US Civil War: Union Generals=Morons, Confederate Generals=Geniuses?

All of the US Civil War histories I have read give a very dim view about the Union generals. Most of them (according to the books) were incompetent, many criminally irresponsible…I’m talking about commanders like meade, Pope, etc. yet,in 1861, the officer corps of the US Army was very small-and allof the senior generals were graduates of Wes Point. Liekit or not, a West Point eductaion is not something to sneer at. So, were the southern generals (like Bragg, lee, etc.) brilliant strategists and excellent tacticians? And, were the Union generals just all incompetent hacks? How come it took so long to find good generals 9in the North)? Lincoln had his hands full-he had to deal with dopes like McClelland, Meade, Pope, Burnside…untill Grant came along…what say you??

Well firstly you have to remember a few things.

  1. The Union Army was much bigger, lot more troops, lot more divisions, armies et cetera, so more Generals.

And when you have more General’s commissions needing to be filled the candidate pool is larger so typically that means less concentration of talent.

  1. For whatever reason, be it cultural or whatever a much greater percentage of the available “highly trained” Generals had Southern roots and in turn fought for their home states.

  2. There were a lot of good Union Generals, I think the fact that all of the Union Supreme Commanders prior to Grant were horribly incompetent and the Confederates had a great Supreme Commander from the get go is a lot of the reason the Union general problem is overestimated.

But the South did have some legitimate military geniuses as well.

The Confederacy also had Gideon Pillow, who once had a line of fortifications built with the trench on the wrong side.

The poorly-remembered Union commanders also had the misfortune of (mostly) being saddled with the Army of the Potomac, which every politician above dog-catcher thought he should have a hand in running, until Meade and Grant finally put a stop to it, and which was charged early on with defeating the enemy without straying too far from home and by the way try to keep the violence to a minimum, please. The further Union generals were from D.C., it seems, the smarter they got. Even Pope was fairly successful and well-regarded until he was called East. Criticism of Meade as a general usually boils down to his failure to pursue Lee after Gettysburg. Somehow the series of blunders that brought Lee’s army to the brink of destruction rarely seems to detract from his reputation. Most historians don’t view Meade as incompetent, and neither did his contemporaries, including Lincoln and Grant.

There’s also the fact that once you get away from the Army of Northern Virginia, confederate leadership takes a nosedive. Lee was in the habit of grabbing the best and brightest for his own forces without much care for the rest of the south.

The first thing to realize is that the Civil War was much more politicized than any subsequent war. At the time, most state militias were heavily staffed (and officered) by state politicians, who used the militias as meet-and-greets, as patronage, and as a symbol of personal status. When those militias were called up, that kind of attitude remained, and many of the Army officer positions opened up were passed out as patronage or for political support.

For the North, that patronage was much more necessary. The Union wasn’t particularly unified in whether to fight, why to fight, and how to fight, and so Lincoln had to keep the coalition together by passing out such patronage and allowing politicians to have a say in who got commands and who didn’t- such patronage is why the Union was saddled the whole war with such incompetents as Butler (Democratic Congressman from Massachussets), Banks (former Speaker of the House), Fremont (former Republican presidential candidate), Sigel, Schultz, and Schimmelfenning (all of whom had major pull in getting German immigrants to sign up). It’s also why incompetents such as McClellan (who made no secret of his support for the Democrats and anti-abolitionist views) and McDowell (who was the only general Lincoln’s cabinet could agree on to lead the Army of the Potomac) stayed in command, while competents such as Fitz-John Porter (who made the mistake of crossing the wrong people) got moved out.

The South, being much more unified in purpose, didn’t have that sort of problem- Davis didn’t have to play as much to local political sentiments and patronage.

Add this in to what others have already stated- that more trained officers went South, leaving the North vastly understaffed and the South slightly overstaffed, and that’s why the North ended up with so many incompetents that they couldn’t get rid of.

Mr Miskatonic has a very good point. Outside of Lee’s army, the quality of the Confederate generals varied substanitally and the government yo-yo’d generals as matters got better and worse (and politicians in threatened areas demanded their favorites).

yeah, I always had a problem with Pickett’s Charge. Yeah, let’s send our guys out in formation across that big open field toward that heavily fortified Union position full of guys with guns that can rake the field at will. If Sherman were such a fooking geenyoos, you’d think he’d have figured out another way to solve the problem the Union presented him with.

Of course, the Confederate army had the opposite problem, which was that they were very much dependent on the whims and prejudices of Davis. If he liked you, you’d get ahead and if he didn’t, you’d suffer, no matter your competence. That’s how Braxton Bragg (true story…he once tried to court-martial himself) held onto his command so long, and why General Johnson was so underutililized.

I think the brilliance of Southern Generals has been grossly exaggerated, as has the ineptness of the Union generals, That’s not to say that there weren’t superb commanders in the South and idiots in the North! Obviously, there were! But I think Southerners have long taken an overly romantic view of the Civil War, which has led them to idolize men who don’t deserve it. Meanwhile, too many Northerners (then and now) seem to believe that routing the South should have been a piece of cake, which suggests that any Union general who failed to seize Richmond in a week must have been an incompetent.

I don’t regard George McClellan as a great general (interestingly, Robert E. Lee DID), but I do think he’s been treated unfairly in popular history. McClellan was in a difficult situation. I also think Abraham Lincoln expected him to do miracles with insufficient resources.

Mind you, when I say “popular history,” I’m referring to the simplified version of the Civil War most of us get in school textbooks. Serious historians and scholars are aware of how complicated the situation was. But I think ordinary folks on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line have

  1. a limited understanding of what was going on, and

  2. an ideological/moral perspective that colors their perceptions of the War.

I realize this is overly simplistic, but it seems to me that the average American’s perceptions of the Civil War go like this:

Southerner: “The Confederacy was a noble cause, but it was doomed from the start. They faced a far more powerful opponent, one that SHOULD have crushed them in weeks. Since they DIDN’T crush us, our generals must have been geniuses to keep them at bay so long.”

Northerner: “The North occupied the moral high ground, and had far more men and resources, so we SHOULD have crushed the Confederacy in weeks. Since we didn’t, the Union generals must’ve been either cowards or incompetent idiots.”

In reality, both the Yankee and the Rebel are greatly overestimating how swift and certain Northern victory should have been. If the South’s position was actually stronger than the average American thinks it was… why then, Southern generals may NOT have been so astonishingly brilliant! And cautious Northern generals may have been justified in their caution (which would mean they WEREN’T inept or cowardly).

You mean Lee/Longstreet/Pickett rather than Sherman.

Grant and Sherman certainly weren’t morons. You may want to check out J.F.C. Fuller’s Military History of the Western World for an interesting take on Grant.

I agree with every word of that.

And it certainly is true that the South had a large number of incompetent generals who ended up commanding armies- Braxton Bragg, as mentioned, may have been a good tactician, but he was impossible to work with or for; P.T.G. Beauregard was competent, but unwilling to change war plans to adapt to conditions on the field; and we won’t even go into the disaster that John Bell Hood was.

Likewise, the Union had a lot of good generals that don’t get much press at all- George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga and the Anvil of Nashville; William Rosencranz, who pulled victory out of defeat at Murfreesboro.

I think a lot of the perspective on “Confederate generals = gods, Union generals = putzes” comes from the fact that history, like the press of the time, places a huge amount of attention on the Eastern front, the battle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. And there, for most of the war, it was a long line of Union incompetence vs. a log string of Confederate brilliance and lucky audacity.

Now I’m curious. Where was that?

Isn’t this like “Slaves lived a happy and simple life, free from complications and worries”?


Where he also, at one point, defied order to go on a particular road that would have resulted in him being shelled by one Mexican battery, and instead took a road that got him shelled by three Mexican batteries.

Pickett never forgave Lee for ordering the charge and sending all those men to their death’s. Two of my great grandfather’s brothers were killed in the endeavor.

You’re right, I meant Lee, said Sherman.

The Union and the Confederacy were essentially fighting two different wars. The Union had to actively win while all the Confederacy had to do was avoid losing. So the Confederate generals looked better because they were judged by an easier standard. If the two sides met in an indecisive battle (which happened often) the Union considered it a defeat because the Confederates weren’t annihilated while the Confederates considered it a victory because they lived to fight another day.

I politely disagree.

Operation Anaconda was the Naval effort to blockade Southern ports. This worked brilliantly, causing an utter collapse of the South’s economy.

After a few years, that is. Arguably, this could have happened even if the North had sat on its hands, & did nothing, not sent one single soldier South.