Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All. – Review

Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All. – Review – book review

Richard L. Kiper

Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All. By Stephen D. Engle. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. xvii, 476. $45.00.)

Despite having commanded the Department and Army of the Ohio, and having occupied Nashville, fought in the battle of Shiloh, and participated in the Perryville (or Stones River) Campaign, no biography of Major General Don Carlos Buell has been published previously. Noted historians of the American Civil War have had few positive words for Buell. A “gloomy minded general”; a “firm disciplinarian” who “lacked charisma”; timid and fearful–so Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Kenneth Williams respectively described the Union general. Now Stephen D. Engle has examined this figure in-depth and has reached the same conclusions as those who have briefly examined Buell’s role in the war. Engle, though, has gone beyond a simple description of Buell’s military accomplishments, or lack thereof, and, more importantly, has examined why he was the general he was.

Engle establishes that Buell was a product of his background. He was once a slaveholder, and that colored both his attitudes toward the conquered South and his method of waging war. Buell only marginally understood the relationship between strategy and national objectives. He believed that disunion was a greater evil than slavery, and thus took a conciliatory approach toward the slave owners in the regions through which his army marched. His objective was to defend the Constitution, not to interfere with the rights of slaveholders. Such an attitude, though, led to conflicts with fellow generals, Radical Republicans, and even Lincoln over strategy and the role of politicians during wartime.

As a cadet at West Point, Buell had been exposed to the maxims of Henri Antoine Jomini. Thus, he was aware of Jomini’s theories regarding the influence of logistics on strategy and his concept of decisive points. The former led him to concentrate on the establishment of secure bases and the latter to focus his army on seizing critical geographic locales such as Nashville and Louisville–forgoing Jomini’s injunction that the purpose of seizing a critical point was to bring the enemy army to battle. Much as McClellan in the east, Buell created a well-trained, well-disciplined army that he too often failed to commit to decisive combat, such as at Perryville, where he had an excellent opportunity to defeat the divided Confederate force. The result was that the Union high command had enough of Buell and his method of waging limited war and sacked him.

Engle has avoided the trap of becoming too sympathetic to his subject. His is a dispassionate view of a general who failed in his primary mission to use in battle the army he created, who failed to understand the relationship between Union military strategy and Lincoln’s political desire to secure eastern Tennessee, and who was so focused on postwar reconciliation and was such a stern disciplinarian that he failed to gain the confidence of his soldiers.

The author was hampered by the lack of personal papers or an autobiography. Nevertheless, using extensive primary sources from the general’s contemporaries, he has constructed a readable, thoughtful analysis of Buell that enhances the readers’ understanding of military operations, Union command relationships, Lincoln’s objectives, and the political situation in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1861 and 1862.

Richard L. Kiper Kansas City Kansas Community College

COPYRIGHT 2001 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group