What if … this Union general had not died?

Military narratives of the American Civil War tend feature the deaths of certain Confederate generals as major turning points.  Albert Sidney Johnston and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson claim pride of place here.  Earl van Dorn … well, he was killed as a result of a different sort of action, so we can set him aside.  But several Union generals also perished during the conflict, and their passing offers the opportunity to discuss “what if?’ as well.  Today’s fatal five include:

Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861;

Charles F. Smith, who died as a result on an injury on April 25, 1862;

Phil Kearny, who was killed at Chantilly on September 1, 1862;

John F. Reynolds, who was killed at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863;

and James B. McPherson, who was killed outside Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

Which death was most significant, and why?  Which of these men, if they had remained alive and healthy, would have made the most impact on the course of the war?  One can offer different answers to each of these questions.

Among those considered were John Buford and John Sedgwick, but in the end I think these five offer the most opportunity for discussion.

22 thoughts on “What if … this Union general had not died?

  1. Jeff Davis July 16, 2011 / 7:17 pm

    I think the two who offer the most potential are Reynolds and McPherson. Both were highly regarded by their men, and I think by their peers.

    Indeed, Reynolds was considered for command of the Army of the Potomac but apparently Lincoln did not like his politics [his take on the Emancipation Proclamation???]. As a result, perhaps Reynolds had gone as far as he could with the Army and had no more higher aspirations. Perhaps he aspired to a political career, though there does not seem to be any indication of this.

    McPherson’s loss was strongly felt by Sherman’s entire army. He was also apparently highly regarded by his peers, and his superiors. I think McPherson probably had the greater potential to advance and affect the war in whatever theater he was in. The limiting factor, of course, was the length of the war. I can envision a scenario where, had the war continued through 1865 [a fascinating scenario where Lee escapes into the mountains after defeat at Appomattox], Grant moves his HQ to Washington as Sherman becomes available to replace him in the field in Virginia, allowing McPherson to take over Sherman’s old command, with Sherman commanding Meade, McPherson and Sheridan in pursuit of Lee in the Mountains west of Roanoke and Blacksburg.

  2. Brett S. - Siege of Petersburg Online July 16, 2011 / 7:20 pm


    Interesting question, and one I’m sure you’ll get varied responses to. I know a lot of historians frown on this type of exercise, but I love to see what other people think of these guys and I’m glad you posit these types of questions. I’ll go first (or maybe a close second/third if someone hits post before I do) and be the guinea pig.

    Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861;

    I could give Lyon an incomplete, considering his death less than a month after First Bull Run, but that would be a cop-out and isn’t nearly as fun. My thoughts on Lyon are that he was an aggressive commander and would have gotten some things done. Being saddled with Sigel as your primary subordinate is an unfortunate thing at any point in the war. Grant was aggressive too, and he got things done. However, Hooker was also aggressive, but faltered at the moment of decision. So what type of aggressive was Lyon? The type that gets you killed on the battlefield before you can fully prove your worth. I think he would have ultimately done some good things militarily while overstepping his bounds politically, eventually being pushed aside for a more level-headed man. I don’t see him doing better than Schofield and others in the Trans-Mississippi.

    Charles F. Smith, who died as a result on an injury on April 25, 1862;

    Smith, like Johnston, never really got to prove himself. I suspect he would have been a solid division to corps level commander under Grant, helping the Army of the Tennessee to the same or better record. I don’t know the rank offhand to make this a 100% valid point, but perhaps the presence of Smith might have allowed Grant to prevent McClernand from taking a corps and limited him to division command instead. More likely I suspect is that Grant would have had to leave another general on this list, McPherson, at the division level and given McClernand his corps.

    Phil Kearny, who was killed at Chantilly on September 1, 1862;

    I have always been a Kearny fan. I think you can also lump Isaac Stevens into this list as well. I believe the Army of the Potomac lost two corps commanders, one present and one future, on September 1 at Chantilly. Kearny was aggressive as well and found himself at the front constantly. Perhaps he would have been too aggressive and gotten himself killed at some future battle after Chantilly. Perhaps he would have been a “can’t see the forest for the trees” type of guy, always riding to the sound of the guns. I see him as another Hancock, a man who shined in battle, embraced the danger, and managed to get the best out of his men. This was a major loss.

    John F. Reynolds, who was killed at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863;

    Reynolds was another major loss to the Union. He was the best Eastern corps commander behind Hancock in the war. Reynolds, like Kearny and Hancock, was at his best in the thick of a fight. He had seen hard fighting at the head of the Pennsylvania Reserves and did well in all of his engagements up to July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg. The Overland campaign would have been interesting indeed had you seen Hancock, Reynolds, and Kearny at the head of Corps.

    and James B. McPherson, who was killed outside Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

    I’m less high on McPherson. Despite Grant and Sherman’s praise of McPherson, he seemed to always be missing something at crunch time. His failure to hold Resaca in May 1864 was one of the greatest lost opportunities of the war, IMHO. He also lacked aggressiveness and decisiveness at Raymond in the Vicksburg Campaign. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a bad commander by any means. He just doesn’t excite me as a war changer. I say this as a big fan of the Army of the Tennessee, home to many regiments from my native state of Illinois.

    • Ned Baldwin July 16, 2011 / 7:53 pm

      The way you feel about McPherson is the way I feel about Reynolds.
      Did he really do well at Fredericksburg? Was he engaged at Chancellorsville?

      • Brett S. - Siege of Petersburg Online July 16, 2011 / 8:34 pm


        Fredericksburg was probably Reynolds’ worst performance of the war. Meade’s Division had really the only success of any Federal unit in the entire battle, and Reynolds, as his Corps commander, failed to send him any reinforcements. In his defense, he had received pretty vague orders from Franklin. I think the Grand Division format was too unwieldy and led to this sort of confusion, but I’m not making excuses. Reynolds was not at his best there.

        At Chancellorsville he wasn’t really engaged. Hooker didn’t give Reynolds much to do. The First Corps did almost no fighting in an extremely bloody battle. You can’t fault Reynolds there, but he didn’t do anything great on his own either.

    • tonygunter July 16, 2011 / 9:18 pm

      lol … you’ve been reading the wrong resources on Raymond. McPherson’s showing at Raymond was one of the brightest moments in a campaign of bright moments.

      McPherson had intel that Gregg had marched out from Jackson, and it appears that McPherson figured out if he could lure Gregg into a fight then the battle for Jackson would be a running fight in the open rather than an assault against prepared positions. So McPherson utilized the hills and trees to hide his deployment, carefully deploying two brigades with refused flanks and a brigade in reserve before ordering his men across the creek. Complete drum and bugle silence guaranteed that Gregg did not realize he was facing anything more than the brigade he had seen that morning. However, the line did lurch forward unevenly, resulting in the 23rd Indiana getting routed. All other units stood their ground and fought toe-to-toe (no, the 68th Ohio did not run from the battle) resulting in Gregg’s brigade suffering nearly twice the casualties of the federal troops and being effectively removed from the fight for Jackson.

      All told, McPherson’s showing guaranteed the interdiction of the railroad link to Vicksburg and the reduction of Jackson. Not a bad showing for an assault upon ground of Gregg’s choosing.

      I haven’t read up as much on Resaca, but if I recall correctly, weren’t McPherson’s orders to cut the railroad and return to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap? I suspect McPherson made the right decision. IIRC, he only had 20,000 men, half of Johnston’s army was marchign his way, and help was still several days away behind a narrow wagon road through Snake Creek Gap. Cutting the railroad was pointless if Johnston retreated to Resaca, which is exactly what Johnston did.

      • Brett S. - Siege of Petersburg Online July 16, 2011 / 9:42 pm


        If I might ask, which sources are the “right” ones? I’ve read Grabau’s and Bearss’ books as well as various magazine articles and assorted essays. Has the general consensus on McPherson’s performance changed significantly in the past ten years? That’s an honest question anyone out there is free to answer because I haven’t read nearly as much on the Vicksburg Campaign lately. I’d love to see a different take.

        • tonygunter July 17, 2011 / 8:15 am

          For the Battle of Raymond, unfortunately you have to go to the primary sources. I think most analyses of Raymond since Bearss’ three-volume set have been loosely based on that account, which itself rested largely on an O.R. filled with huge gaps. Key to understanding the battle on the federal side are the personal accounts and regimental histories.

          I cobbled together a storyline using some of these in the wikipedia page on the battle, although the page is badly in need of update.

      • Ned Baldwin July 17, 2011 / 7:47 am

        He had about 20,000 in his command in total but at the point of contact he had much less than that.

  3. Ned Baldwin July 16, 2011 / 7:22 pm

    Though I think McPherson is under-appreciated, I also think his death came so late that if he had remained alive it would have had limited impact on the course of the war.

    To me, CF Smith is the most intriguing. Well thought of by Halleck and Grant and with high rank (ahead of McClernand), I can envision him having a significant impact on the war in the west. During mid and late part of 1862, other rising officers in the west got called on for bigger commands — Pope to Virginia; Rosecrans to the Army of the Cumberland. If Smith had lived, he could have been an alternative to either of these.

    Others who I think should be considered in this category: Mansfield, Mitchel, Stevens, Reno, Richardson.

  4. Margaret Blough July 16, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    Brooks-I think the greatest significance of Reynold’s death was short-term. He died at a critical point in the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg, leaving command in the unsteady and uncertain hands of Howard and Doubleday until Hancock arrived on the field pursuant to Meade’s orders.

  5. Ray O'Hara July 17, 2011 / 8:04 am

    Lyon seemed to have the pulse of the Political situation and he was active and aggressive.
    McPherson seemed to be more a winning personality than a good commander.I don’t think militarily he was such a great loss.

    C.F.Smith seems like he was a quality leader and Grant encountering his troops first at Donelson during the breakout had to help settle him by knowing he had fresh troops drawn up in combat readiness set to go.. His loss must have hurt.

  6. John Foskett July 17, 2011 / 8:11 am

    If we’re talking about long-term significance and highest command level (corps/army), I have to be a contrarian and say “none”. At least in some instances due to their early demise, none of these guys actually demonstrated the skills that would lead one to conclude with any certainty that had they survived, the Union’s military fortunes would have been meaningfully different. If i have a candidate among them, I’d say Kearney, but Phil was a hothead and “lead at the front” type who IMHO would not have been as successful at corps or higher command. What did McPherson actually accomplish (aside from some operational mistakes in the Atlanta Campaign and (to some degree) Vicksburg, and possibly some bad influence on Grant and the establishment of defensive works at Shiloh) )? Reynolds? (and I agree with Margaret that his death may have had an adverse impact at Gettysburg). Smith? He was as overconfident as Grant, et al. about a Confederate attack on Pittsburg Landing (and in fact may have had a role in facilitating that overconfidence). Lyons? See Kearney but with a shorter track record I think these guys all benefit fom Albert Sidney Johnston Syndrome – they have acquired a reputation which is in part dependent on a kernal of fact to which a post-War exponent has been applied – which of course cannot be disproven. Now Ned, however, has raised a name which I strongly suggest merits a further look – Israel B. Richardson. I am convinced that he was headed to corps command but for his mortal wounding at Antietam. He had proven himself as a highly competent division commander who seems to have had more qualifications for higher command but with a properly aggressive streak.

    • tonygunter July 18, 2011 / 6:34 am

      McPherson was Grant’s critical player in the Vicksburg Campaign. He turned the Confederate right at Port Gibson after McClernand had broken contact for the day to make camp, turned the Confederate left at Bayou Pierre, captured the bridge at Hankinson’s Ferry, lured Gregg into a fight at Raymond, and nearly beat Gregg into Jackson. He hammered the defenders at Jackson, then turned and using the same plan that he used at Raymond trounced the Confederates at Champion Hill (why would someone claim that Raymond was mediocre and Champion Hill was a brilliant victory when it’s essentially the same battle plan?).

      Don’t know much about him outside the Vicksburg Campaign, but I suspect he saved Sherman severe reversals on at least two occasions.

      That being said, he died too late in the war to make a difference. I can’t imagine any enticing counter-factuals that involve him. C.F. Smith, however, died in the midst of the mistake that forged the friendship that won the war (Grant, Sherman, McPherson). I do like the idea of Smith leading the AotC and coordinating closely with Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign instead of sitting idle like Rosecrans.

      I do not, however, think it would have saved Grant the indignity of having McClernand show up when Grant was halfway to Vicksburg at Oxford, forcing Grant to scrap his overland campaign.

  7. James F. Epperson July 17, 2011 / 9:11 am

    Because they came early in the war, I think the deaths of Lyon, Smith, and Kearney are the most significant. I am not sold on Reynolds, and McPherson died late enough that I doubt it changed much (except for Logan’s anger at West Point).

    Lyon needed to mature some. It would have been interesting to see if he grew in that way. If Smith had lived he might have given Halleck the ability to fire Grant, which is a scary thought. Kearney could have injected some badly-needed energy into the AotP command structure.

  8. TF Smith July 17, 2011 / 12:03 pm

    Brett and John both make some good points, from different perspectives – here’s mine:

    Lyon – certainly aggresive; if he survices Wilson’;s Creek but it is still a defeat, does he get put out to pasture? If he can survive Fremont;s replacement, does Halleck keep him on? If so, I can see him as leading the Southwest Missouri in place of Curtis, or the Army of Mississippi in place of Pope. Curtis did well against a numerically superior force at Pea Ridge; would Lyon have done as well? If he get’s the Army of the Missisissppi rather than Pope, I can see Lyon rising to corps command under Halleck and then Grant, figuring everything else runs the same as historically. After that, it gets a little cloudy; maybe Lyon rises to army-level command in the west, instead of McPherson?

    CF Smith – excellent division commander during the Henry-Donelson campaign; had the responsibilty of laying out the position at Shiloh/Pittsburg Landing that Grant took charge of, so that is probably a negative; if he survives the infection, Grant has already returned to command of the Army of teh Tennessee for Shiloh, so I presume CF Smith would get the command under Halleck when Grant gets kicked upstairs; interesting knock-on effect for Thomas – who (presumably) would still get a subordinate command under Halleck, so somebody gets shut out for Iuka/Corith. When, Halleck gets called east in 1862, I presume Grant still gets the army-level command, so Smith (presumably) gets a corps equivalent; he may be a rival for WT Sherman, Rosecrans, or Thomas somewhere along the line in 1862-63; pretty cloudy after that.

    Kearny – I’ve always thought Kearny would have been a stong contender as a cavalry corps commander for the AOTP rather than Pleasonton or Stoneman; also (fatally) aggressive as an infantry commander, but could easil;y see him as a corps commander under McClellan at Antietam and/or afterwards. Lot of competition, however.

    Reynolds – Very well regarded, apparently, after Gettysburg,but with caveats; if he had lived, I could see him as keeping one of the coprs under Meade in the 1863 and Overland campaigns.

    McPherson – Again, very well regarded by Grant and Sherman, but with caveats; with his engineering background, I wonder if he would have been a better choice as a deputy to Thomas for the defensive campaign in Tennessee or as a deputy to Sherman for the Georgia-Carolinas campaign after Atlanta?


  9. Matt McKeon July 17, 2011 / 2:09 pm

    Traditionally, “what ifs” turn around the survivial of Confederate, and in this case Union generals. What if Burnside got killed at Antietam? No Fredericksburg disaster, maybe a more effective role in the Wilderness, not a disgraceful performance at the Crater. I can think of a few more generals in blue whose untimely deaths would have hastened Union victory.

  10. cyd July 17, 2011 / 8:40 pm

    By the way, why did C. F. Smith, who was Grant’s instructor at West Point, end up being ranked by Grant during the first months of the Civil War? I’ve never seen this explained anywhere.

    • James F. Epperson July 18, 2011 / 4:28 am

      Grant was made a Brigadier General by virtue of Elihu Washburne’s influence; Smith had no such patron, so was not promoted so quickly.

  11. Ray O'Hara July 18, 2011 / 5:33 am

    Lyon seemed to have the pulse of the Political situation and he was active and aggressive.

    McPherson seemed to be more a winning personality than a good commander.I don’t think militarily he was such a great loss.

    C.F.Smith seems like he was a quality leader and Grant encountering his troops first at Donelson during the breakout had to help settle him by knowing he had fresh troops drawn up in combat readiness set to go.. His loss must have hurt.

    • tonygunter July 19, 2011 / 7:02 am

      Sherman’s correspondence from in front of Vicksburg in Spring 1863 contains a dig at Grant and McPherson, saying something like “I suppose by this time next week, Grant and McPherson will be at the Big Black railroad bridge.” Which indicates Grant’s original plan was to reduce Grand Gulf, detach McClernand south to Banks, and then proceed inland against the railroad using only McPherson until Sherman could join him.

      If Grant’s plan was to drive deep into the heart of Mississippi using units led by a bad commander with a great personality, I wonder if you’re also indicting Grant.

      If, however, Grant’s plan was to proceed deep into the heart of Mississippi with men led by the type of commander who could turn a Confederate position that had stymied other commanders all day (Port Gibson), march into the interior undetected, and lure a single Confederate brigade into attacking a federal division with two refused flanks, then Grant’s gamble is probably a pretty good one against the likes of Pemberton.

  12. Ned Baldwin July 18, 2011 / 5:35 am

    When Lincoln appointed Brigadier-Generals for the Volunteer Army in 1861, he included Grant among the early group; Smith’s appointment to B-G came later in the year.

  13. Matt McKeon July 18, 2011 / 7:19 am

    C.F. Smith was a very attractive character: although by rights he should have ranked Grant, he acted loyally at all times. Contrast Joseph E. Johnson. Smith had a wonderful quote: something like, a soldier must prepare for battle every day of his career, even if the day of battle doesn’t come for decades, even if the soldier finally retires without seeing a battle.

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