Military history


Civil War Generalship

AMERICA WAS AWASH with generals in 1865, or at least with men who held that title. It could not have been otherwise, since the armies of both North and South had swollen to comprise dozens of corps, scores of divisions, and hundreds of brigades, command of any of which carried the title. In 1861, however, there had been almost no generals on either side. The only men holding rank as generals were a few ancients who had risen to their rank during the Mexican War or survived from even earlier conflicts. The most important in the hierarchy was Winfield Scott, general in chief of the republic and holding the rank of lieutenant general, previously only held by George Washington. He was an experienced operational commander. By 1861, however, he was eighty-five years old and too stout and feeble to mount a horse. Though his brain was keen and active, he was unable to take the field or indeed to stray far from the invalid chair in his Washington office. As the victor of the war against Mexico in 1846-48, Scott was an experienced military campaigner who also possessed, for a soldier, a high degree of political understanding, having run as the Whig candidate for the presidency in 1852. His main contributions to the conduct of the war were to counsel and encourage Lincoln, which he did with great sympathy and beneficent effect in the opening months and to frame what would become the North’s fundamental strategy, later called the Anaconda Plan. Designed to profit from the geographical advantage the North enjoyed, it envisaged cutting the Confederacy off from contact with the outside world by naval blockade, and bisecting the Confederacy by seizing control of the Mississippi River. Excellent in conception, it suffered from the defect—which was also a defect of Scott’s mind—that it fell short of promising to deliver victory. A blockaded and bisected South would be a poor South but not necessarily one deprived of the power of resistance. Scott could not accept that this constituted a fundamental weakness of his planning, since, like many Northerners, he shrank from the idea of shedding the blood of fellow Americans, nor did he want to inflict disabling damage on the economy or society of the southern states.

At the outset Lincoln shared many of Scott’s views, and himself lacked any conception of how to transform his desire to crush rebellion into military reality. His first attempt to frame a scheme of decision was far too moderate to have produced a result. It envisaged holding Fortress Monroe, the great fortified place at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, organising blockade, and then mounting a seaborne expedition to attack Charleston, South Carolina. What he needed and begged for from Scott were suggestions as to how to proceed. What he wanted were generals who would give him sound advice and then put plans successfully into action. At the outset, however, he had the greatest difficulty in finding any generals who displayed the least competence or resolution. He promoted dozens of men in 1861, though without confidence that any of them were good leaders, and often because their promotion would strengthen his political position. As a result, many of the first to put stars on their uniforms were local political bigwigs, representatives of European immigrant groups, or state officials, including governors. As he shortly discovered, however, none could offer worthwhile advice and some could not be trusted to command the formations to which they had been appointed.

The procedure for appointing generals was strangely unsystematic. Because promotion to general’s rank lay in the hands of Congress, those chosen were normally made brigadier or major generals of U.S. volunteers, which were organisations of the states, rather than in the regular army, which was a federal institution. As they took the field and if they proved their worth, they might be given regular rank, which was greatly esteemed. Grant, for example, began his general’s career as a brigadier of Illinois volunteers but was then given a commission as major general in the regular army until, in March 1864, he assumed the appointment of general in chief and the rank of lieutenant general.

As the war drew out, it became easier for Lincoln to identify which of his appointments were good ones and which merited further promotion. What Lincoln looked for in his generals was the ability to achieve results without constantly requiring guidance from Washington or reinforcement by additional troops. The war produced far too few such men. Lincoln’s first choice, Irvin McDowell, had excellent paper qualifications. He had been to a French military college, had served a year with the French army, until 1870 thought the best in the world, and had served as a staff officer under Scott in Mexico. McDowell, had he been given a properly trained army, might have proved a competent officer. In 1861, however, there were almost no properly trained soldiers or units anywhere in America and those McDowell led to drive the Confederates out of Manassas and away from Washington in July were particularly ill trained. There was nothing wrong with McDowell’s plan of action or with his execution of the opening stages of the battle. What went wrong for the Union is that its untrained soldiers panicked, after failing to carry the position held by more determined if not better trained Virginia troops, then initiated a stampede to the rear and abandoned the field to the Confederates.

McDowell, for all his credentials, could not survive such a disgrace and was swiftly removed, to be replaced by George McClellan, who had recently won a few very small battles in the western Virginia mountains. McClellan shared some of McDowell’s experience. He had been to Europe to observe the Crimean War and had also served with distinction in the Mexican War. He had more ability than McDowell, particularly in the training of troops, at which he excelled. The Yankee soldiers’ first favourite, though he never served in the West, the “Young Napoleon” was an excellent organiser and a master of the details of logistics. His armies were always well-fed and supplied and his soldiers held him in high esteem despite his insistence on strict discipline. McClellan was always popular with the troops. That was partly due to his defects as a commander. Because he did not believe in inflicting heavy costs on the enemy, his soldiers were often not pressed in battle to the point of suffering heavy losses. He also, at first, got on well with Lincoln, who admired his intellect. The era of good feeling did not last. Civilian though he was, Lincoln knew what he wanted from a principal military adviser and McClellan quickly revealed that he was not the man to supply it. Appointed to command the Union troops defending Washington in July 1861, and then promoted general in chief in November, he dissipated his and his subordinates’ energies in discussion of projects and in reorganisation during his first nine months of authority. When, in April 1862, he eventually embarked on action, he at once began to exhibit symptoms of caution and defeatism, which proved to be fundamental qualities of his character and which unfitted him for high command of any sort, let alone supreme command. The first stage of his grand strategic idea, the transshipment of the Army of the Potomac by sea and river to the Virginia Peninsula, was inspired and ought to have led on to great results. As soon as his army landed in enemy territory, however, McClellan began to torment himself with fears of being outnumbered. He also failed to do what he could easily have done had he begun forcefully and at once. Confounded by enemy entrenchments across the peninsula, he declined to storm the defences, which were weak and lightly garrisoned. Instead he began to await reinforcements from Washington. When at last the enemy abandoned his positions and began to retreat towards Richmond, McClellan followed lethargically. Though managing to achieve a small victory at Williamsburg, he eventually arrived outside the defences of Richmond in July having scarcely damaged the enemy at all. What followed was even worse than his failure to press his advance up the peninsula. He began to fight, in what would become known as the Seven Days’ Battles, but halfheartedly, so that what should have been victories ended as indecisive defeats, disabling to neither side but fatal to McClellan’s plan of defeating the Confederacy by capturing its capital. Throughout the Seven Days, he pestered Washington with requests for reinforcements, predicting disaster unless he was given more troops. Eventually, he was ordered by Halleck, his successor as general in chief, to withdraw the army by ship from the peninsula and bring it back to Washington. Once arrived he persisted in his distaste for decision by failing to come to the support of General John Pope, who was thereby exposed to defeat at the second battle of Manassas. In its aftermath Lee resumed his advance northwards until brought to battle at Sharpsburg, or Antietam Creek. Antietam was a battle McClellan should have won, since he outnumbered Lee several times. He frittered away the advantage, however, in piecemeal attacks, and although the result was a sort of Union victory, McClellan’s refusal to pursue the badly shaken Confederates resulted in their escape. Antietam was the end of McClellan’s military career. In November 1862 he was removed from command.

McClellan’s failure in generalship cannot be ascribed to the actions of the enemy but to his own defects of character. His was a curious mixture of high self-regard and disabling anxiety. However many troops he was given he always chose to believe that the enemy had more and was receiving reinforcements which exceeded in number any he was offered. This was a form of moral cowardice. But it was also an effect of his professionalism. His armies were so well organised that he shrank from exposing them to anything that would disorganise their perfect order, as battle was bound to do. Convinced of his personal superiority over all others on the Union side, including the president, he took his failures as proof of their failure to support him. McClellan, a brilliant organiser who retained to a surprising degree the confidence and affection of his men, may be thought the worst general of the war and his reputation has suffered greatly in the war’s aftermath, yet his is one of the most interesting psychological cases in military history: a first-class military mind capable of achieving great results at leisure but utterly incapable of overcoming difficulty, even, perhaps particularly, imagined difficulty. Without being wholly incompetent, he threw away any chance he was given, wasted time when circumstances were in his favour, and shrank from delivering decisive blows in battle even when events were running his way. It is fortunate that he was never asked to exercise authority in the West, since he was constitutionally incapable of achieving such victories as those at Forts Henry and Donelson, let alone of recovering from a setback such as the first day at Shiloh.

He is most obviously contrasted with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who possessed the qualities he lacked and though indeed often outnumbered had the gift of compensating for numerical weakness by striking savage and unexpected blows. Jackson’s virtues are easy to enumerate. He had an acute topographical sense, enabling him in the complex geography of the Shenandoah Valley to read the lay of the land as if by instinct. He also had an empathetic understanding of how his enemy would react and how his movements would conform to the geographical accidents of the campaign theatre. His philosophy of war was to establish psychological superiority by surprising, mystifying, and misleading his opponent, which he succeeded in doing on occasion after occasion. He succeeded because he was utterly without fear or self-doubt. He was not, however, without faults, notably those of aloofness and secretiveness. He did not explain himself to his subordinates or take them into his confidence, with the result that, when he was not present in person, his plans could miscarry. Generally reckoned the war’s supreme practitioner of battlefield command and an undoubted master of manoeuvre in small theatres of action, he was not really a general of the highest gifts. His talents were for operations outside the centre of events. Moreover, he was a bad subordinate, sometimes, as at the opening of the Seven Days’ Battles, declining to obey orders or to coordinate his movements with those of his superior. He also preferred improvised arrangements to conformity to a system. Thus, before Chancellorsville, he used a clergyman as his chief of staff, without broadcasting the appointment to his subordinates, an obvious recipe for confusion and misunderstanding. A deeply devout Christian and member of the Presbyterian Church, he was Calvinist in his outlook, both as an individual and as a military commander, since preordination influenced all his judgements. When slightly but painfully wounded at First Manassas, he revealed to a subordinate who was sympathising with him about his injury but also questioning him about the wellsprings of his evident courage that he refused to fuss about the risks he ran in the presence of the enemy because he said the time of his death was fixed by God and that there was therefore no point in feeling fear. He said he felt no more fear on the battlefield than he did settling to sleep in his own bed, and that all men should feel the same, in which case all would be equally courageous. Jackson’s supreme lack of anxiety, both under fire and in decision-making, assured him a unique place among Civil War generals, indeed among generals of any army or nationality. He was certainly a very great general, if of a somewhat limited sort.

Of the South’s other generals, few deserve great reputation. Beauregard was a reliable commander of the middle rank. Braxton Bragg, despite his notorious bad temper and general unlovability, was at about the same level. Joseph Johnston was the superior of both in intellect but, though he proposed a grand strategy for the South which was conceded by Grant to have offered the chance of prolonging the successful defence of the Confederacy’s land area, did not bring and could not have brought the South victory. Johnston advocated fighting defensive battles and surrendering territory if attacked in such force as to threaten heavy casualties. When in command in Georgia in 1864 he practised what he preached. The defect in Johnston’s otherwise sensible scheme was that the South had a finite amount of territory to surrender and that, if adopted, the plan would eventually have transferred the territory of the Confederacy to the Union armies without cost. Though not the author of any strategic plan, Bragg must be recognised as a considerable military intellect. Had he possessed a more cooperative character, instead of always getting onto bad terms with subordinates, equals, and superiors, he might have achieved much for the South.

The North never produced an equivalent to Jackson, which was one reason for the psychological dominance he consistently exercised over his opponents. No Union general ever matched him in his ability to inspire his soldiers or win their affection, which allowed him to extract from them feats of endurance unequalled by any other units or formations, North or South. Jackson had little or no strategic vision and poor powers of analysis, but in a small theatre whose geography he understood he was almost invincible. Unlike Sherman, however, he bequeathed no legacy of generalship. His talents were too personal and too momentary in effect to be formalised into an operational system and though he was to be imitated and admired for generations to come, his achievements could not be turned into lessons or methods for would-be imitators.

Jackson was the complement to Robert E. Lee, whom he served with great loyalty, perhaps because he was impressed, as a deeply devout Christian, by Lee’s purity of character. Even as war broke out, Lee was regarded in both North and South as the most eminent soldier in the country. This was due in large measure to his character and personality, as a great southern gentleman, as head of one of the First Families of Virginia. Lee was offered command of the Union army but chose instead to lead Virginia’s troops. He had been an outstanding cadet at West Point and a successful engineer officer and had served with distinction in Mexico. Curiously, he did not enjoy a successful start in the Civil War. He was nevertheless chosen to replace Joseph E. Johnston, wounded in the Seven Days’ Battles as President Jefferson Davis’s principal military adviser, and given command of the Army of Northern Virginia, which he held to the war’s end, then with the additional title of commander in chief. Lee’s great talents were as a tactician rather than as a strategist. His strategic views were rather narrow. He really had only one stroke of strategic inspiration throughout the war, which was to carry the war onto Northern soil in 1863, with the objects of relieving Virginia of the burden of being fought over, profiting from the supplies which were to be captured, and raising Southern spirits and depressing those of the North. Lee’s generalship, like Jackson’s, was too personal to be formalised as an operational method. Moreover, it was derivative, based on Napoleon’s achievements; Lee believed that the pursuit of victory was the true strategy and that victory was best attained by inflicting crushing defeats on the enemy in the style of Austerlitz or Jena, Napoleon’s great victories over the Austrians and the Prussians. Those were the victories taught and studied at West Point, and Lee was responsible for achieving at least two in that pattern, Chancellorsville and Second Manassas. Though Lee was a “creative” imitator of Napoleon, he cannot really be credited with any originality. On a battlefield, by contrast, Lee fizzed with ideas which he conceived at high speed and carried out with extreme despatch. That was particularly evident at Chancellorsville, his military masterpiece, where he deliberately broke several fundamental rules of generalship and yet achieved a striking victory.

Lee’s greatest gifts of generalship were quick and correct decision-making in the face of the enemy, exploitation of his enemy’s mistakes, and economic handling of the force available to him. His defects were excessive sensitivity to the feelings of his subordinates and a failure to insist upon his own judgement, both of which emanated from his breeding as a Virginia gentleman. His defeat at Gettysburg stemmed largely from his failure to give direct orders to Longstreet and to insist on their being carried out. Lee was undoubtedly a very great soldier and a formidable opponent. He was also, however, a great gentleman and an indulgent colleague, qualities which could detract from his powers of will and decision.

Lee’s generalship was enhanced by the inferiority of his opponents during the first two years of war. McClellan simply was not his match in mental firmness or power of decision. In Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg, he met a man who equalled him in efficiency, if not in imagination or daring, but it was not until Grant came east in 1864 that he was challenged by someone of equal, indeed superior, quality. Grant was the greatest general of the war, one who would have excelled at any time in any army. He understood the war in its entirety and quickly grasped how modern methods of communication, particularly the telegraph and the railroads, had endowed the commander with the power to collect information more quickly and the means to disseminate appropriate orders in response. Once his qualities became apparent, as they had by 1862, he rose very quickly, to the surprise of his West Point contemporaries. Nothing in his earlier life had marked him out as exceptional; indeed the contrary was the case. The son of a moderately prosperous Illinois family, he was nominated to West Point against his will, and while a cadet he followed with hope and interest a congressional debate on closing the academy down. He excelled at his studies, particularly in mathematics, and hoped on graduation to find employment as a professor, but academy routine carried him into the army, in which he served successfully in the war against Mexico, of which he strongly disapproved, believing it to be an aggressive and immoral conflict. After the war he was posted to California, where, separated from his beloved wife, Julia Dent, he took to drink and disputation with his seniors, which led to his resignation from the army. He was unsuccessful in civilian life, failing as a farmer and in commerce and being reduced eventually to working as a clerk in his father’s tannery.

Redemption came with the outbreak of the Civil War. Grant’s military training and experience proved to be in demand, and enlisted by the governor of Illinois to help organise the state’s volunteers, he got command of a regiment, which he commanded successfully in local action. Grant proved an efficient organiser of men, then in an early action a decisive and successful commander with remarkable intellectual powers, including the gift of dictating clear orders without hesitation in a steady stream. He was quickly advanced from colonel’s to brigadier’s rank and given larger powers in the campaign on the lower Mississippi. His victories at Forts Henry and Donelson brought him to the attention of Lincoln and ensured the acceleration of his career. By 1864, when he had overseen a string of western victories, including Shiloh and the capture of Vicksburg, he was widely recognised as the best Union general, brought to Washington, and appointed general in chief, thus embarking on a new passage, against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln had decided he was indispensable. To a critic, the president riposted, “I need this man; he fights.”

In the West, Grant won success by risk-taking and unceasing aggressiveness, but his soldiers paid the price. Most of Grant’s battles were costly in casualties. He retained nevertheless his men’s confidence and devotion, and eventually he came to be almost venerated by his soldiers, who would gather in silent groups to watch him walk past. Grant seemed at home in the West. He applied his keen sense of topography to its sinuous rivers and jumbled hills and mountains and never seems to have been confused by their complexity. He certainly did not allow difficulties of terrain to interfere with the supply of his troops, which was never interrupted even during the most difficult passages of his campaigns. In the struggle to capture Chattanooga, the key railroad junction that was vital to the South to maintain communication between the southwestern and northeastern regions of the Confederacy, when for a time the Union army was constricted in its line of supply, Grant succeeded in rapidly opening the “Cracker Line” to furnish his troops with basic necessities and then in restoring supply in amplitude. Grant had a philosophy of war, which was to keep the enemy under relentless pressure at all points and to fight whenever opportunity offered. This style of generalship tried his men very hard. Indeed, without the assurance of frequent reinforcement, Grant would have had to desist from his desire to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before its destruction was achieved. Grant’s reputation was made late.

It was greatly to Grant’s advantage that he was served by subordinates of talent, with whom he established cordial personal relations. That was particularly so with Sherman and Sheridan. Sherman was a sort of alter Grant, having the same aggressiveness and relentlessness, though he went even further than Grant in his belief in the moral effect of offensive force on the enemy’s will to resist. Sherman resembled Grant in his originality; his determination to attack the spirit of the Southern people was an entirely novel approach to war-making and anticipated the technique of psychological warfare as employed by twentieth-century European commanders fighting against national liberation movements in post-1945 colonial campaigns. Sherman came to believe that the South could only be beaten if its people were made to suffer both in body and spirit. By destroying their source of wealth and ruining their means of livelihood, he convinced himself, and eventually his superiors and his own soldiers that the rebels would repent and relapse into inactivity. Sherman applied his philosophy of destruction and spoliation first in Georgia, then in the Carolinas, and it worked as he believed it would. It is not surprising that he has been made the object of study by modern strategic analysts in America and abroad. He also showed something of Grant’s gifts of communication, quickness of decision, and ruthless analysis of the military situation. Though not as gifted a writer as Grant, Sherman composed several aphorisms about war which have passed into the anthologies. His most considered statement of his beliefs was “we are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as the organised armies.”

Sherman and Grant were the two outstanding generals of the war. Sherman’s legacy was the more lasting since his style of war-making, brutal and decisive, was highly imitable. As a battlefield commander, however, Grant was the more able, with higher achievements and more decisive victories to his credit.

Sheridan, Grant’s cavalry commander in the East during the last year of the war, owed much to Grant’s sponsorship and, like him, had an unpromising start. His first appointment was as a quartermaster officer, but he excelled at the unglamorous duties of supply in a war where supply was of paramount importance. He also later demonstrated unequalled powers of leadership, by personal example and vivid inspiration, as during the campaign against Early in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

Grant even succeeded in keeping on terms with General Meade, a notoriously cantankerous man with reason for dissatisfaction, after Grant ranked him as general in chief and then established his headquarters with Meade’s personal command, the Army of the Potomac. Thereafter Grant was consistently credited with successes that rightly belonged to Meade, causing disgruntlement that the latter regularly communicated to his wife. Meade could not, however, be deprived of the credit for having won Gettysburg, a distinction which perhaps supplied the basis on which they maintained their equable relationship. Meade was not a great general, but he was sound, and efficient.

In panoramic view, it remains remarkable that, out of a body of trained officers not more than 3,000 strong, America should have produced between 1861 and 1865 two unquestionably great soldiers, Grant and Sherman, of whom Sherman was also a visionary. Just below their level it also produced a gifted battle-winner in Lee, who would have shone in any of the contemporary European wars of manoeuvre. Not far below them in workaday talent belonged the resolute George Thomas and such exotics as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the self-taught genius of cavalry raiding, J. E. B. Stuart, Philip Sheridan, and the Cromwellian Stonewall Jackson. The American Civil War continues to provide a wealth of material for the study of generalship of the highest order.

Temperament, a factor in human affairs widely ignored by professional historians, was of the greatest importance in distinguishing the good from the bad, the effective from ineffective, among generals of the Civil War.

It was most notable in the case of McClellan, who provides material almost for a clinical study in the psychology of generalship. He was an extraordinary mixture of timidity and overweening self-importance, always overcome by self-doubt and anxiety in the face of the enemy, combined with tiresome belief in his superiority over all the colleagues with whom he worked during the war, from Lincoln downwards. He was not alone in his capacity for self-doubts. Halleck, too, found his enthusiasm for battle strongly diminished the closer he approached the enemy. Hooker suffered from the same disability. In the opinion of Professor T. Harry Williams, an excellent judge of the Civil War generals’ characters, Hooker lacked the ability to make war “on the map.” He functioned well only as long as his troops were under his eye. Once they moved beyond his field of vision, he lost the power to visualise their whereabouts. A contrast to Hooker was William Rosecrans, who also failed when action promised. His fault, however, was not timidity, but overexcitement. A great talker, he would work up a head of steam while he outlined his plans; his excitement grew as he listened to himself so that he lost his composure and, with it, his ability to implement his plans. He was successful as a junior commander of small forces, but in a major command he never brought off a great project. John Pope, too, was a great talker, who greatly impressed the world of Washington in 1862. Pope was always promising to fight and looked as if he would, being tall and of impressive appearance. But he too was afflicted by ineffectiveness; a later fault of Pope’s was quarrelsomeness. He got on the wrong side of McClellan, his direct superior in Virginia in 1862, and never re-established good relations. Pope was not as quarrelsome as Don Carlos Buell, who differed with any colleague he had and also failed in all his enterprises. Curiously, he was liked by McClellan, perhaps because he never threatened to be a rival in any respect.

The two consistently successful generals of the war, Grant and Sherman, were blessed with equable temperaments. Close friends, they cooperated admirably and avoided quarrelling with others. Grant even kept his temper with McClernand, who, in his egotism, would have tried the patience of a saint. In his frenzy to have the reputation he thought he deserved, he tried to intrigue his way into command on the Mississippi. He magnified every encouragement Lincoln gave him until he eventually overstepped the boundary of military propriety and gave Grant incontestable grounds to remove him for insubordination, thus sparing Lincoln, who valued his political connections in the Midwest, the need to do so.

Lincoln, a totally inexperienced commander in chief, was confronted from the onset of his presidency by a kaleidoscope of temperamental difficulties among his military helpmeets which would have brought down a lesser person. The verdict on the military leadership of the Union during the Civil War is that there was too much personality in play and far too little talent. Only Lincoln showed greatness from beginning to end. It was a war caused by his election and ultimately won by his capacity for compromise, an unexpected strategic skill.

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