Guest Columns


Civil War Generals: Part I — The Union Army

Contributing Columnist

Over the four-year duration of the Civil War, the Union Army included close to 2,500 “generals.” But that number is somewhat misleading in that it includes almost 2,000 “Brevet” Brigadier Generals. While the “Brevet” rank is somewhat complex to understand in its entirety, it is roughly analogous to a modern day combat medal or other honorary award for valor. The Brevet rank typically did not carry with it a commensurate level of authority or pay, but those who received a Brevet promotion in rank were entitled to use the associated honorific permanently.

But the core of the Union general staff was comprised of the 500-plus men who attained the more traditional rank of general, including the authority to command lower ranking generals as well as all other troops. That is, the Union leaders who wore 1 star (Brigadier General), 2 stars (Major General), or 3 stars (Lieutenant General-only U.S. Grant) during the Civil War.

Many of these were “political generals” with no prior military experience, but who received the support of the President, Members of Congress, or other key influential patrons. Predictably, the members of this class of generals were often woefully unprepared to succeed as military leaders. But there were notable exceptions to that rule, such as Congressmen John “Blackjack” Logan (D-Illinois) and Francis P. Blair, Jr. (R-Missouri), both of whom served with distinction at various points in the war.

Many others were West Point graduates, some still serving in the regular army and some having long since left for private life prior to the outbreak of the War. And it will be forever baffling to me that, among this professionally trained officer corps, a surprisingly large percentage of them simply sucked at their jobs!
Following is my own considered and opinionated ranking of some of the better known and/or should-be-better-known among the General Staff of the Union Army during the American Civil War:

Category 1
The Guys Who Won the War

1) Ulysses S. Grant
2) William Tecumseh Sherman
3/4) Tie: Phillip H. Sheridan and
George H. Thomas
5) Winfield Scott Hancock

Nothing needs to be said about Grant and Sherman. Sheridan, another Grant protégé, was brilliant at Chattanooga, and throughout 1864-65 in the Overland Campaign and the Shenandoah Valley. Similarly, George Thomas saved General Rosencrans’ Army at Chickamauga (earning the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga”) and as Grant’s choice to replace Rosencrans during the Confederate Siege of Chattanooga. In 1864, Thomas commanded the Union forces that effectively destroyed Confederate General John B. Hood’s Army at the battles of Franklin, TN and Nashville, TN. Winfield Hancock was consistently excellent in battle for the Army of the Potomac from the beginning of the War until forced by unhealed Gettysburg wounds to relinquish command during the Siege of Petersburg. The legendary Civil War Battlefield historian, Edward Bearss, considers Hancock the preeminent hero responsible for the victory at Gettysburg, and I agree. Thomas and Hancock often do not receive the credit they deserve among casual Civil War students.

Category 2
Good-to-Great at Critical Times

1) George G. Meade
2) Benjamin Prentiss
3) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

In June 1863, Meade was the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, taking the failed Joe Hooker’s place just a couple of days prior to meeting Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Furthermore, although often overshadowed by the presence of General-in-Chief Grant, Meade continued to serve the remainder of the war as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Prentiss and his troops were responsible for holding off the Confederate onslaught at Shiloh long enough for Grant’s other forces to regroup at a different position. Prentiss’ troops held the line at the “Hornets’ Nest”/”Sunken Road” for much of the day on April 6, 1862, until eventually overwhelmed and captured after buying crucial additional hours for their comrades to regroup. Joshua L. Chamberlain achieved fame (and the Medal of Honor) at Gettysburg as the commander of the 20th Maine Regiment that repelled seemingly countless attacks on the left flank of the Union line at Little Roundtop. He continued to serve with distinction until seriously wounded near Petersburg. Concerned Chamberlain wouldn’t survive, Grant expedited a “battlefield promotion.” He did survive and recover, was designated by Grant to oversee the actual surrender of the Lee’s troops at Appomattox, and lived another fifty years.

Category 3
Good-to-Great but Killed in Action

1) James Birdseye McPherson
2) John Reynolds
3) John Sedgwick

James B. McPherson is another usually unheralded leader who rose steadily through the ranks from Chief Engineer to Corps Commander in the Army of the Tennessee, under Grant’s then Sherman’s command. He was shot and killed during the Battle of Atlanta in 1864 while attempting to escape capture. John Reynolds was the highly respected commander of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He was killed at the outset of the Battle of Gettysburg while deploying the fabled Iron Brigade and other troops in support of General Buford’s beleaguered Calvary. Similarly, John Sedgwick was the seasoned and respected commander of the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, but was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter at the beginning of the Spotsylvania Courthouse battle below The Wilderness, in Virginia (May, 1865).

Category 4
They Meant Well But It Wasn’t Meant To Be

1) Irvin McDowell
2) William S. Rosencrans
3) Lew Wallace

Among the Union’s most disastrous and demoralizing military defeats were McDowell’s route at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, Rosencrans’ loss and near route at Chickamauga, and Lew Wallace’s failure to get his Division to the battlefield until the end of the critical first day of the Battle of Shiloh, TN.

Category 5
Incompetent, Awful, and/or Delusional

1) George B. McClellan
2) Henry W. Halleck
3) Ambrose Burnside
4) Joseph Hooker

It’s probably not fair to any of these four failed Civil War generals to combine them in a single category. Because each will be the subject of a future column with more discussion, suffice it to say here that each possessed talent and skill but was so tragically flawed that crushing defeat and/or equally debilitating inaction and indecision were their joint legacy to the Union effort.

Category 6
Incompetent Political Generals Who Caused Real Harm

1) John A. McClernand
2) Benjamin F. Butler
3) Nathaniel P. Banks

Hopefully we can explore each of these three in more detail in the future. McClernand was a Democratic Congressman from Illinois whom Lincoln befriended, and who was more concerned with defeating his colleague, Ulysses S. Grant and gaining personal glory than he was with winning battles. Likewise, Butler and Banks, respectively former Congressmen (Banks was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives then Governor of Massachusetts) failed to perform in critical situations in various theaters of the war. Banks was simply unsuccessful and undependable, while Butler was outright destructive to the Union war effort in both the Virginia Peninsula and Overland Campaigns and during his controversial tenure as the military commander in New Orleans, LA

Category 7
Immortal Visionary Who Invented “Commander-in-Chief” Role

Abraham Lincoln. When we debate the appropriate extent of Presidential/Executive wartime authority, it’s maddeningly inconvenient that our beloved National Savior and Great Emancipator set the standard for his successors, such as Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to follow in prosecuting wartime activities with less than total of deference to Congress. But thank goodness he did.

I’m aware that these brief bullets on complex Civil War leaders and battlefield situations hardly do justice to the actual events or individual reputations. Nevertheless, hopefully a few readers will be encouraged or incited to delve further into the individuals, events, and circumstances mentioned above. I highly recommend two particularly readable and thoughtful books on these Union leadership topics: Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (2008, Penguin Press), and Lincoln and His Generals, by T. Harry Williams (1952, Alfred A. Knopf).

Patrick Teegarden’s series on the Civil War appear weekly in The Colorado Statesman. The author can be contacted at