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  • Buell's The Warrior Generals

    I recently finished The Warrior Generals by Thomas Buell and I was wondering what the widely read on here thought of it. I'm not widely read in the ACW by any means but you don't have to be to know that Buell's assessment of Grant and Lee (and Sherman, although he is not a specific study) are very much at odds with the orthodoxy; Buell himself explicitly mentions this and a short paragraph from James McPherson on the dustjacket confirms it.

    I suppose my biggest problem is that the book feels as if it has bitten off more than it can chew; what Buell's actually trying to achieve is never entirely clear. He opens the book with a comparison between the problems faced by US troops in a bridging operation in Bosnia and one in the ACW. It's a nice little device that suggests the relevance of the ACW experience in examining and shaping combat leadership today. But as Buell himself flags almost immediately, the US military is a completely different beast today, being full of long-term professionals. Who out of the yeoman, aristocrat, knight-errant, roman, cavalier or puritan would we find in today's military? The generals who have made names for themselves in the last few years, like Petraeus, McChrystal and Mattis seem to be a combination of fire-breathing warrior and intellectual - warrior-monk is the term that gets bandied about. So on the face of it, Buell's framing of the question seems to have moved the book a step back from being of immediate relevance.

    The reason I see Buell's blurred aims as a problem is because of the size of the task. He's examining the combat leadership of six different generals who served, essentially, throughout the war. There's simply not enough space for detailed examinations; all could have large biographies devoted to them. So clarity is key, but it never emerges. The early description of the eastern campaign and Lee's various failings as a commander is fascinating, but then Lee seems to disappear; the needs of the story overwhelm the analysis. The same happens to Thomas after Chattanooga and to Grant in 1864-5. The absence of a recognisable conclusion inflames this issue; Buell summarises his views on each man and explains his label at the start of the book, which is great, but it seems natural after you, the reader, has examined all the material that you'll be provided with a wrapping up of the arguments.

    It's all very frustrating because Buell does a very interesting job in numerous places within the book - his criticism of Grant and Lee was very eye-opening, albeit seemingly one-sided, and the portrait of Barlow was fascinating. But I finished it this morning and walked away not sure I knew what to take away from it. Did any else have the same feeling? And did you agree with Buell's portraits?
    Colonel Summers' widely quoted critique of US strategy in the Vietnam War is having a modest vogue...it is poor history, poor strategy, and poor Clausewitz to boot - Robet Komer, Survival, 27:2, p. 94.

  • #2
    I have this book, but it has been many years since I read it (I read it when it first came out). I'll have to get it out & peruse it again to see if I agree with you on it.
    The muffled drums sad roll has beat the soldier's last tatoo. No more on life's parade shall meet that brave and fallen few.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by thejester View Post
      I recently finished The Warrior Generals by Thomas Buell and I was wondering what the widely read on here thought of it. I'm not widely read in the ACW by any means but you don't have to be to know that Buell's assessment of Grant and Lee (and Sherman, although he is not a specific study) are very much at odds with the orthodoxy; Buell himself explicitly mentions this and a short paragraph from James McPherson on the dustjacket confirms it.

      I suppose my biggest problem is that the book feels as if it has bitten off more than it can chew; what Buell's actually trying to achieve is never entirely clear. He opens the book with a comparison between the problems faced by US troops in a bridging operation in Bosnia and one in the ACW. It's a nice little device that suggests the relevance of the ACW experience in examining and shaping combat leadership today. But as Buell himself flags almost immediately, the US military is a completely different beast today, being full of long-term professionals. Who out of the yeoman, aristocrat, knight-errant, roman, cavalier or puritan would we find in today's military? The generals who have made names for themselves in the last few years, like Petraeus, McChrystal and Mattis seem to be a combination of fire-breathing warrior and intellectual - warrior-monk is the term that gets bandied about. So on the face of it, Buell's framing of the question seems to have moved the book a step back from being of immediate relevance.

      The reason I see Buell's blurred aims as a problem is because of the size of the task. He's examining the combat leadership of six different generals who served, essentially, throughout the war. There's simply not enough space for detailed examinations; all could have large biographies devoted to them. So clarity is key, but it never emerges. The early description of the eastern campaign and Lee's various failings as a commander is fascinating, but then Lee seems to disappear; the needs of the story overwhelm the analysis. The same happens to Thomas after Chattanooga and to Grant in 1864-5. The absence of a recognisable conclusion inflames this issue; Buell summarises his views on each man and explains his label at the start of the book, which is great, but it seems natural after you, the reader, has examined all the material that you'll be provided with a wrapping up of the arguments.

      It's all very frustrating because Buell does a very interesting job in numerous places within the book - his criticism of Grant and Lee was very eye-opening, albeit seemingly one-sided, and the portrait of Barlow was fascinating. But I finished it this morning and walked away not sure I knew what to take away from it. Did any else have the same feeling? And did you agree with Buell's portraits?
      My first thought after reading it was simply; 'I doubt Buell would have been of service had he actually fought in the ACW.'

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