Some historians have put forward a theory that the Union generals of the early war were lenient in prosecuting the war due to their political leanings. Abraham Lincoln in an effort to garner support for the war appointed a significant number of Democrats as major generals of volunteers at the start of the war.
The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Abraham Lincoln used such appointments as a way to get the support of moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration (“War Democrats“). The first three volunteer generals Lincoln appointed, (John Adams Dix, Nathaniel Prentice Banks and Benjamin F. Butler) were all Democrats, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were also appointed including Richard James Oglesby of Illinois.
John Adams Dix was a New York politician who had served in the Senate and as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan for less than two months in 1861. He is best known for the telegram that he sent to all Treasury agents in New Orleans. ”If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” Although the telegram was intercepted by Confederates, and was never delivered, the text found its way to the press, and Dix became one of the first heroes of the North during the Civil War.
Dix was the most senior major general of volunteers in the Union Army because his was the first appointment. He served in a variety of commands in the Eastern Theater. He is best known for the Dix-Hill Cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war.
Nathaniel Prentice Banks was a Massachusetts politician who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives as both a Member and then as Speaker. He left the House and ran for the governorship which he won. He was the second major general of volunteers to be appointed by Lincoln. During his career, Banks held commands in Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley and the Department of the Gulf.
He had the bad fortune to have to face Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley during his memorable Valley Campaign of 1862. Jackson bested Banks at Winchester and later at Cedar Mountain.In the South, Banks commanded at the Siege of Port Hudson and on the Red River Campaign.
Benjamin Butler was the third ranking major general of volunteers appointed by Lincoln. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could have freedom, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to declare runaway Virginia slaves “contraband of war”; refusing to return them to their masters.
Then we have the most famous of the Democrat Union generals, George B. McClellan. After the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, McClellan was ordered from his post in western Virginia to take command of the Washington defenses. Based on two somewhat minor victories he was feted by the New York Herald as “…the Napoleon of the Present War.”
On May 14th, McClellan at 34 had been promoted to major general in the Regular Army, outranking everyone but Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.” He was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington.
On August 20th after consolidating a number of Union formations he immediately formed the Army of the Potomac, with himself as its first commander. McClellan considered himself the savior of his country. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I seem to have become the power of the land.”
McClellan immediately went about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac as a superb fighting force. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. From July to November, the army grew from 50,000 to 168,000 men, a stupendous number for the 19th century.
McClellan was a superb logistics officer who understood the use of rail and steamboat transportation in war. However, he never seemed willing to throw his army into the fires of war. Some would say that he loved it too much to risk it in combat. Others whispered that McClellan was among the Union commanders who wished for conciliation with the South on the conditions that prevailed at the start of the war.
McClellan delivered a memorandum to Lincoln on August 2nd which was read to the Cabinet the following day. In it the general seemed to follow Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. He felt that it was necessary “to display such an overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists…of the utter impossibility of resistance.”
McClellan detailed his military grand strategy calling for attacks down the Mississippi, into Missouri, through East Tennessee into Kentucky and into West Texas. Other Union forces would maintain their hold on western Virginia and Fort Monroe. He also alluded to a substantial amphibious forces for attacks along the Southern coastline.
All of this was to be in support of a massive offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond which would be followed by a thrust deep into the Deep South. McClellan called for a massive army of 273,000 troops with 600 pieces of artillery. This force would have been 20 times the size of the army that captured Mexico City in 1847.
McClellan had two objectives with his strategy. First, he hoped to detach the bulk of the Southern people from their presumably weak loyalty to the “political leaders of the rebels.” His second objective was to convince the “governing aristocratic class” that resistance was futile. In order to be successful with the first objective there could be no more Union defeats. At the same time he felt that a lenient policy of prosecuting the war was necessary in order not to alienate the Southern population.
Part of this lenient policy required the Union Army “to crush the rebels in one campaign” according to a letter that he wrote to his wife on the same day as he wrote the memorandum to Lincoln. He ordered his troops to rigorously respect private property, including slaves, and crush any attempt at a slave insurrection. These were the same orders that he gave his troops in Western Virginia.
However, McClellan could not be moved. Throughout the late and into the fall the Army of the Potomac continued to train while McClellan engaged in a bureaucratic struggle with Winfield Scott. Eventually Scott became so worn out with the struggle that he resigned as General-in-Chief. McClellan was appointed in his place and when he did he pressed his conciliatory views on each of the Union Army’s major commanders.