Civil War generals: Union got better ones time went on?

I’ve been reading a bit about the Late Unpleasantness, and one comment I saw was that the CSA started out with better generals, but as time went on, they didn’t develop new ones, while the USA generals weren’t very good to start with, but gradually they developed new ones, like Grant.

Is that a fair assessment? if so, how come? was Lincoln better than Davis at recognizing talent?

As in everything about the war, the USA had more options than the CSA. The CSA may have had better talent at the top, a possibility I’m not yet willing to concede, but there was a lot more talent on the USA’s side.

Besides, was the talent on the CSA side that good? Sure, Lee and Jackson were brilliant. But were Longstreet, Forrest and Jackson really that good? Or were they just people pushed into acts of desperation that worked and boosted their reputations? How much of that perceived brilliance was Lee’s direction of lesser men?

were there two Jacksons with the CSA?

Probably the opposite. Union generals got better because there was nowhere to go but up. Confederate generals got worse because there was nowhere to go but down.

Let’s pretend that you and I are both baseball managers with a 25 player roster. I put my 9 worst players on the field and you put your 9 best. Over the season, injury and sheer ineptness force me to replace my worst players with their ‘backups’ who are actually better players. At the same time, injuries would force you to replace your best players with backups. Over the season, your team will be worse and mine better, but not because of my managing skill, but in spite of it.

Stonewall Jackson as an example is widely regarded as one of the best tacticians that has ever existed. There’s not a way to replace that kind of loss in the talent pool. Grant on the other hand is still studied for his strategy at Vicksburg. Why the heck was he a subordinate in a western campaign?

So why did the Union start with the better generals as back-ups, and the poorer generals as starters?

And also, why didn’t the South gradually train its generals and officers to higher levels?

Because no one expected this war to drag on – it was to be decisive, and the conclusion obvious. For both sides. And they were wrong about that.

I could go off on tangents that I recall know nothing about: the Luftwaffe vs Britain, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These were supposed to be decisive acts, they weren’t, and then, gradually the opponent advanced vs an now exhausted and overdrawn enemy.

Grant getting lots of his men killed needlessly at Cold Harbor seems to speak of Union victory through superior numbers and not necessarily any improvement in general quality. Although at least there were no more Hooker-type ones either.

“Joe Hooker froze up like a pond in the dark.” - favorite quote from (I think) “The Killer Angels”.

With the exception of a handful of generals previously mentioned, I don’t think the South was all that brilliantly led (it was generally easier to defend than attack, and Northern generals were pressed to launch not very well coordinated assaults). Plus the North was weighed down by a commander (McClellan) who was good at organization but spectacularly bad at leading armies in the field.

There were certainly good generals on the Northern side (including Pap Thomas, George Meade and Phil Sheridan). It just took time for a better overall strategy and material superiority to manifest themselves.

Many of the Union’s top generals had achieved renown in the Mexican-American War, where battlefield victories were common and almost unavoidable, given the quality of the opposition. With a bit of PR support from friends in Washington, it was easy to become a people’s favorite and well-reputed military commander without having actual abilities or accomplishments, or by taking credit from subordinate officers who were doing the real work. Some of those types, most notably McClellan, froze up and failed when facing well-led, motivated opposition in battle. Lincoln had to shuffle through a lot of generals - arguably, he was too quick to make changes - to find ones who were worthy of top command, and few of those had a pre-war record that would suggest they were anywhere close to that.

A few points:

  1. Neither side “trained” their generals. They inherited whatever they had from the pre-war institutional army, which was very limited. Many of them were complete amateurs by modern standards. By the standards of the day they were merely average. Europe, for example, was absolutely overrun with incompetent officers appointed for their wealth and breeding rather than their military credentials. The Napoleonic War brought with it some changes in thinking, but it was not until the Crimean War that people seriously began to study military reforms. The war years were not long enough to grow a new general from scratch, so any new generals created had to learn OTJ.

  2. Remember that many of the most highly regarded generals in the CSA were USA general officers who chose to defect when their state seceded. It is not that the CSA has an inherently better officer corps, but rather the bad luck that seven of the eight military colleges were located in Southern states.

  3. The Southern leadership had three primary advantages. Remember that they were living and fighting in their home territory. This meant that early in the war their sustainment and logistical needs were more easily met. It also meant it was easier to fight defensively than in the offense. And lastly, the men had reputedly greater morale because they were defending their homes. It’s easier to appear more competent than your opponent when you have those advantages.

  4. As Grant pointed out, McClellan was a great mystery of the war. He’s just completely inexplicable, and his mixture of passivity, over-abundance of caution, and general ineptitude hamstrung the union army and diverted resources that could have been put to better use. His presence is just one of those inexplicable fuck-ups that so often clutters human history.

Serving as a military officer had been considered an honorable job in the south before the war. So a lot of the pre-war officer corps had been southern. The CSA got to start with a disproportionately large share of officers when the United States Army got divided up.

This imbalance was redressed as the war went on. With a war on, new officers were being created and promoted. The United States’ larger population base meant that they were capable of producing more good officers.

Another factor was that Confederate generals were leading better troops early in the war. Before the war, the United States Army had been pretty small. When the war began, the army was greatly expanded. But the United States expanded its army by creating new units and filling these units with new recruits. So the majority of American military units were made up entirely of men with no military experience from privates to NCO’s to mid-level officers. These green units were fighting alongside a small handful of pre-war units that contained all of the men who had been soldiers before the war.

The CSA didn’t have an existing army in 1860. It was building one from scratch. So all of the southern men who had pre-war military experience were divided up among all of the new units that were being filled with inexperienced recruits. The result was that Confederate military units all had a cadre of experienced soldiers who could show the new recruits how to do things. Again, this imbalance was redressed as the new recruits experienced combat and learned how to be soldiers.

McClellan wasn’t completely inept. He had a lot of good military skills. The problem was he lacked the ability to commit to a battle, which was a fatal flaw. But his competence in other areas made it difficult to see this flaw. Armies, after all, didn’t fight battles every day.

So McClellan was a good general ninety-nine percent of the time and a bad general one percent of the time. The problem was that the one percent he was bad at was the most important one percent of being a general.

Scott seems to have anticipated a long drawn out war and to have planned for it (“The Anaconda Plan”) - which made him unpopular among those who expected a short war, but the actual conduct of the war (and Union victory) followed Scott’s plan pretty closely.

An alternate history idea - Lee is offered the command of the US forces before Fort Sumter and the secession of Virginia, and once committed to the Union side, Lee remains with the Union even after secession.

The Union had another issue that hasn’t been addressed - micromanagement. They went through generals fast, not just because of quality but also because Lincoln and Congress and everybody else expected immediate and spectacular results each time. Lincoln also occasionally meddled in the strategic planning, which went as well as you might expect for somebody self-trained by reading texts on the subject of warfare.

To an extent, the best Union generals at the end of the war were a combination of the quality of their generalship and their ability (and/or luck) to navigate the politics of their era, either personally or via proxies and allies. This was also an issue on the Confederate side but to a lesser degree.

I’m sure that’s true…if a general should be judged by a single battle (and one the general himself regretted greatly in later years).

That is, compared to the overall Overland campaign including dozens of other battles in addition to the literal years of greater strategic and tactical excellence Grant demonstrated in the West, I’m sure it’s totally fair to summarize Union victory in such overly simplistic terms based on the one example.

Grant admitted that Cold Harbor was a mistake but it also had half the casualties that Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg had for the Confederates. Yet Lee usually escapes the charge of being a butcher. Grant’s success both in the West and later in the East was denigrated by both advocates of the “Lost Cause” for the South and Northern generals who were jealous of Grant.
One problem was there was an increase in the effectiveness of weapons between the Mexican war and the Civil War. It took a while (perhaps too long) for generals to figure out that mass attacks just weren’t going to work. Plus the size of the armies and casualties were far beyond what any American war had. The Battle of Shiloh had more casualties than the Revolution, War of 1812 and Mexican war combines. As James McPherson points out in “Battle Cry of Freedom” (highly recommended) there were a dozen Shilohs to follow.
I think it’s fair to say Union generalship got better. Grant started to war as a civilian, Sherman had a nervous breakdown earlier. The cavalry was poor for several years until people like Sheridan, Custer and Merritt made it into an effective fighting force. Halleck was poor at tactics but did well as a chief of staff. McLellan did build an effective army but was always scared of using it.
Another reason was both sides started the war with its military people by seniority
which meant some doddering old fools. There was political interference on both sides and some Cabinet members weren’t up to snuff. Cameron was a poor Secretary of War until replaced by Stanton: honest, hard working, capable dictatorial and paranoid

I’ve read that much of McClellan’s reluctance stemmed from his dependence on Allen Pinkerton as his spymaster. Pinkerton may have had his good points (and that’s debatable), but estimating troop sizes wasn’t one of them. He routinely oversized the strength of the Confederate armies and by huge amounts. If McClellan thought he was going up against 200,000 troops he had a right to demand more soldiers and time.

Up to a point, of course. Those numbers should have been seen as ridiculous given all the other information coming in and eventually, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” McClellan apparently wanted to win without a scratch, not to his army but to his personal self-worth. That doomed him.

But for the first couple of years, the Republicans powers-that-be loved him and hated Lincoln, who had no power base in Washington. Even when he finally had to replace McClellan they tried to crush Lincoln for his idiocy. You have to go back and try to look at the war through contemporary eyes. We see it in utterly different ways that they would find incomprehensible.

From what I’ve read, it was the other way around. McClellan had a tendency to overestimate the size of the forces he was facing and hired Pinkerton to confirm his beliefs. Pinkerton was willing to produce the intelligence that McClellan wanted to hear.

I don’t think this was as big a factor as you’re suggesting. Lincoln paid attention to politics but he was willing to set aside political (and personal) considerations when they conflicted with the best military choices. And Lincoln was willing to stand aside and let his generals do their job - as long as they showed they could do their job.

Davis was more wrapped up in political and personal considerations. And he was more inclined to step in and dictate military strategy to his generals.

Some excellent points all through this thread, I’d add a couple more; most of the Generals in the Civil War had gotten their experience in leading troops during the Mexican-American war in 1846-48. But the forces they led (usually as junior officers) were small (usually only a few thousand men in the major battles) and learning how to organize, train, provision (never ever forget logistics), lead and maneuver over 30,000 troops before and during a battle was something never before attempted by US forces (IIRC, the largest numbers Washington commanded was about 20,000 at the Battle of New York–and he got whipped). So the South getting more of the ‘experieced’ officers gave them an early lead in this effort; but McClellan and Halleck, despite their lack of Generalship in the field for the North, did do an invaluable service in organizing and maintaining the Armies that would eventually, under the leadership of Grant, Sherman, and others, win the war.

One more note on Cold Harbor; Grant’s initial maneuvers had gotten him to the place before Lee, but delays (with the Army of the Potomac there were always delays) meant the attack didn’t go when it should have, and gave lee 2 days to get ready–and his army by then (1864) knew how to throw up fieldworks fast. Grant should have called off the attack, but a combination of frustration and a gambler’s instinct (and having seen troops rout Confederates from and even tougher position–Missionary Ridge–might have given him more confidence than he should have) led him to try, with the result being a bloody repulse.

And Lincoln did replace Generals, especially in the east; but he also backed Generals who would fight to win, such as Grant after Shiloh.

There were six. The famous one and another five brigadiers. Also four Johnsons, four Johnstons, and five Jones. Not a terribly diverse lot ;).