Monday, December 11, 2017

Five good biographies of not very good Civil War generals (gray edition)

1. Theophilus Hunter Holmes: A North Carolina General in the Civil War
by Walter C. Hilderman III (2013).
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this biography. Quite naturally, the book highlights the many negative aspects of Holmes's military career, but it also proved quite insightful in its recognition of some of the general's more favorable qualities and notable administrative achievements.
2. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds (1992).
Joe Johnston will always be controversial. He's one of the few very high-ranking Civil War generals that might find a place on both best and worst lists compiled by serious-minded people. Given the wide difference in opinion over his merits, in combination with the many profoundly important command appointments he held throughout the war, it's rather surprising that we don't have more biographies from which to choose. Symonds offers a solid, evenhanded study of Johnston's strengths and weaknesses.
3. Pemberton: A Biography by Michael B. Ballard (1991).
Even though David M. Smith's masterful editing of Pemberton's written apologia [see Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton (1999)] provides us with a very underrated analysis and understanding of Pemberton's actions during the Vicksburg Campaign, it's undeniable that the northern-born Confederate general made a bad botch of things during the mobile phase of Grant's masterpiece. As others have argued, Ballard's biography makes the case that Pemberton's talents best suited him to desk work rather than field generalship.
4. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert Castel (1968).
Sterling Price has been the subject of a few biographies, none of them recent. Though a bit dated at this point, Castel's study, which appeared after Ralph Rea's book and a few years before Robert Shalhope's, is regarded by most as the best overall treatment. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing another scholar take a shot at it.
5. The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr. (1993).
Pillow's generalship is universally panned by scholars and enthusiasts alike, but Hughes and Stonesifer's book reminds readers that there was more to Pillow's service than the embarrassing debacle at Fort Donelson and accusations of cowardice at Stones River (ex. Pillow helped create and organize what would eventually become the Army of Tennessee, and he directed recruitment and conscription efforts in the western theater).


  1. Drew

    Thanks for the post on confederate biographies. I agree with you on Symond's biography of Johnston, he was an enigma to an extent.

    I'm very interested in confederate biographies and look forward to new ones.

    This post made me think about confederate biographies that are well done and the subject may have been an overrated officer.

    Don H.

    1. I wanted to include one for Polk, but I've never read or closely examined Parks or Robins. Most recently, the History Press published a brief one, but I never saw that one either.

    2. I have never thought of JEJ as an "enigma." Ever.

      It dawned on me some years ago that perhaps we struggle with JEJ's Civil War career because his prewar resume was stellar, his reputation sterling, and performance expectations high.

      How, then, could he act the way in the petty manner in which he did over rank, and make the eyebrow-raising decisions he made in the field (most of which included retreating before the enemy)? Any deep eval of his actions and decision-making includes supposition, excuses, "what-ifs," etc in an effort to paint them as logical and well-thought out. They attempt to explain what he was doing and thinking.

      To me there is no mystery or enigma surrounding JEJ, and E. P. Alexander's famous description of him is pithily accurate--simple and all-encompassing. All my life I have observed JEJ's in every walk of business, politics, family life, etc. He simply wasn't up the to job at that level. He was not a good army commander suited to lead a Confederate army with the aims and goals as required by Pres. Davis.

  2. Unfortunately, as with McDowell on the Union side nobody appears to have done a bio of William Pendleton. I have no doubt that would make the list. I think you've appropriately excluded Bragg (presumably based in part on Hess's well-done book).

    1. My main reason for excluding Bragg was my opinion that no good complete biography exists. I agree with Hess himself that his excellent Bragg book is something less than that.

    2. Good point on Bragg. I do think that Hess treatment regarding his generalship is fairly thorough and puts in question the "not very good" modifier - at least in the sense in which it applies to those you listed.

    3. We have a Pendleton study in the works.

  3. I have read four of the five mentioned above, missing only the bio of Holmes. I concur with your comments. I am impressed of Pemberton, that after the debacle at Vicksburg, he resigned his general's commission and accepted one as lieutenant colonel of artillery. He commanded the Richmond Defense Battalion and later served as inspector general of ordnance. To me he redeemed his reputation by placing dedication to duty over concern for rank.

  4. Still need good biography for Samuel Cooper


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