Rethinking Political Generalship (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on September 28, 2006)

One of the premises that informs Mark’s reevaluation of the Bermuda Hundred campaign is the willingness to question the stereotype of “bad” political generals versus “good” professional soldiers.  The traditional literature suggests that the implementation of Union strategy as well as the success or failure of Union forces on the field of battle was whether untrained generals who owed their commissions to their own political status hampered the success of Union arms.

Mark is absolutely correct in that this traditional premise needs reexamining, and there have already been some attempts to do so.  I think it would be even better to abandon the premise altogether, and to start from scratch.  Here are a few of my premises in this discussion:

1.                  Most generals and colonels (the latter especially at the beginning of the war), regardless of their background, had some type of political connection working for them.  This was as true of Grant and Sherman as it was of most others.  One of the possible exceptions to that rule was George H. Thomas, and even he could get some indirect protection through Sherman.  I’m sure the diligent search could nominate other names, but those exceptions prove the rule.

2.                  The line between civil and military spheres was at least blurred and in many cases obliterated during the war.  Professionally-trained military officers corresponded with officeholders, editors, prominent politicians, and the like.  This was as true of Joseph Hooker as it was of George McClellan and as it was of Ulysses S. Grant.

3.                  Lincoln, cabinet members, governors, senators, and congressmen also blurred that line past the point of easy definition.  Salmon P. Chase stands out as one example; Richard Yates of Illinois stands out as another.  The struggles over command structure in various field armies, most notably the Army of the Potomac, offers abundant evidence of this.

4.                  One of the traditional explanations for Lincoln’s decision to commission several leading political figures is that he used those commissions as a form of patronage, in order to ensure support for the administration.  If that was so, it did not always work very well, as the cases of Butler, FrJmont, and Banks demonstrate.  All three men considered the possibility of seeking higher officer in 1864.  The Pathfinder launched an abortive third party run, while Butler was scheming with various groups throughout the summer.

5.                  Another traditional justification is that military incompetence was the price Lincoln had to pay for enlisting the support of these “political generals” by giving them commissions.  Let’s set aside Banks’s ill-fated Red River campaign, for Banks may have been blamed too much for the outcome.  However, the performance of Franz Sigel and Butler (regardless of what’s been posted here) throughout the spring and summer of 1864 did great damage to Grant’s spring plan of campaign.  Given that by August there was great concern over Lincoln’s reelection, might it not have been better to remove those people, take the political heat, and replace them with more trusted subordinates who might have gotten the job done better and in a timely fashion?  After all, Grant was being asked to produce significant results in a limited amount of time, results that would convince a majority of voters in the North that all was going well, and yet he found himself handcuffed in his ability to pick out the generals to implement his plan.  (This touches upon another myth, that of Grant’s “free hand,” which resides next to the equally mythical claim of “unlimited resources,” but one myth at a time.)

This is far from an exhaustive list, but simply to set some of these ideas out might suggest the degree to which the time-worn understanding of the relationship between war and politics needs serious reexamination.  There’s enough work here for serious students of the war who want to stick to military subjects and who may find it wise to eschew the sensationalistic in favor of the solid.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking Political Generalship (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

  1. John Foskett June 22, 2012 / 6:57 am

    The notion that there were “political” generals and on the opposite end of the 180 degree spectrum “professionals” is an illusion. Take the uber-“military professional” Fitz John Porter. He may have spent more time corresponding with Manton Marble of the New York World than he did issuing orders. Ironically, he was cashiered by politics.

  2. jfepperson June 22, 2012 / 7:27 am

    There is a heavy dose of irony about the Bermuda Hundred campaign, because it was undone as much because of issues w/ the two professionals (Smith and Gilmore) who were supposed to guide Butler.

  3. Tony Gunter June 22, 2012 / 8:21 am

    “One of the traditional explanations for Lincoln’s decision to commission several leading political figures is that he used those commissions as a form of patronage, in order to ensure support for the administration.”

    I suppose you would know more about these than we would, but I thought the point of commissioning political generals was to ensure support for the war, not the administration. And once you start giving away stars to Democrats, you certainly can’t ignore your own party. Eventually, this patronage system would extend to the states, who would begin to grumble if the roster of major generals didn’t include one of their native sons (Charles Hamilton). I suppose eventually this included ethnic groups as well (Sigel, Osterhaus). Maybe even religious groups (Rosecrans).

    I understand what you’re saying with regard to the fact that ALL civil war generals were political generals in some form. Perhaps this line should be drawn where a general managed to outlive his usefulness and / or competency (Butler, McClernand, Sigel, Rosecrans, Hamilton).

    I won’t even touch Banks, because I don’t want Ned to scream at me. 🙂

    • Ned B June 23, 2012 / 3:54 am

      Haa haa haa. I am working on being mellow ,so no screaming. Banks did outlive his usefulness to the powers that be, so why not add him to that list. Other examples of generals who outlived their usefulness would be McClellan, Pope, Buell, and McDowell. Whats unclear to me is the purpose of drawing a line and labeling some generals as political and others as not.

      • tonygunter June 28, 2012 / 6:42 am

        It seems clear from an a priori position that the ACW was unique in American History in that we had very-high-ranking generals who enjoyed their stars only because of their value as high-profile political supporters of the war (McClernand … blech!).

        I suppose the distinction would be perfectly clear if West Point actually taught war-fighting doctrine at the time, but West Point graduates of the day probably had more exposure to French and Math than doctrine.

        Perhaps one could say that the very worst of the political generals was Lincoln? (Duck!)

  4. Ned b June 22, 2012 / 1:19 pm

    The diligent researcher can find political backing for Thomas, so he is not quite the exception some want.

  5. TF Smith June 26, 2012 / 6:21 pm

    Is there such a thing as a civil war WITHOUT political generals?

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