolitical general in a war full of the other kind. Thomas obviously
had other faults, but you won't read about them in Buell's book.
There's a lot of good stuff in this
book, not all of which you'll agree with, but which you'll enjoy
reading just the same. It's worth noting that two former Roundtable
presidents (Dan Zeiser and Bob Boyda) both found it invaluable in
preparing speeches about two of the generals whom Buell profiles
(Thomas and Gordon, respectively). I, too, highly recommend The
The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War
By Thomas B. Buell
Three Rivers Press (March 31, 1998), 528 pages
School Library Journal: An extraordinary
look at military leadership during the Civil War. Buell focuses on
the successes and failures of three Union generals: Ulysses S.
Grant, George H. Thomas, and Francis C. Barlow and three Confederate
generals: Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood, and John B. Gordon. Their
battles and campaigns are examined by modern military standards and
Buell's conclusions are insightful and at times revisionistic. By
the end of the book, readers are left with an impression that Lee
was often indecisive, had no strategic vision, and may have been
single-handedly responsible for costing tens of thousands of lives
by prolonging a war that could not be won.
Grant comes off no better. Although
eventually victorious, he is shown as impulsive, vindictive, and
self-deceiving. What set Thomas apart was his attention to details.
His staff was professional and capable, which allowed him to master
the technology that gave him the ability to command and control his
subordinates over large distances and to sustain his massive army
deep in enemy territory. Readers are also left with a very positive
impression of Barlow. In contrast, Hood is shown to be unable to
adapt to the burden of leadership and changing technology. Although
Gordon's leadership is examined, it is not with the sane detail as
the other five generals; thus, there is too little information to
compare him with his counterpart, Barlow. Buell crowns the book with
an annotated bibliography. This superb book is easy to read, well
organized, and liberally illustrated with period photographs and
drawings. - Robert Burnham, Copyright 1997 Reed Business
Civil War titles at the Roundtable Bookstore
Note: Roll-over a book title to bring up more information on
that book; click the book title to purchase from Amazon.com.
Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the
CCWRT website are returned to the CCWRT to support its education and
|Robert E. Lee