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Will Biographers Ever Get out of a Rut?

By Gary W. Gallagher 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: January 21, 2010 
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Biographies of Civil War generals have appealed to generations of Americans. Famous commanders often attract readers who end up pursuing a lifelong interest in the conflict. J.E.B. Stuart played that role for me.

As an 11-year-old, I was drawn to Stuart because he was a romantic and gifted cavalry officer. I began with Burke Davis' Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier (1957), which featured a colorful dust jacket based on Charles Hoffbauer's mural Autumn at the Virginia Historical Society. I turned next to Indiana University Press' edition of H.B. McClellan's The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart (1885), reprinted in 1958 as I Rode With Jeb Stuart. I was most taken with John W. Thomason Jr.'s Jeb Stuart (1930), a gripping narrative enhanced by the author's unforgettable sketches. "Jeb Stuart was a symbol," observed Thomason, "a gonfalon that went before the swift, lean columns of the Confederacy. He served as the eyes and ears of Lee: his hands touched the springs of vast events." I had never before encountered the word "gonfalon" (a "battle standard…usually ending in streamers; especially such a standard used by any of the medieval republics of Italy"), and when I looked it up I thought Thomason had captured much of what appealed to me about Stuart.

Early exposure to military biographies spurred an interest that has led me to track the genre since the 1960s. Several trends stand out. Not surprisingly, biographers have often chosen figures such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, "Stonewall" Jackson and Wil­liam Tecumseh Sherman. For example, five large volumes on Sher­man ap­peared between 1991 and 2001. Charles Royster's The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (1991) came out first, emphasizing how Sherman shaped the conflict's massively disruptive violence. In short order, John F. Marszalek's measured Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order (1993), Michael Fellman's un­abashed­ly psychological Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (1995) and Stanley P. Hirshson's workmanlike White Tecumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman (1997) joined Royster's study on bookstore shelves. Lee Kennett's Sherman: A Soldier's Life (2001), which raised questions about Sherman's attitude toward Grant, completed an inter­pre­tive smorgasbord. These books offered conflicting explanations for Sherman's actions: a search for order after a rootless, uncertain childhood (Marszalek), a tendency to act from barely suppressed rage and anger (Fellman) or envy arising from a belief that Grant received too much credit (Kennett).

A second trend confirms that authors and publishers embrace generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. Apart from Lee and Jackson, each corps commander has been the subject of at least one biography since the mid-1980s: James Longstreet (1987, 1993), A.P. Hill (1987), Richard S. Ewell (1998, 2004), Jubal A. Early (1992), J.E.B. Stuart (1987, 2008), John B. Gordon (1989), Wade Hampton (2003, 2007, 2008), Richard H. Anderson (1985) and Fitzhugh Lee (1989, 2005). Division commanders have also re­ceived attention, among them George E. Pickett (two biographies in 1998), Robert E. Rodes (2000, 2008), Ste­phen Dodson Ramseur (1985), Wil­liam Dorsey Pender (2001), Isaac Ridgeway Trimble (2005), Cadmus M. Wilcox (2001), Benjamin Huger (1985) and John Bankhead Magruder (1996, 2009). Other biographers have looked to the brigade and regimental levels, producing works on such figures as South Carolinian Micah Jen­kins, a relatively unimportant brigadier (two titles in 1996), William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama (2006) and Henry King Burgwyn Jr. of the 26th North Carolina (1985).

In contrast to the coverage of generals in Lee's army, a number of Union Army commanders await modern scholarly biographies. Three examples will illustrate this phenomenon. It has been almost half a century since William M. Lamers published The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, a lengthy but lightly documented life of one of the most important officers in the Western theater. As head of the Army of the Cumberland, Rosecrans fought the battles of Stones River and Chickamauga, directed the impressive Tullahoma Campaign and presided over the defense of Chattanooga in September-October 1863. One of the few high-ranking Catholic officers in the Union army, he pursued a postwar career that included stints as minister to Mexico, congressman from California and register of the U.S. Treasury (Lamers de­voted only 23 pages to Rosecrans' non-Civil War activities). A huge collection of Rosecrans papers at UCLA awaits any future biographer.

Joseph Hooker similarly deserves fresh treatment. The Army of the Potomac's third commander has been the subject of just one biography—Walter H. Hebert's Fighting Joe Hooker, published in 1944. Central to the Chancellorsville Campaign and the opening moves that led to Gettysburg, Hooker was later assigned to the Western theater and figured prominently at Chattanooga and in operations against Atlanta. Intensely political, he proved willing to change parties in order to advance his career. Well outside the inner circle of army notables after the war, he pronounced Sherman "crazy" and said that Grant possessed "no more moral sense than a dog." Hook­er's life offers excellent material to explore the intersection between military and political affairs, as well as behavior that lends itself to psychologi­cal speculation.

Irvin McDowell has been more neglected than Rosecrans and Hooker. The preeminent Union field commander early in the war, he was defeated at First Bull Run but remained important during the Shenandoah Valley, Peninsula and Second Bull Run campaigns of 1862. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase staunchly sup­ported McDowell, praising him as "a loyal, brave, truthful, capable officer" who rightly believed "this war sprung from the influence of slavery." Exiled to the Department of the Pa­cific, McDowell never regained the limelight after 1862. A careful exploration of his life and career would make a valuable contribution to understanding the Union's military effort.

I look forward to the time when I can place the first biography of McDowell—or a new one of Hooker or Rosecrans—in my library, where they will join 68 volumes on Grant, 17 on Sherman and 81 on Lee.



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