By JOHN MARTIN
Historian and author Thomas B. Buell treated an overflow audience of academics, students and Civil War buffs to an original and thought-provoking review of generalship during the American Civil War in a lecture at the Library on Feb. 27.
Mr. Buell spoke at the invitation of the Center for the Book, as part of its "Books and Beyond" series, a continuing program featuring authors of recent books that have particular relevance to the Library's collections.
Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole introduced Mr. Buell by reading a letter from author Herman Wouk complimenting Mr. Buell on the publication of his latest book, The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (Crown, 1997). His book challenges the popular view that the South possessed superior military leaders whom the North eventually overcame with advantageous manpower and industrial output. According to Mr. Buell, this common perception owes more to "myth, folklore, tradition and nostalgia" than to a careful review of the actual accomplishments of commanders on the battlefield.
In fact, Mr. Buell argued, the Union army produced general officers whose records withstand comparison with the finest leaders of the Confederacy, including Gen. George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland in the Western theater, who may have been the most important -- and overlooked -- military leader of the period.
The armies of the Civil War grew up during the conflict, unlike today's standing armies whose career officers achieve high rank only after many years of professional training and peer review. In 1860, just before the war began, the United States had only four elderly generals, Mr. Buell noted. By war's end in 1865, more than 1,000 men on both sides of the conflict had attained that rank. Mr. Buell narrowed this field by comparing three pairs of generals, chosen from three levels of command, that had faced each other frequently during the war: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee; George Thomas and John Hood; and Francis Barlow and John Gordon.
Mr. Buell assigned each leader an "epithet" to describe his individual attributes and to represent characteristics common to certain personality types found in the rival armies as a whole. He dubbed Grant, who became commander of all the Union armies in March 1864, a "yeoman," while calling Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, an "aristocrat." Like aristocrats in every age, Lee's main concern was to preserve the status quo, Mr. Buell said, suggesting that this attitude hurt the famous Southern general's military performance in a period of rapidly changing technology and tactics.
"Lee never evolved. The phenomenon of his reputation is that a general could lose so many campaigns, suffer casualties and desertions of such staggering proportions, and yet still be admired as both folk hero and military genius."
By contrast, the best Union generals employed tactics, weapons and technology that foreshadowed modern warfare and would be used throughout the 20th century. The most important of these leaders, Mr. Buell said, was Gen. George Thomas, whose Army of the Cumberland became the most effective and lethal fighting force of its day. He called Thomas, a Southerner and career soldier who remained loyal to the Union, a "Roman," because his innovations created an army that, like the ancient legions at their peak, differed in kind from its outmoded opponents.
Thomas won every battle in which he fought, was the chief architect of the Union victory in the Western theater, which Mr. Buell considers decisive and, at the battle of Nashville in December 1864, became the only general of the war to annihilate completely an opposing force, Gen. John Hood's Army of the Tennessee. By destroying the South's capacity for organized resistance in the West, Thomas sealed the Confederacy's fate and achieved the type of total triumph that Carl von Clausewitz saw as the ultimate object of armed encounter.
Some of Thomas's military breakthroughs are recorded in the Library's collections. For example, Mr. Buell found a Mathew Brady photograph in the Prints and Photographs Division showing Thomas and his staff working in a mobile field headquarters. Because of the accelerated rate of developments on the modern battlefield, effective leaders could no longer afford to command their troops from the rear.
Confederate Gen. John Hood met Thomas repeatedly in the Western theater of the war. Hood, a gallant but reckless officer whom Mr. Buell styled a "knight errant," epitomized the "spirit of the offensive" brand of 19th century warfare, which led the French to disaster in the early days of World War I. Hood became the youngest general of full rank in the Confederate army at the age of 33, but failed to appreciate the limits of the fighting spirit when pitted against new technology such as the rifled musket. His ruinous decision to attack the entrenched federal lines at Franklin, where seven of his generals were killed, was, according to Mr. Buell, "tantamount to murder and even more devastating to the Confederate army than Pickett's charge at Gettysburg."
Mr. Buell's last side-by-side comparison measured Union Gen. Francis Barlow against Confederate Gen. John Gordon. Both were volunteer officers who rose through the ranks to command at the brigade and divisional levels, proving that North and South produced gifted amateurs who could learn on the job. Barlow was a methodical "Puritan," who sought perfection in everything he did. Gordon, by contrast, resembled a 17th century English "Cavalier"; he sided with the Southern aristocracy in the defense of custom and tradition, including the institution of slavery. Both were extraordinary combat leaders who faced each other repeatedly in the war's Eastern theater.
Ultimately, Mr. Buell concluded, the Confederacy was defeated by the "ambiguity of its war aims." It yearned to legitimize itself as a nation through armed conflict with the North, but failed to grasp the inherent contradiction between its cherished causes, defense of liberty and resistance to tyranny, with the existence of an independent South that would perpetuate the practice of slavery. "While they fancied themselves as revolutionaries, in fact the generals were protecting a reactionary oligarchy whose time had passed."
Mr. Buell is writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina and the author of biographies of Adms. Ernest King and Raymond Spruance. A former wartime commander, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy's Naval Post-Graduate School and has taught military history at the Naval War College and at West Point.
Mr. Martin is a copyright examiner in the Visual Arts Section of the Copyright Office. John Bethel, copyright specialist, and James Shapleigh, copyright examiner, contributed to this report.