The Sunday Question: Commanders of the Army of the Potomac

Who in your mind was the best commander of the Army of the Potomac?  Why?  Who was the worst?

Remember … your choices are George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George G. Meade.  Neither John Pope nor Ulysses S. Grant ever headed the Army of the Potomac.

21 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Commanders of the Army of the Potomac

  1. William Underhill August 14, 2011 / 10:03 am

    Let’s say that our criteria is just wins and losses. Little Mac, he may have been a great organizer but he lost the Seven Days and just about tied at Antietam. Burnside and Hooker never won as commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Meade won at Gettysburg, didn’t do much after that, and then diddled at Mine Run. But the Army was his in the overland campaign and at Petersburg, so I guess that he is the most successful. The best of a less than stellar lot?

  2. Richard August 14, 2011 / 10:29 am

    Meade is the best, as he managed to keep the job and avoid disasters. Granted, that may be “damning with faint praise” but there was no debacle like Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville nor any appearance of smug self-confidence followed by complete failure like McClellan and the Seven Days.

    Granted, perhaps Gettysburg and the failure to launch an aggressive follow-up attack on the Confederates may be at least loosely compared to McClellan’s inability to smash the Confederate army at Antietam (in general at least, as I don’t believe had as many unused reserves as McClellan did) but Meade did not reach the fight at Gettysburg with Lee’s orders in his pocket.

    Meade at least kept his position, but was that because Grant came East? Or in spite of Grant’s arrival? That certainly added another dimension to the job that others did not face. Still, I cannot fathom McClellan trying to work with such an arrangement, but Meade did, sot that is to his credit.

    As for worst, that’s much tougher. Burnside was probably the least competent, and his failure was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy considering his previous protests against taking the top job, but McClellan sure created a lot of hype with the way he organized and motivated the troops, only to fall flat. Hooker’s “lost of confidence” in the middle of Chancellorsville was another awful moment. But do those such short reigns of command, even with such horrible results, make either of them worse than McClellan, who was in charge longer yet did not produce notably better results? I cannot imagine much worse of a defeat than Fredericksburg (with the Mud March soon thereafter) but is that one terrible loss enough to say Burnside was worse that McClellan, with multiple failures such as being fooled by Quaker logs and not taking advantage of the Lost Order?

    I think I have to go with Burnside as the worst, because McClellan at least brought some positives to the men, if not to the results column, which is more than Burnside did.

  3. Ray O'Hara August 14, 2011 / 10:56 am

    Is this a trick question?

    Lil’Mac and Hooker suffered from a lack of nerve born from a lack of self-confidence.
    they were both first rate organizers and if one ignores their failures on campaign they did have a sort of positive effect on the organization and administration of the Army.
    they both sucked big time beyond that
    Burnside was a flat out incompetent.

    Meade has several successes. there is the big one in Pa but he did well not to get trapped at Mine Run by Lee’s counter moves and he bloodied Lee during the Bristow Station Campaign.
    Meade never was allowed to do what he might have wanted and as he left nothing on what he would have done had he been given a freer hand who knows.

    All lacked the ability to solve the problem that politics saddled them with, there was only one General who could operate with success within the box politics placed him and we aren’t allowed to bring him into the discussion.

  4. Brett S. - Siege of Petersburg Online August 14, 2011 / 11:20 am

    Like Ray, I was pretty sure I knew what most people were going to answer on this one. Everybody’s already covered everything I wanted to say. Here would be my best to worst:

    Meade – competent but never spectacular or disastrous

    McClellan – As everyone knows, the man who did the most to mold the AotP from the disorganized mob of 1861. Interestingly, he wanted to try the Petersburg approach from Harrison’s landing in August 1862 but was overruled by Washington. I don’t hear a lot of talk among Civil War students about the possibilities there.

    Hooker – Another great organizer who adopted the Kearny badge idea on an army-wide level, abolished the foolish Grand Division idea, and fostered confidence in his men after the debacle at Fredericksburg, not an easy task. Unfortunately, depending on who you ask he either lost confidence in himself at the key moment, got knocked loopy, or experienced some combination thereof. The only reason he doesn’t get the tie with McClellan is because he didn’t get the second chance, and an “almost draw”, like McClellan did. He also didn’t get nearly as close to Richmond.

    Burnside – I’ve read some of the defenses of Burnside as at least a semi-competent commander, but his record speaks for itself. Fredericksburg was inexcusable on every level. First, when the pontoons needed to cross over to Fredericksburg couldn’t fit through the locks to reach the town, Burnside should have given up the attempt and tried something else. Not only did he not try something else, he then proceeded to cross the Rappahannock under fire and then assaulted repeatedly at the worst possible place to make an attack. His performance at the Crater just cements his “terrible commander” status.

    I’m interested in your opinion Brooks, because I suspect it’s not nearly so “obvious” for you. Otherwise I don’t think you would have chosen this specific question…

    • Jeff Davis August 15, 2011 / 6:32 am

      Can’t think of any situations where Mac approached anything close enough to fire a single round. As an administrator, he was very good. As an organizer and trainer of armies, he was good. As a combat army commander he was abysmally deficient.

  5. James F. Epperson August 14, 2011 / 11:20 am

    Meade was clearly the best, for reasons others have stated. Burnside was probably the worst. Hooker was better than often thought.

  6. Jeff Davis August 14, 2011 / 4:40 pm

    Mac was a disloyal SOB.

    Burnside had exceeded his Peter Principle.

    A case could be made for Joe Hooker…until he got too big for his britches after C-ville.

    My vote loyally goes to Major General George Gordon Meade. For the first 7 days of his command of the AoP, he was masterful, from his placement of the various Corps to be in range of Gettysburg and Reynold, meticulously planning their routes so that the roads leading to Gettysburg remained fairly clear: to allow for supplies and reinforcements to reach Reynolds, Howard, etc., and to provide several open roads in case they needed to withdraw. His planning and support for the corps at Gettysburg was a masterful exercise in logistical and tactical planning.

    I have never been among those who condemn him for his lack of haste in going after Lee when Lee withdrew to Falling Waters. I think Meade had good reason to take all that time, logistics, replacements and reorganization, acquiring fresh horses and mules, to say nothing about caring for the tens of thousands of dead and wounded.

    When Grant came east, Meade was dealt a tough hand to have his immediate superior in the field with him. I think he made the best of that situation. I always wonder if that made Meade better, or worse, or had no effect at all.

  7. Terry Walbert August 15, 2011 / 9:35 am

    I would say McClellan. He created and organized the Army of the Potomac, and it was able to withstand mishandling by Burnside and Hooker. Meade was a capable general but cautious like McClellan, but I don’t think Meade could have created the AoP in 1861.

  8. Ray O'Hara August 15, 2011 / 11:46 am

    Lil’Mac was the Lloyd Fredendall of his day, a wonderful organizer and trainer who was lost in the field , after he failed in North Africa Fredendall was given command of the 2nd US Army the Stateside training command for the remainder of WWII.
    He did excellent work and turned out well trained men but no one considers him a good commander.

  9. Terry Walbert August 15, 2011 / 2:06 pm

    I once heard Christopher Hitchens label McClellan as Lincoln’s worst general. Oh, really, was McClellan worse than

    1. Burnside
    2. Hooker
    3. Banks
    4. Fremont
    5. Butler
    6. McDowell
    7. Pope
    8. Shields
    9. McClernand
    10. Rosecrans ?

    • Ray O'Hara August 15, 2011 / 6:41 pm

      Lil’Mac was worse than Rosecrans, and Probably Hooker and McDowell.
      and the rest sans Butler and Fremont would at least fight.

      When I was little I avidly read books on the pioneers, trailblazers and frontiersmen, in that context Fremont was the man, “The Pathfinder” Kit Carson worked with/for him loyally. It was such a disappointment to then discover he was not only a bad general in the CW and a pretty lousy politician too.

      But as a young officer there can be no denying he was hugely instrumental in the conquest and pacification of California as was another young officer who showed great energy, Henry Halleck sadly neither aged well. I try to remember Fremont as the young officer but the mental image of him in St Louis keeps creeping.in.

    • Jeff Davis August 15, 2011 / 9:30 pm

      Yes, worse than all as he was disloyal, disrespectful to the President [and fostered that attitude in his staff], and too afraid to fight without asking for more and more troops by phonying enemy troop strength reports. Among other things.

      He was pretty much inept at handling a battle once the first shot was fired. The slim success at Antietam came in spite of Mac.

    • Lyle Smith August 17, 2011 / 11:38 am

      Christopher Hitchens is a smart guy but his knowledge of the Civil War is more superficial than he thinks. It was during a C-Span interview at his home in Washington D.C. that he made the McClellan comment. McClellan’s statue can be seen from his window.

      I’d argue Rosecrans and Hooker were good generals. Some of the others accomplished some things as well..

  10. John Foskett August 17, 2011 / 5:22 am

    Everything Jeff said about McClellan. I have to add my usual refrain that IMHO he was gutless. Welcome aboard the Galena.

  11. Ray O'Hara August 17, 2011 / 7:04 am

    the ship’s name always struck me as a delicious historical irony.

  12. Bryn Monnery August 17, 2011 / 8:46 am

    I’ve left this thread alone a few days to see if the usual anti-McClellan rhetoric would arise. It has.

    I am not convinced the Army of the Potomac ever had a truly bad commander, not when considered in the grand scheme of things. I am fairly convinced the old Kenneth Williams “Lincoln Finds a General” story is generally baseless. I’m also fairly convinced that the changing character of the enemy army is airbrushed out when considering this story.

    When considering the enemy army and factoring it in we must divide the Union Generals into two groups, those that faced a strong Confederate Army and those that faced a much weakened army. McClellan, Burnside and for a brief period (Gettysburg) Meade faced a strong Confederate force. Hooker and Meade post August 1863 faced a much weaker opponent. We must also account for the strength of the Union force which is fairly weak until November 1862, rises sharply and slowly decreases again through 1863 and early 1864 until Grant takes over. Taken together this means the material odds are constantly shifting in the Union favour and we must account for it.

    For my part I once tried plugging in casualty data into a modified Lanchester equation and normalising against Lee (by definition Lee was defined as an “average” general – an assumption taken from the Appendix B of Hattaway and Jones). The output, which has debatable assumptions for the four commanders of the Army of the Potomac was that both McClellan and Meade were better generals than Lee, Hooker was about average and Burnside was awful. (Output adjusted based on estimated quality factors arising from Barloon’s PhD thesis). It should be noted this is performance of the whole command structure, not of the army commander personally.

    From this point of view only Burnside is truly a bad commander, and we can perhaps excuse (or at least explain) why this was. That’s merely an academic exercise though and does not alter the failure of Burnside to advance the Federal war effort.

  13. Ray O'Hara August 17, 2011 / 1:21 pm

    There is a reason it’s called The ART of war.
    Generalship is not a science. It wasn’t a scientific equation that caused Meade to weaken his right to support the left, it was inspiration born of feeling a fluid situation.

  14. John Foskett August 18, 2011 / 7:06 am

    Ray: The same irony has struck me. Maybe a subtle message was being sent to Washington post-Shiloh. As for the reference to “the usual anti-McClellan rhetoric”, I invite a fact-laden rejoinder to the analyses I;’ve previously posted regarding that 200,000 man ANV, the mishandling of command and control at Glendale/Fraser’s Farm, the correspondence which implicated the Articles of War in effect at the time, the failure to hammer a woefully-outgunned and -manned ANV at Antietam, etc. Labeling those points as “rhetoric” won’t cut it.

  15. Ray O'Hara August 18, 2011 / 4:32 pm

    , is the truth now anti-McClellan rhetoric? well I guess with LIL’Mac it is.

  16. John Foskett August 19, 2011 / 6:56 am

    I salute those who attempt to defend Mcclellan or explain/justify his actions. To date it’s been an ultimately impossible task, once you get past the 1861-62 training camp. A bit like a coach who has the preparations and game plan wired solid and then falls apart at the kickoff.

  17. Jeff Davis August 19, 2011 / 10:15 am

    John, you’ve described it to a T. That coach later goes on to blame his misfortune on the School administration for their inept leadership.

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