Lincoln’s Political Generals


Abraham Lincoln after his nominationThe history of the American Civil War can be divided in two halves: before Vicksburg and Gettysburg in mid 1863 and after. The two year time before the two important events, the battle of Gettysburg and the Fall of Vicksburg, were disastrous for the Union in most cases. There were some exceptions, usually fighting in which Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Union forces.

At the start of the war Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, made a fateful decision that almost created the permanent division of the country. Quite simply, he put the wrong generals in charge. Concerned that the war would be seen by Northerners as a Republican war he chose to appoint Democrats to positions of power in the Union Army.

Most of the Democrats were politicians and many had never served a day in their lives in the Army. Those that did usually left  the Army at a low rank and returned to civilian life. Meanwhile, the Confederates appointed men who been active in the Army; men like Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas J. Jackson and Jeb Stuart.

Those officers who remained loyal to the Union were often non-entities that suffered defeat after defeat as the better men rose to the top like cream. It was a close-run thing. In the East the Union Army suffered a number of defeats, including twice at Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederate victors called it. They were defeated at Ball’s Bluff and Big Bethel.

They fought the Confederates to a standstill at Antietam but should have swept them from the field. They were surprised a Chancellorsville but at Gettysburg the professional soldiers were able eke out a defensive victory that gave the Army of the Potomac a lift in their morale.

Let’s take a look at some of the political generals. The most prominent was Ben Butler of Massachusetts. Although he sympathized with the South, Butler stated that “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs”.  Butler was appointed as a major-general in the Union Army. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could be treated as free men, 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.

Nathaniel Banks was another Bay Stater who Lincoln chose as one of the first major generals of volunteers, appointing him on May 16, 1861. After suffering an inglorious defeat in the Shenandoah at the hands of the newly famous ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Banks replaced Benjamin Butler at New Orleans as commander of the Department of the Gulf, charged with liberating the Mississippi. But he failed to reinforce Grant at Vicksburg, and only took the surrender of Port Hudson after Vicksburg had fallen. He was then put in charge of the Red River campaign, a doomed attempt to occupy eastern Texas. Banks had no faith in this strategy, but the outgoing General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, is believed to have told Grant that it was Banks’ idea, in order to dodge responsibility for this expensive failure, for which Banks was removed from command.

Franz Sigel was a German immigrant was a graduate of Karlsruhe Military Academy in 1843, and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Baden Army. He left the army in 1847 and became a leader of in the Revolution of 1848. equipped and more experienced Prussian and Württemberg troops. In 1852 he emigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis. Throughout the summer, President Abraham Lincoln was actively seeking the support of anti-slavery, pro-Unionist immigrants. Sigel, always popular with the German immigrants, was a good candidate to advance this plan. He was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861, to rank from May 17, one of a number of early political generals endorsed by Lincoln.

Sigel had a mixed career with fine performances at the Battle of Pea Ridge but utter defeats at the Battle of New Market. After the battle, Sigel was replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. In July, Sigel fought Lt. Gen.Jubal A. Early at Harpers Ferry, but soon afterward was replaced by Albion P. Howe. Sigel spent the rest of the war without an active command.

John C. Fremont was an American military officer, explorer, and politician who became the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for the office of President of the United States. During the Mexican American War, Frémont, a major in the U.S. Army, took control of California from the Bear Flag Republic in 1846. Frémont then served as military Governor of California; however, he was court-martialed for mutiny and insubordination. Frémont became one of the first two U.S. senators elected from the new state of California in 1850.

During the Civil War, he was given command of Department of the West by President Abraham Lincoln. Although Frémont had successes during his brief tenure as Commander of the Western Armies, he ran his department autocratically, and made hasty decisions without consulting Washington D.C. or President Lincoln. After Frémont’s emancipation edict that freed slaves in his district, he was relieved of his command by President Lincoln for insubordination.

John Alexander McClernand was an American lawyer and politician, and a Union general in the Civil War. He was a classic case of the politician-in-uniform coming into conflict with career Army officers, graduates of the United States Military Academy. He was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois and a representative in the U.S. Congress before the war and then served as a subordinate commander under Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater, fighting in the battles of Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh in 1861–62.

A close friend and political ally of Abraham Lincoln, McClernand was given permission to recruit a force to conduct an operation against Vicksburg, Mississippi, which would rival the effort of Grant, his department commander. Grant was able to neutralize McClernand’s independent effort after it conducted an expedition to win the Battle of Arkansas Post, and McClernand became the senior corps commander in Grant’s army for the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863. During the siege of Vicksburg, Grant relieved McClernand of his command for his intemperate and unauthorized communication with the press, finally putting an end to a rivalry that had caused Grant discomfort since the beginning of the war. McClernand left the Army in 1864 and served as a judge and a politician in the postbellum era.

Stephen Augustus Hurlbut was a politician, diplomat, and commander of the U.S. Army of the Gulf in the American Civil War. He was one of the most successful of the political generals of the war. When the Civil War erupted, Hurlbut joined the Union Army and became a brigadier general on May 17, 1861 and a major general on September 17, 1862. He commanded the 4th Division, Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh and in the advance towards Corinth and the subsequent siege. He also led a division at the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge, taking command of the entire Union force after Gen Edward Ord was wounded.

Hurlbut commanded XVI Corps from his headquarters at Memphis. It has been suggested by the historian Bertram Korn, that during his garrison duty at Memphis, Hurlbut issued antisemitic orders confiscating Jewish property and preventing Jews from trading. He led a corps under William T. Sherman in the 1864 Meridian expedition. Hurlbut subsequently commanded the Department of the Gulf, succeeding Nathaniel P. Banks and serving in that capacity for the remainder of the war. Hurlbut was suspected of embezzlement during his term as department commander.

Lewis “Lew” Wallace was an American lawyer, Union general in the Civil War, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, diplomat, and author. Among his novels and biographies, Wallace is best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), a bestselling novel that has been called “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.”

Wallace’s military career included service in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. He was appointed Indiana’s adjutant general and commanded the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Wallace, who attained the rank of major general, participated in the battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Monocacy. He also served on the military commission for the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and presided over the military investigation of Henry Wirz, a Confederate commandant of the Andersonville prison camp.

At Monocacy Wallace much smaller force (5,800) was able to delay Jubal Early’s much larger force (14,000) for a full day until Union reinforcements arrived. Early was forced to retreat with his dream of capturing Washington thwarted. When the full extent of the battle became known Wallace became the man of the hour. Grant assessed Wallace’s delaying tactics at Monocacy in his memoirs:

If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent …. General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.