A Review of The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War by Thomas B. Buell

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved

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 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 is 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’ 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 presentations about two of the generals whom Buell profiles (Thomas and Gordon, respectively). I, too, highly recommend The Warrior Generals.

The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War by Thomas B. Buell

From 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 Information, Inc.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.