The South Did Not Have Better Generals

As an offshoot of John Corrado’s thread on the sorry state of our students, I thought I’d offer this thread as an arena to spar over the Most Important Question Ever.

Which side had the better generals, North or South?

(That would be in the American Civil War. Just wanted to make that clear for all us Americans out there [wink].)

I think that it’s pretty fair to say that the North started off slow, but kicked ass come Act 3, due in large part to superior leadership.

We can directly see how many of the “best” generals on each side fared against each other: Sheridan kicked Jubal Early’s ass in the final Valley Campaign; Sherman kicked Joseph E. Johnston’s ass in the march to the sea; Grant kicked Lee’s ass, and won the war.

Moreover, the “Southern example” of gallantry in the field led to the death or injury of an astonishing number of excellent and promising leaders, far more than the North suffered (77 KIA/DOW for the South versus 47 for the North). Albert Sidney Johnston, “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and A.P. Hill, all corps commanders or higher, bought it. Joseph E. Johnston, Jubal Early, Dick Ewell, and James Longstreet were all wounded and had to spend extended periods of time off the field. Lee himself had to be physically prevented from suicidally exposing himself–twice. Whatever advantage this may have conferred upon Southern troops was as often as not negated by confusion on the battlefield as Southern command structure evolved quite literally in real-time.

Furthermore, the North ruthlessly sacked its bad generals (many of them, anyway), while the South merely shuffled the bad ones around to places where they could do the least harm. Southern promotion was rigidly based upon seniority, rather than ability.

And finally, the South lost. While some might assert the overwhelming odds that the South faced in their battle for independence, that does not excuse the fact that the North implemented a modern battle plan which would exploit its own advantages, and finally made it work in late 1864/early 1865.

So there, I’ve said it. What say you?

The North loses, in my opinion. Two years of muddling about with no better strategy than General-of-the-Week is not impressive. It took Lincoln and the boys that long to realize they would have to crush the South, not duel it in a gentlemanly manner. If they’d even halfway followed the Anaconda plan from the beginning… sigh.

The South did more with less, though the inept bungling of McCellan, Burnside, Hood and others in the East agruably made it a lot easier for Lee & co to look brilliant. Forrest is a better example - I wonder what would have happened had he been given larger forces.

  1. They DID follow the anaconda plan from the beginning. That was the strategy for the entire war, tand it was a good one. Just because a plan doesn not work immediately doesn’t mean the actors failed to use it.

    If you’d looked at you history closer, Barton, you’d notice that the General of the week program (I like that phrase! :slight_smile: ) was because the top commanders in the US Army weren’t up to snuff at the start of the war. This may seem to support Bart’s idea, but give it a minute:

    First, the South had a certain chivalric tradition and military service was considerably more honored there. Hence, a disproportionately large segment of the officer corps went Southern, including many of the best and brightest young officers. In the North, those men might have been captains of industry rather soldiers.

    Lee certainly was the best active General at the start. He had as much experience as any field commander, and poved a capable leader… on the defense.
    Defending the Civil War, was, baring a complete mismatch in force, simply too easy. The introduction of rifles meant that old tactics were out-of-date, and in this case, lead to pointless attacks which failed time and time again. Lee proved himself incompetant for leading an offensive campaign, where he would be expected to attack. Twice, at Gettysburg and Antietam, he found himself humiliated and evaded complete destruction only by incompetance of the commanding Union General.

    Here’s an interesting idea for you: Grant, Sherman and co. were better than Lee not because they were outright more adapted to combat, but because they worked their way up the ranks. What made them better was their experience as lower-level officers. Grant had to start out with a Liutenancy or Coloncy in the militia or Army (its complicated), and his experiences taught him how to use his forces better. In short, much like Ludedorff ain WW1, Grant understood the technology of his era and applied it. Although the defense still seemed stronger than the offense, He could find a way to slowly beat the Army of Virginia back.

    Although the General of the Week rogram wasn’t ideal, it provided a way for eventually finding a skilled officer. The South lost huge chunks of territory and defensive positions early on because of poor leadership in the West and North (i.e, Tennessee to Missouri to Texas).

In the end, the South stepped up to the plate with a good lineup, but via changing pitchers, the North found better ones.

I’d call it a draw. The top Union commanders were about as incompetent as they come for the first couple years. McClellan was so bad he should have been shot for dereliction of duty. Grant and Lee were top-notch generals, however, and quite a few of the Union’s lower-ranking generals were excellent.

On the other hand, Southern generalship is vastly overrated. When you’re fighting a defensive war, it’s not all that hard to fight to a draw, which is essentially what the South did again and again in the first couple years. But if you’re going to win a war against a foe with superior manpower and resources, you’ve got to do more than just hold your own in trading shots, and there’s scant evidence that the Confederates were all that good at going on the offense.

I think the north’s victory was not so much the caliber of its generals, but the number of troops in the field. Northern troops outnumbered Souths more than two to one.


Not true.

Joe Johnston faced Sherman during Sherman’s attempt to march from Knoxville to Atlanta. While it’s true that Johnston never ‘defeated’ Sherman, Johnston’s constant blocking of Sherman’s path and withdrawal just before Sherman finally managed to flank him slowed Sherman’s advance to a crawl while losing few soldiers. Had Johnston been allowed to continue with this plan, it’s doubtful Sherman would have made it to Atlanta before the November '64 election- and given that Sherman’s taking of Atlanta was the impetus for Radical Republican candidate John C. Fremont to withdraw from the race and throw his support to Lincoln, one can argue that there’s a strong possibility that McClellan would have been elected President, with possibly peace talks to follow.

Unfortunately, Joe Johnston was replaced by John Bell Hood because Jefferson Davis wanted a ringing victory in the field, and Sherman kicked Hood’s ass up one side, down the other, and all through Georgia.

Tactically, Lee performed much better than Grant ever did; Union losses always outnumbered Confederate losses, and the Confederates never had a disaster like Cold Harbor. But Lee had already been defeated strategically by the time Grant took command- the march through Georgia and cutting the Confederacy in twain made Lee’s future efforts futile.

Sorry, Sofa- the deaths of Confederate generals in battle had far more to do with damned poor luck than it did with some suicidal but gallant desire to lead the troops into battle. Given the problems of communication, headquarters were almost always right near the front, with inevitable disastrous results- results that happened to the Union just as well. For example, Hooker being cold-cocked by falling masonry at Chancellorsville, Schoenfield being killed when his position finally fell to Hood’s army, Schimmelpfenning spending three days hiding under a trough in a pig sty because his troops had abandoned him in the retreat (admittedly, Schimmelpfenning’s absence was no real loss). Sherman had six horses shot out from under him during the course of the battle, more than any non-cavalry Confederate general. Nathaniel Lyon- considered the man who saved Missouri from the Confederacy- was killed in the first real battle he took part in.

I’ll admit that there were futile acts of bravery by Confederate leaders late in the war, but that falls into “desperate times and desperate measures”, and by which time the course of the war had pretty much been determined.

Bwa-hah! Bwa-hah! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

If the North “ruthlessly” sacked its bad generals rather than shuffling them around, please explain to me why Benjamin Butler and Ambrose Burnside were still commanding officers in charge of troops at the end of the war. Or why Fremont still had a commission in late '62, after being humiliated by Jackson and being nothing but a political liability in Missouri. Or why McClellan was left in command of the Army of the Potomac after the misery that was the Norfolk campaign. Or why Banks was allowed to embark on the disastrous Red River campaign after showing he didn’t have a freaking clue two years earlier in the Valley Campaign.

I’ll agree with you that the North came up with a plan and followed it, while the South never did- but I don’t attribute that to a failure of individual generals, I attribute that to a failure of government leadership. Lincoln as a war president was focused and on top of the situation without micromanaging; Davis as a war president was unfocused and constantly interfering with the plans of the generals.

I look at it this way- the South had more truly brilliant generals (Jackson, Lee, J. Johnston, Forrest vs. Sherman, Grant) and the North had more horribly incompetent generals (Fremont, Banks, Butler, Burnside vs. Bragg, Van Dorn). I feel this gives, on average, the South the edge in generalship.

To essay a baseball metaphor, if you are managing the '62 Mets against the '27 Yankees, losing a best-of-seven set in six games is pretty darn good managing – because you are not evenly matched. Lee was an exceedingly competent general at making the most of the resources he had – that was in essence why the war took four years. Joe Johnson was also fairly good at minimizing losses, though by no means as good as Lee (but he did hold out longer). Some Northern generals were, at best, incompetent; others were excellent at their job. Specific comparisons are a problem, since what a given Brigadier General did as commander of one wing in a battle does not match what a given Major General did as supreme commander of a superior force in a different battle under different circumstances somewhere else.

However, doing a South-North competition and restricting it exclusively to the Late Unpleasantness is not quite kosher.

What about George Washington, Francis Marion, or George C. Marshall, and how they compared to George Patton or Omar Bradley? And what criteria do you use to weight their skills against each other?

McClellan wasn’t incompetant per se. He was a superior builder of armies, he just was mortally afraid of using the beautiful armies he built. He failed in the one over-riding maixim of Generalship: To be a good general, you have to be willing to use men, to the point of using them up, if need be. McClellan didn’t want to send his ‘boys’ to die.

Once relagated to training troops, McClellan provided superior service.

The largest part of the Army’s leadership was southern, at the start of the war, and the largest portion of them went with their home states. Yup, at the begining of the war, the Confederacy had the largest population of trainied, blooded generals. What people forget is that the Union had to replace not just the bodies, but also the experience that had gone south. That takes time.

I’m actually of the opinion that even up to the very end, the ballance of the Confederacy’s officer corps was probably superior to the Unions corps (although the gap was closing fast). Some Union Generals were very good indeed, but even the ones that were overmatched had one overwhelming factor in their favor: God is on the side of the big battalions. A good general with a large and well-equipped force will eventually beat a better general with a smaller, less-well equipped force, unless the smaller force can carry off an exploit (while avoiding poor luck; such as getting caught in a meeting engagement with superior numbers while trying for a coup de main). Grant was always going to beat Lee, because while Grant was fair offensive officer, and a good siege officer, Lee was always weaker in his defensive skills than his offensive skills, and was out-numbered while being forced to defend a fixed objective. In this kind of situation, the big force always wins, provided no bone-head mistakes are made. It’s just a question of time.

Sherman, meanwhile, had almost free-rein, giving him the initiative. Despite having larger numbers and initiative, the south still put a spirited defense in his way for some time.

I’m not prepared to call any general on either side of the Civil War a genius OR an idiot. I DO think the OP has a point, however. Basic history textbooks in the North AND in the SOuth seem to take it for granted that Union generals (especially in the early days of the war) were utter screw-ups, while Southern generals were brilliant leaders of men.

Why is this pat, wrong-headed notion so widespread? Several reasons:

  1. Southerners have always romanticized the Civil War far more than Northerners. They idolize Confederate heroes far more than Northerners ever did.

  2. Far too many people buy into the notion that a Union victory in the Civil War should have been easy and swift. After all the North had more money, more men, and (in the opinion of latter-day Northern historians) a throroughly virtuous cause). By this line of reasoning, Union generals who DIDN’T achieve quick, easy victories must have been cowards or incompetents… or else, the Southern generals must have been military masterminds.

  3. We forget the old football maxim that “You’re never as smart as you look when you win, and you’re never as dumb as you look when you lose.” SOMETIMES, you can do everything right and still fail. And SOMETIMES, people make disastrous decisions for reasons that make perfect sense. As Tom Clancy likes to remind people, virtually all the most disastrous decisions in history were made by brilliant men- which is only logocal, since dolts don’t get trusted with the kind of important decisions that CAN lead to catastrophes.

I think most Northern historians are far too eager to praise Lincoln, and to mock George MacClellan (whom Robert E. Lee considered, by far, the best of the Union’s generals). Lincoln seemed to think that his undermanned, underequipped army should simply stroll into Richmond. MacClellan knew better. His much-derided caution was usually justified. Intelligence was hard to come by in those days, and he wasn’t prepared to launch huge offensives when he couldn’t be sure what he was up against.

In hindsight, we now know there were times when his caution was unjustified; but Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. Just as every beer-guzzling football fan feels qualified to be an NFL head coach (and to call Bill Belichik or Jon Gruden a moron when his strategies don’t pan out), everyone who’s played a simulation war game or two fancies himself qualified to be a general, and to ridicule real generals who, under the worst imaginable circumstances, had to make real decisions involving the lives and deaths of real men.

I think that, even the "worst’ generals on both sides made intelligent, rational decisions, based on the best available intelligence, and their best instincts. The problem is, sometimes logical decisions proved wrong.

Best example of a mistaken “logical” assumption? I think the Confederate leadership believed (quite logically!) that the North wouldn’t have to will or the stomach to keep fighting once they realized how costly the War would be, in money and in lives. And they were right! The North DIDN’T have the will or stomach for such a fight. But Abraham Lincoln DID.

If Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee had known how far Lincoln was prepared to go to achieve total victory, might they have changed their strategies? Definitely. Lee probably would never have sacrificed so many men at Antietam or Gettysburg if he’d believed the North was willing to shrug off so many casualties and keep fighting. As it is, they made some disastrous choices, based on a logical-but-wrong assumption.

Northern generals regularly did the same. Generals in EVERY war do the same. That doesn’t make them stupid.

Gotta disagree with you on several points here, John.

But first, let me give you Sherman v. Johnston. You’re right about that–by the time Johnston was reinstated it was far too late for him to salvage much.

In the misty regions between tactics and strategy, Grant proved far superior than Lee. In 1864, he continually tried to interpose his forces between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond, and nearly succeeded.

The bottom line is that Grant accepted the disadvantages that the tactical offensive had and did not allow them to reverse his sound strategy, which was to pin down the ANV. Once the Confederates had to build a line around Petersburg, they were through, although it took more than half a year to finish them off.

Lee was an excellent general, but I give Grant the greater credit because he figured out how to de-claw Lee by taking away all of the initiative through constant engagement.

No way. Just look at how both Jackson and Longstreet got nailed, at nearly the same place, nearly a year apart. Both were performing forward reconaissance ahead of their troops, both emerged from the woods in front of their own troops, both got shot. It was reckless, and it was in keeping with the Southern code of gallantry and personal bravery in the face of rifled weaponry.

Jackson’s wounding, combined with A.P. Hill’s near simultaneous injury, was probably the finest example of the collapse of command in the field. With both of them down, the planned night attack at Chancellorsville failed to materialize, and the Confederates suffered far more casualties on the second and third days of that battle than they did on the day of Jackson’s turning movement.

Southern generals died in a proportion which cannot be explained away by dumb luck. I maintain they died because they made a point of conspicuous exposure to danger in an era where a man could be shot down at three hundred yards or more (figures of questionable origin here).

This is part of the myth I am trying to dispel. Yes, McClellan, Fremont, and The Beast were all terrible generals. But McClellan and Fremont went on to very nearly lose the war by delving into politics–because they were sacked! Burnside was a reluctant army commander; Hooker went back to being a fairly competent corps commander. Most of the really bad ones got their pink slips, although I will concede that there were far too many “political” generals on both sides.

In contrast, by the time of the Peninsular Campaign the South knew generals like Whiting, Huger, and Magruder were incompetent, yet they were retained. And in 1864, when things got bad, some of these same incompetent generals (esp. Whiting) were the ones who were dilatory and incompetent in sending troops to the defense of Richmond, ensuring that Lee would be cornered at Petersburg.

It is also important to note the Southern tradition of omitting the incompetents from their reports. You will find scant record of “Maryland” Steuart’s refusal to follow Jackson’s orders between Front Royal and Winchester. You won’t read much about Huger’s incompetent wanderings through the swamps of the Peninsula. Even the mental decline of Dick Ewell is largely glossed over.

That same cite I offered above claims that 132 Union generals either resigned or had their appointments cancelled, out of a total of 583. Compare that to the 24 CSA generals who were similarly disposed of.

As for the last point, well, it was probably a bad idea to include it as a point of argument, because it relies upon the other arguments I gave. Nevertheless, I think that my arguments lead to the conclusion that the Civil War was won in part by good planning and good leadership on the part of their generals.

While I, in general (HA!) agree with John there are a few points of disagreement I have.

  1. It’s my belief that Benjamin Butler remained in command of Union forces for political reasons. While apparently a bad guy he had a certain amount of influence in the non-military arena and therefore was useful as a political tool.

  2. I’ve always considered Lee as slightly overrated myself. It’s true that he could plan a defense (like Johnston) that would tear an agressor to tatters I’ve always held that Jackson was the best offensive general the south had. When he was killed the souths string of victories played out. I think that without him earlier in the war the campaigns in the east wouldn’t have made Lee look so good. With Lee on defense and orders to Jackson to flank and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia had a system that worked.

And Jeez, John, you don’t TALK like a Marylander. You sound like you belong on this side of the river.

Butler wasnt a “bad guy” per se. But he was very unpopular and didn’t give darn about the Southerners he overran. Hence, he felt free to impose arbitrary policies to control them.

But was constant engagement necessary to de-claw Lee? I contend not. IMHO John Corrado is correct. Sherman was winning/had already won the war. All Grant do was immobilize Lee. All that required was maneouvering to present a threat to Richmond. Lee would not or could not abandon it - It’s loss would have been an immediate deathblow to the Confederacy at that late date for reasons of prestige. If Grant had simply presented himself, Lee would have only two options - attack or sit on the defensive. If he had attacked, the sheer size and strength of Grant’s army would have almost guaranteed defeat. If he sat, Sherman would continue to eat the Confederacy from within until it collapsed. IMO Grant’s campaigns were a shortsighted and needless waste of life ( in contrast to his very fine performance at Vicksburg ).

Also I agree Jonathan Chance, at least in part. Lee was generally a superior tactician, especially when on the defensive, but an inferior strategist ( though this may be a little unfair, as Astorian’s “logical assumption” probably colored his views ). Jackson was better at both ( at least on the level he commanded ).

  • Tamerlane


Do you truly believe Jackson was a better strategist than Lee? I’ve always thought he was better at commanding an agressive army in the field, yes. But I don’t think he was a long-term planner.

More of a field general than a general staff guy.

(Um, Jonathan Chance? I’m on your side of the river.)

I have pretty high regards for Sherman, who pretty clearly understood what it would take to win the war from the beginning, and when he said it, they put him in an insane asylum. When they saw he was right, they took him out and made him a General.

I think he understood modern warfare better than most in his day.

Lee was the best at the outset of the war. I don’t think there’s really any argument about that. He did turn down the generalship of the north.

Longstreet and Stony weren’t slouches either.

Grant looked pretty good because he was the first Northern General to really put his superior numbers and cannon technology to work, but I don’t think he was an excellent leader.

Sofa King:

IIRC, JEB Stuart didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice for the Confederacy. He lived through the war, and later got shot in what is now a parking garage in Richmond, VA.

And I gotta disagree with you, Tamerlane. Grant knew the only way to prevent Lee from, say, reinforcing Early in the Valley or detaching forces south to Johnston was to keep the ANV engaged. Lee always relied heavily on the premise of strategic distraction (such as Early’s demonstration before Washington that very year), and keeping Lee’s forces on a contested battlefield was the best way to keep him fixed.

Lee was in pretty bad shape towards the end of the war. He’d had a heart attack, taken a bad fall from his horse, was suffering from some world class hemmorhoids, and taking laudunum by the time Gettysburg rolled around.

On top of all that he didn’t have the intelligence resources that he was used to as Jeb was out burning Chambersburg when he should have been scouting.

That’s probably where he died, the day after he was wounded while holding off a raid by Sheridan at Yellow Tavern.

You may be right, but I distinctly recall being told the story by my brother (who lives in Richmond,) about how ole JEB lived through the war, and got shot in a drunken argument.

My memory may be faulty though, but now I’m curious.