Monday, 24 March 2014
General John Buford (Book Review)
I’ve long been interested in the career of John Buford (and a few others come to that). He was a Federal cavalry commander during the American Civil War who appears now and then in accounts of the campaigns in the eastern theatre and is probably most commonly associated with the action at Brandy Station and the first day or Gettysburg. So, when I espied a biography about him I thought I’d give it a go.
General John Buford: A Military Biography, Edward G. Longacre (De Capo Press 2003 edition)
Longacre has an strangely formal style of writing which often lapses into an almost conversational tone. When he adopts his academic persona the text is sometimes confusing and contains its share of malapropisms. However, despite the occasional head scratch, it’s an undemanding read.
There’s a dearth of maps and those that are included aren’t particularly good. There are only two tactical maps of any value and the maps in general are badly placed within the text. For example, the map entitled ‘Stoneman’s Raid (Buford’s Column)’ appears nine pages before the relevant passage. Also, keep a bookmark on the map on page 88 – you’re going to use that a lot.
This is a military biography, not a campaign history and it’s obviously difficult to separate the two. However, the book falls down in three respects:
Having declared in his introduction that “I also feared that a notorious scarcity of first person sources – especially the lack of a substantial body of Buford papers – would prevent the development of a fully rounded life study” (p11), this doesn’t deter him from loading the book with speculation and hypotheses. For instance, he treats us to three pages of conjecture about Hooker’s appointments to his new cavalry corps which came into being on 5th February 1863.
Secondly, despite his biographical information, Longacre really shouldn’t claim to be a military historian. I’ve already referred to the map problem, but this is aggravated by poor descriptions of manoeuvres and deployments. The account of the action at Lewis Ford (part of the Second Battle of Bull Run, 30th August 1862) appears at first to be packed with information, but the lack of a map and what turns out to be a fairly hazy description left it to me to make a rough sketch map of my own. Unsurprisingly, the action at Brandy Station and the first day of Gettysburg are covered more thoroughly as they’re among the most famous and well documented fights of the war.
Finally, Longacre can be a little vague on dates. Phrases such as “in the middle of the month” and “by the end of that month” take the place of a more accurate calendar.
So, why spend ten English pounds on the book? Well, as I said earlier, I’ve had an interest in Buford as a commander for a while and this seemed to be a good opportunity to learn more about him. I should have paid more attention to the reviews on Amazon.
Although Sam Elliott’s portrayal of him in ‘Gettysburg’ might at first seem two dimensional (in a two dimensional film!), it appears to be fairly accurate: John Buford doesn’t come across as one of life’s more gregarious types. Though thoroughly professional, an obvious ‘leader of men’ and very good at his job as he undoubtedly was, you’d probably give him a swerve in the canteen unless you wanted to talk about work all lunchtime. Nevertheless, despite my criticisms, I think the book was worth buying. It does tell you more about the man than you could pick up from accounts of campaigns and engagements and it does give you things to think about despite its inability to qualify as an authoritative work. However, it does make sense to scout round to find a decent second hand copy. I’d probably score it 5/10 because it’s a rare subject; 6/10 if you bought me a pint.