Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All

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Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All. By Stephen D. Engle. Civil War America. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1999. Pp. xx, 476. $45.00, ISBN 0-8078-2512-3.)

Stephen D. Engle's Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All is, surprisingly, the first biography of this significant Union field commander. Buell's short tenure as commander of the Army of the Ohio, from 1861 to 1862, his subsequent fading away into private life, and a paucity of personal papers or memoirs seemed to render him unworthy of an extended study. But Engle's experience writing The Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993) has equipped him to provide a thoroughly researched and clearly written account of a most challenging subject. Of necessity, the author concentrates on Buell's Civil War career, only briefly sketching his subject's early life, West Point experience, Mexican War record, and routine years as assistant adjutant general. An epilogue sums up his post-Civil War years. Engle admits his book offers little about Buell's social and political views or his innermost personal thoughts and character. His approach is to use Buell as a case study for analyzing the Union's changing political-military relations by 1862. He sees Buell as an excellent negative example of an army commander who failed because his conservative philosophy, caution, and southern sympathies made him incapable of waging revolutionary hard war.

The book has its strengths, including new information about Buell's problems at West Point, his heroic combat record in the Mexican War, and the intricate command relations among Buell, George McClellan, and Henry Halleck. The photographs and maps are excellent. Nevertheless, the book has serious flaws. Engle concedes that Buell would not recognize himself and certainly would not like what he read in this biography. Yes, but why? Engle's reading of the records convinces him that Buell was a rigid, self-absorbed, and narrowly conservative man whose manner often repelled people. His southern sympathies, Engle theorizes, came from marrying a southern woman who owned slaves. As a military leader, he was "Jominian to the core" (p. …

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