Tucked away in a peaceful room miles from Chapel Hill, Tom Buell has created the perfect spot to do what historians do best: contemplate the past. Here, surrounded by shelves of books—he calls them his friends—Buell spent five years researching and rethinking the Civil War. Last fall, Buell, writer-in-residence in the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense, published the product of those reflections: his third book, The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (Crown, 1997).

Now, sitting in his corduroy recliner, a cup of tea on the end table, Buell looks like the classic historian. But his view of the Civil War is anything but traditional.

Buell says our modern perception of the war is based mainly on myth, folklore, and nostalgia—most of it involving Robert E. Lee. Historians are partly to blame, he says, because too many repeat each other’s words and fail to look critically at the war.

The other reason we see Lee so idealistically, Buell says, is that Southern leaders and writers deliberately portrayed him that way after the war.

When the war began, the leaders of the Confederacy thought their unquenchable spirit and the nobility of fighting to preserve their culture would ensure their victory. Yet, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his exhausted, shrunken army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse. By the war’s end a month later, the Confederacy was not even five years old.

Southern leaders explained the shocking defeat by saying that the North’s money, men, and supplies had overwhelmed the South. From this rationalization grew what Buell calls “the myth of the Lost Cause”—the belief that even the South’s “superior” leadership had been no match for the North’s vast resources. As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and defender of Richmond, the Confederate capital, Lee symbolized all that was good, and tragic, about Southern leadership.

The image never faded. In the 1930s, Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of Lee portrayed him as a military genius. “Freeman extolled Lee,” Buell says, “and because he got the Pulitzer Prize for it, people simply repeated what he had said. Pretty soon, it became common knowledge.” More recently, the myth was reinforced by Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Civil War, Buell says. “Shelby Foote’s voice would quiver with emotion, and Lee could do no wrong.”

Although a few writers over the years have questioned this image, Buell says, they have been voices crying in the wilderness. According to him, a fresh look at the war and its leaders is long overdue.

Robert E. Lee, the Aristocrat
Ulysses S. Grant, the Yeoman

From the beginning, Lee and Grant were opposites.

Buell calls Lee, who was born into one of the oldest families in Virginia, “the Aristocrat.” His father was one of George Washington’s most trusted lieutenants. And even though the elder Lee squandered the family money and ultimately abandoned his wife and five children, Robert was able to attend private schools and eventually enter West Point military academy.

Grant, on the other hand, was the son of a tanner and farmer in Ohio. After graduating from West Point, he failed at everything he tried. But during the Civil War, he served as a dependable yeoman-solider who ultimately rose to general-in-chief of the Federal armies.

Today, Grant is remembered as a successful but unsophisticated general, while Lee is considered a brilliant commander who often overcame his enemies’ superior numbers with cunning and audacity.

In fact, Lee had many serious shortcomings as a combat leader, according to Buell. The general had no overarching vision for how to win the war, and his invasion of Maryland and foray into Pennsylvania show how poor his leadership was once he left Virginia.

Both were total, utter, and complete failures,” Buell says. “There was no planning to them. Lee simply crossed the Potomac River and wandered about aimlessly looking for a fight.”

Lee impulsively marched into Maryland in September 1862, even though his army was ill-prepared. The men were hungry and exhausted. Many had no shoes. Lee pressed on anyway, under the mistaken impression that the people of Maryland would welcome his soldiers as liberators and provide for them out of gratitude.

He was wrong. To keep supplies from the Confederates, farmers hid livestock, merchants locked shops, and one homeowner even removed the handle to his well pump. Within two weeks, nearly a third of Lee’s army had deserted.

The remaining men fought the devastating battle of Antietam. Lee lost nearly 14,000 men, and the combined casualties were so high that it remains the bloodiest battle fought by Americans in any war. By the time the Confederates retreated to Virginia, they were little more than a desperate mob who robbed and terrorized their own people.

Lee’s troops might have fared better, Buell says, if the general had paid attention to logistics, transportation, communication, intelligence, and medical care. But he didn’t, and his staff couldn’t do it for him.

Here was Lee, commanding one of the two largest armies in the Confederacy, and he had a staff of but three or four officers,” Buell says. “He had no one doing the planning, no one making sure the men were fed. What he depended upon was the fighting spirit of the Southern soldiers. That was the deep well he went back to again and again and again.”

But spirit alone was not enough to win the war. In fact, Buell says Lee might have been completely destroyed in Maryland, and later in Pennsylvania, if he had fought more competent adversaries. But in Maryland, Lee faced General McClellan, a notoriously hesitant commander. The Union general’s delayed attack and incremental dispatch of his troops gave Lee time to regroup and wriggle free, despite being pinned against the Potomac River. After losing the battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Lee was just as fortunate: General Meade let him flee, without harassment, back to Virginia. “Sometimes Lee intimidated the Federal generals with audacious and unconventional moves,” Buell says. “But many times he was just very, very lucky.”

Lee didn’t have to rely on chance as often as he did, Buell says. A decade and a half earlier, during the Mexican War, Lee made a name for himself by scouting terrain, locating enemy forces, and drawing maps. Buell says one of the greatest mysteries of the Civil War is why Lee forgot or disregarded those tactics.

Lee was an engineer,” he says, “and engineers made maps. But he didn’t do any of that as a general. He ordered whole armies into action without reconnoitering the terrain. His men would wander down the wrong road, or, as the battle started, his staff would run around trying to find a local farmer who could tell them where the roads went. The Confederate Army would go marching down the road with a farmer in the lead.”

Though Lee was no worse than most Civil War generals, Buell says, he was not significantly better, either. If we think he was, it’s because we picture Lee as an icon, not as a man.

Grant has also been remembered by some as a good strategist, but Buell says his strengths lay elsewhere. The Union general usually acted on impulse and often won battles simply by charging straight ahead and pursuing his enemy relentlessly.

Still, Grant had more going for him than brute force, Buell says. “Grant never panicked, and that reassured his men,” he says. “No matter how bad the situation was, his officers would find him calm and composed, working to overcome whatever obstacles he faced.”

More than once, that presence of mind helped Grant out of a crisis. In the 1863 Vicksburg campaign in Mississippi, for example, his troops were cut off from supply lines. Rather than risking the men by keeping them stationary, he told them to keep moving and to forage in the countryside.

Grant was also determined. Other Union generals had a history of crossing into Virginia, fighting Lee, and retreating. But after Grant launched the 1864 campaign against Lee, he kept moving toward Richmond, even after fighting the bloody battle of the Wilderness. He wrote to Washington saying he would win the war if it took all summer.

Grant’s attitude was, ‘I’ll do the best I can with what I have,’” Buell says. “The other Union generals—McClellan, Hooker, Pope, and Burnside—were always asking for reinforcements. Even when Grant asked for more men, Lincoln knew he would keep fighting whether he got them or not.”

And Grant was politically savvy. He let Lincoln know he was not a rival for the presidency (though Grant later served in that office), and he tried to please his commander-in-chief. Grant knew that Lincoln did not want to direct troops. The President preferred to keep up with battles via real-time telegraph reports and to support his generals by equipping the army and by rallying popular support. He wanted officers who could exercise their initiative, and Grant let Lincoln know he was one of them.

In many ways, Grant was just as lucky as Lee, Buell says. In the winter of 1862, the Union general’s lack of planning left his troops without food and shelter during the attack on Fort Donelson, Tennessee. And, later that year, his complacency allowed the Confederates to surprise the Union troops with a massive early morning attack at Shiloh, Tennessee. Both incidents could have been disasters for the Union, but good fortune helped rescue Grant and, ultimately, bring him victory.

George Henry Thomas, the Roman
John Bell Hood, Knight Errant

Lesser known than Grant and Lee were Thomas and Hood. Though both attended West Point, Buell says Thomas represented the future of warfare while Hood symbolized its past.

John Bell Hood embodied traditional Southern virtues, Buell says. He was reserved and polite in company, aggressive and zealous in battle. Like a knight errant from the Middle Ages, he was a chivalrous, ambitious soldier seeking adventure and fame, but his way of war was archaic.

George Henry Thomas, on the other hand, was ahead of his time in planning and tactics—just like the generals who created Rome’s professional armies, Buell says.

I’ve often felt that if George Thomas could come back, he could very easily take command of a twentieth century army,” Buell says. “Not only did he take care of logistics, which are crucial for running an army, but he trained and prepared his men for combat. And Thomas never lost.”

In fact, Thomas, commander of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, was the only general to destroy an enemy army in combat, Buell says. He did so at the battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, in December of 1861, and, more importantly, at the battle of Nashville in December of 1864.

Buell calls Nashville the most decisive victory of the war—one that did more to change its course than Meade’s 1863 victory over Lee at Gettysburg. By defeating Hood’s army, the second largest in the Confederacy, Thomas took control of the war’s entire western theater, and the South’s military power began to collapse.

One reason Thomas was so effective was that he combined artillery, cavalry, and infantry, Buell says. For example, he moved cavalry beyond its traditional role of raiding, protecting the flanks, and doing reconnaissance. Recognizing that the cavalry were the only soldiers with rapid-fire carbines, which could shoot multiple rounds without reloading, Thomas sent them into battle first, dismounted, to break the enemy lines. Once the lines began to collapse, the cavalry mounted their horses and pursued the enemy.

Thomas also recognized the importance of intelligence, communications, and transportation, Buell says. His reconnaissance was systematic and thorough. He made detailed maps and invented the reference grid that is still used for maps today. He coordinated his widely dispersed forces using the telegraph. And he mastered use of the railroads, outfitting special trains to repair sections of track damaged by guerrilla attacks and equipping ambulance cars for wounded soldiers.

He was so modern and so advanced in the use of technology that he was able to develop a tremen- dously powerful and mobile army,” Buell says.

And Thomas had to do so quickly after General Sherman decided to march through Georgia, Buell says. Sherman, who had been his roommate at West Point, took Thomas’ best men, and the War Department tried to recall many others to vote in the presidential election. Yet, shortly before Christmas in 1864, Thomas pulled together men from five states to defeat Hood at the battle of Nashville. Shortly afterward, Hood was relieved of command, though he bitterly denied any fault.

In many ways, Hood was symbolic of the Confederacy in the last part of the war,” Buell says. Like the Confederacy, Hood was terribly crippled by the end. He had lost a leg at Chickamauga and lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg, but he still fought.

Hood’s leadership was also representative of the Confederacy, Buell says. Superb as a division and brigade commander, he never successfully made the transition to commanding large forces. And, like many Confederates, he used the same outdated tactics at the end of the war that he had used at the beginning. Despite some spectacular early successes, his adherence to tradition ultimately cost him his army.

Both sides made many terrible mistakes,” Buell says. “Still, it’s amazing the Civil War generals did as well as they did. The largest unit anyone had commanded was a regiment of a thousand men. Within months they were commanding brigades and divisions orders of magnitude larger.”

Francis Channing Barlow, the Puritan
John Brown Gordon, the Cavalier

Many lower-ranking generals were like Barlow and Gordon, volunteer officers without previous military experience. The good ones, Buell says, quickly became combat heroes and rose in rank.

Gordon was charismatic—the Confederate cavalier, who, before battle, gave dramatic speeches invoking God, country, and honor, Buell says. Years later, he would serve as governor and then senator of Georgia and would help start the Ku Klux Klan.

Barlow was the Northern Puritan—serious and severe, constantly seeking perfection, Buell says. After the war, as attorney general of New York, he convicted the political gangster William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall.

The generals faced each other in combat many times: at the battle of the Seven Days and at Antietam in 1862, then at Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, and, finally, at Appomattox in 1865, when Gordon served under Lee and Barlow under Grant.

Buell says both men fought the traditional way at first: their troops advanced in formation and stood in the open to fire. Barlow eventually mastered the use of cover for skirmishes. And though Gordon never completely abandoned the “drum rolling, flag flying” approach, Buell says, the general led some surprise attacks similar to commando raids later used in World War II.

Both men were fearless and learned fast—born leaders, Buell says. Before he was 30 years old, Barlow commanded the largest division of the Union Army, the First Division of the Second Corps—the 8,000-man spearhead of Grant’s 1864 campaign. Similarly, at age 32, Gordon took over a corps in Lee’s army.

Despite their different styles, both Barlow and Gordon instilled discipline and loyalty in their troops. And both qualities were critical because their men were always on the front lines. “You knew if you worked for Barlow or Gordon, your chances of getting hit on the battlefield were pretty high,” Buell says. In fact, both generals were wounded terribly during the war.

Another factor in their success seems to have been their intrepid wives, who followed them from battle to battle, Buell says. Though accustomed to New York intellectual circles, Arabella Barlow became a front-line nurse, caring for her husband and other wounded soldiers until she died of typhus in 1864. Celebrated for scrounging materials for makeshift hospitals, she was nicknamed “The Raider.”

Arabella Barlow was every bit as brave as her husband,” Buell says. “When he was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg, she went behind enemy lines to look for him. She got Confederate soldiers to escort her, even to look for him themselves.”

Fanny Gordon was just as courageous and devoted, Buell says. Though she could not be a battlefield nurse because of Southern custom, she tended to her husband whenever he got sick or wounded.

There’s a story about Fanny at the battle of Winchester,” Buell says. “Gordon’s troops were taking a beating and starting to flee. Fanny was out there on the streets shouting at the soldiers, ‘Go back to the front lines, you cowards! Turn around and fight!’”

Buell says it wasn’t unusual for women to be in the camps. Many of those who cooked, washed, and ran hospitals were enlisted men’s wives. But to go out on the battlefield to the extent that Fanny Gordon and Arabella Barlow did was extraordinary.

Thomas Buell, the Scholar

Though Buell’s findings often buck conventional wisdom, he says he didn’t start with that intention. He just wanted to discover the story of the Civil War for himself.

He began by going back to traditional historical sources, such as published collections of Grant and Lee’s letters and the government’s official records—many of which he found at UNC-CH’s Davis Library.

I didn’t gain startling insights by finding a trunk of previously unknown letters in somebody’s attic,” Buell says. “I used the same materials everyone else did.”

The difference, he says, was that he read with an open mind. And though he expected some of his ideas, particularly those about Lee, to be unpopular, he says he never considered holding them back.

When a historian, or any scholar, finds what he thinks is the truth, he has an obligation to share it, without concern for how favorable the reaction will be,” he says. “That is the scholar’s role: to uncover new knowledge and make it accessible to others.”