William Babcock Hazen: The Best Hated Man
by Edward S. Cooper, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005, 369 pages, $65.
Most of the notable military figures of the Civil War have had biographies written about them, but Union General William Babcock Hazen remained a curious exception for a long time. Edward S. Cooper, an electrical engineer and computer consultant turned biographer, attempts to correct this omission. But presenting so many facts of Hazen’s professional career makes it hard for the reader to decipher what is important from what is insignificant to an understanding of the soldier and the man.
A West Point graduate, class of 1855, Hazen was teaching tactics at the academy when the war broke out. He began as colonel of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and commanded a brigade by Shiloh, where his men incurred the highest number of casualties of any unit in the Army of the Ohio. His brigade saved the Army of the Cumberland from annihilation at Stones River and fought valiantly with Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas at Chickamauga.
Hazen led the commando raid at Brown’s Ferry that opened the “Cracker Line” into the besieged city of Chattanooga, and his troops were the first to crest Missionary Ridge. His division was cut to pieces at Pickett’s Mill because of poor planning by superior officers but was chosen by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to attack Fort McAllister, culminating the March to the Sea.
One probable reason why Hazen has lacked a full-length biography is that no collection of personal papers exists. Another explanation may stem from Hazen’s character. Even as a cadet, he was a rigid, self-assured and opinionated man who refused to compromise. After the war, he diligently exposed military incompetence and inefficiency. These traits made it hard to get ahead in a peacetime Army vastly reduced in size and chronically underfunded by Congress.
Hazen did publish a memoir in 1885, but it deals primarily with his Civil War experiences. His postwar military career was filled with disputes with his superiors, most notably Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan. His crusade against graft and corruption in the military commissariat involved Secretary of War William W. Belknap, and he publicly charged Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln with responsibility for the disaster that befell the Lady Franklin Bay Polar Expedition. The accusations led to court-martial proceedings against Hazen in 1885. Nevertheless, Hazen managed to survive with his reputation essentially intact until his sudden death in 1887.
Cooper lays out this eventful life through an uninspired litany of facts. His prose lacks the energy and elegance to propel the reader through the plethora of information he has amassed. Information alone, no matter how relevant or accurate, remains the domain of the chronicler. Biographers must add careful selection and analysis to their efforts.
The author’s blurb proclaims Cooper’s determination to thoroughly research his subject. This includes a heavy reliance on primary sources, including unpublished fragments of a memoir written by Hazen’s wife, the former Mildred McLean, daughter of the politically connected owner and publisher of The Washington Post and other newspapers. But Cooper has a fondness for inserting large blocks of verbatim text from this and other sources when he could have made his point more economically.
Placing a person or event in historical context is important, but Cooper tends to stray from his subject, sometimes for several pages. Perhaps a more diligent editor could have synthesized his lengthy digression on the problems posed by newspaper correspondents divulging sensitive military information and the influence of William McLean’s political views on his daughter.
While Cooper’s bibliography is substantial, it does not include the best in recent Civil War historiography. This leads him to repeat some of the errors made by his primary sources, such as incorrectly stating the time Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps arrived on Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga. And Marvin Kroeker’s 1974 book Great Plains Command: William B. Hazen in the Frontier West already provides a readable narrative about Hazen’s life in “the barren lands.”
Nonetheless, readers will end up understanding why Ambrose Bierce, who served as Hazen’s topographical officer during the war and later became a journalist, short story writer and social pundit, characterized his superior officer and friend as “the best hated man that I ever knew.” Perhaps future biographers will use Cooper’s earnest effort to give more vitality to a vital life of public service.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.