Friday, December 8, 2017

Five good biographies of not very good Civil War generals (blue list)

1. Burnside (1991) by William Marvel.
I initially wanted to put a Ben Butler book somewhere on this list but quickly discovered that I don't know enough about any of the existing biographical treatments. Though both individuals have gained favor in different ways in the more recent scholarly literature, certainly Ambrose Burnside still joins Butler on any enthusiast top 10 list of worst Civil War generals. Marvel was perhaps the first respected historian to attempt a serious rehabilitation of Burnside's military career, and his work has had lasting influence. The biography is certainly good by any measure.
2. Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire (2002)
by Tom Chaffin.
Pathfinder provides a good overall picture of Fremont's life as famous explorer, military officer, and politician, but it is rather disappointingly thin on his Civil War career (only a single chapter in a very large book, if I recall correctly). I'm still waiting for someone to write a book-length study of Fremont's controversial 100 days in command of the Department of the West.
3. Pretense of Glory: The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks (1998)
by James G. Hollandsworth.
It's been a long time since I read this (it was probably sometime around its release), but I seem to remember it leaving me with a fairly favorable impression. Unlike Marvel, Hollandsworth doesn't present Banks as an unfairly maligned military figure. Given the literature's greater appreciation of what political generals meant to Union victory, I wouldn't be surprised to see new biographies of Banks, Butler, and others sometime in the foreseeable future.
4. Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (1999) by Stephen D. Engle.
In terms of conservative political outlook and war fighting style, Buell is most often compared to McClellan, though he hasn't benefited from the small pockets of support (or at least sympathy) that Mac has maintained over the years. Engle's book is the first and only (I think) modern, full biography of Buell's life and military career. It also provides a useful examination of a high-ranking general who couldn't survive the transition between limited war and hard war, though I believe that Ethan Rafuse's McClellan's War is the current gold standard for rigorous engagement in that difficult conversation.
5. The Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (1993) by Stephen D. Engle.
Engle has the honor of having two of his books make the list. Sigel had that maddening combination of being both incompetent and profoundly difficult to work with. Others have cited Sigel's conduct on the decisive day at Pea Ridge being his one shining moment during the war, but I would hesitate to give him even that. Yankee Dutchman provides a well-rounded treatment of Sigel's contributions to the war effort, both on and off the battlefield.


  1. This is a good list. I would add Hessler's book on Sickles because, while famous, colorful, and notorious, I would have to label Dan as "not very good" in a strictly military sense. We should keep in mind that Burn did run a nice amphib operation in early '62 and Banks did take Port Hudson - hence neither was truly worse than Sickles (a low bar).

    1. I'm not saying I personally believe Burnside belongs on any worst list, but I don't think he was a "good" (realizing that that means something different to everyone) general overall.

    2. We agree - I was just comparing him to Sickles, saying that despite Burnside's reputation he was probably no more incompetent in a military sense than was Sickles. The latter seems to dodge that reputation because he was "aggressive". He certainly was far, far better at self-promotion - and at knowing where the "presidents" were stashed.


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