Distant and authoritarian, Union general Don Carlos Buell lacked the common touch needed for effective command.
By Cowan Brew
West Point-educated Don Carlos Buell should have been one of the Union’s greatest Civil War generals. A spit-and-polish Regular soldier, a Mexican War hero and a veteran bureaucrat to boot, Buell was well positioned at the beginning of the war to recruit, train and lead Northern forces into battle. He knew the Army inside out, and he had unlimited supplies of energy, dedication and courage. But like his good friend and mentor George B. McClellan, Buell had two ma-jor drawbacks. First, and perhaps most important, he was a conser- vative Democrat in an increasingly radical Republican administration. And second, he did not want to fight–not because he was afraid, but because he sincerely believed that the Civil War was a war about territory and maneuvers. He was a “soft war” soldier in a “hard war” conflict.
Stephen D. Engle’s Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, $45) is the first full-length biography of this ultimately disappointing general, a man who was often his own worst enemy. Cold and aloof, Buell never learned the common touch that might have helped him bridge the gap from Regular Army officer to commanding general of volunteers. As it was, Engle writes, “He had little capacity for motivating soldiers. Too frequently he gave orders, not explanations, and he could never distinguish sufficiently between the plodding regular soldier and the high-spirited volunteer, often failing to acknowledge the volunteer soldier as someone entitled to any greater consideration.”
A larger problem for Buell, and one that led to his ultimate dismissal, was his inability to bend his own inflexible views to the gradually evolving philosophy of Abraham Lincoln. There was never any doubt about Buell’s loyalty to the Union, but the fact that he was a former slave owner himself (he had inherited eight slaves when he married the widow of a fellow officer in 1851) left him open to charges that he was a Southern sympathizer. Buell did not help his cause when he strictly enforced a policy of noninterference with Southern civilians while campaigning in Alabama and Tennessee in mid-1862. His own soldiers murmured among themselves that their commanding general was, as Major Joseph Keifer of the 3rd Ohio put it, “either a weak imbecile man, or a secession sympathizer.”
The situation reached a head in May 1862, when Colonel John Basil Turchin permitted his soldiers to pillage the town of Athens, Ala., after it was rumored that Athens citizens had helped Confederate guerrillas derail a Union supply train. The subsequent carnival of rape, riot and destruction infuriated Buell, whose guiding tenet had always been iron discipline and gentlemanly comportment. He brought charges against Turchin of neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer and disobedience of orders.
Turchin subsequently was convicted of the most serious charges and sentenced to be dismissed from the Army. Curiously, Engle, while noting correctly that the Turchin incident was a turning point in Buell’s tenure as commander of the Army of the Ohio, does not tell readers the denouement of the case: Lincoln promoted Turchin to brigadier general and immediately returned him to active duty.
A general less self-absorbed than Buell would have read the president’s actions as a warning, if not a rebuke. Instead, Buell continued to frustrate the administration by moving slowly and cautiously against the enemy. Only after Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith had invaded Kentucky in the late summer of 1862 did Buell belatedly step up the pace of pursuit, and even then he moved with maddening deliberation.
At length, Lincoln grew tired of the endless litany of complaints against Buell and ordered him removed and replaced by Maj. Gen. George Thomas. Amazingly, Thomas refused the command, and Lincoln suspended the order.
Still, Buell might have saved his command–and his career–by winning a sig-nal victory over Bragg in Kentucky in the autumn of 1862. At Perryville, on October 8, he had a golden opportunity to do just that. Instead, due partly to poor communications by his subordinates and partly to a rare weather condition known as acoustic shadow, which prevented Buell from hearing the sounds of a battle being fought two miles away, the fighting degenerated into a slugfest, and Bragg, though badly bloodied, managed to withdraw.
Buell’s failure to pursue Bragg again sealed the Union general’s fate, and he was removed from command on October 30, 1862. As one astute onlooker observed, Buell’s leave-taking was consistent with his distant, authoritarian reign as a whole. “He came to and left his soldiers a stranger to the feelings of all as well as the eyes of most,” a reporter for the New York Tribune reported.
Despite overlooking somewhat the political motives influencing Lincoln’s removal of Buell, Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All is nevertheless a welcome addition to Civil War studies. And although Engle worries, with some reason, that readers might find him “too critical” of Buell, he has certainly written a persuasive brief for those predisposed to dislike the chilly Ohioan.