Share This Article

The Democratic Soldier: The Life of General Gustave P. Cluseret, by William J. Phalen, Vij Books India, 2016, $17.95

With this book historian Phalen, author of How the Telegraph Changed the World (2014), makes his first foray into military biography, choosing as his subject French-born mercenary Gustave Paul Cluseret, among the many hundreds of obscure American Civil War generals. Phalen suggests Cluseret could have made an excellent general but fell out of favor due to his relentlessly self-serving agenda and endless confrontation with Union Army superiors. Operating from an intense desire to serve those seeking independence, the Frenchman fancied himself a 19th-century Marquis de Lafayette, though in truth he was more the real-life incarnation of Sir Harry Paget Flashman, novelist George MacDonald Fraser’s comically inept anti-hero.

Cluseret (subject of “Soldier of Misfortune,” by John Koster, in the September 2015 issue of Military History) was perpetually searching for ways in which to satisfy what he called his “love of gunpowder.” A graduate of Saint-Cyr, France’s foremost military academy, he fought in Algeria and the Crimean War in the 1850s and served with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Redshirts in Italy in 1860. The next year he sailed for America, offered his services to the Lincoln administration and was appointed an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George McClellan, with the rank of colonel. He rose to the rank of brigadier general but took part in only one battle before resigning in March 1863. He went on to entangle himself in a number of other military misadventures—the 1866–67 Fenian uprising, the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War—before giving up battle for the often more brutal arena of French politics until his death in 1900.

The only real shortcomings of Phalen’s profile are its brevity (100 pages) and the lack of detail regarding Cluseret’s service before the American Civil War. But it offers an interesting glimpse into the life of a true soldier of fortune.

—Frank Jastrzembski