Failed Union Civil War Generals

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Civil War GeneralsThe American Civil War probably had the greatest number of failed general officers in the history of the United States. In fact, both sides saw more general officers who were either relieved of command or later investigated by various Congressional committees.

In the defense of general officers on both sides, none of them had commanded any formation larger than a regiment. Most had commanded companies, battalions or batteries. A number of these officers had been at West Point most recently.

The antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men scattered across the United States at isolated posts and forts. Many of the West Pointers, like Robert E. Lee, spent the majority of their non-Mexican War service as engineering officers building coastal defenses or supervising the maintenance of harbors and waterways.

Imagine their shock when they were assigned to command formations with thousands of soldiers. At the Battle of First Manassas the combined number of troops engaged was 36,000. The combined armies had between 60,000 and 69,000 men. In the early fighting the armies were really armed mobs. It wasn’t until 1863 that the troops and their officers became hardened veterans.

In this series we’ll start by looking at failed general officers in the Union Army. The most notable, of course, was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, General-in-chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was followed by Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside.

There were a number of general officers throughout the history of the Army of the Potomac and other Eastern commands who were relieved of command. Perhaps the most notable was Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In the Western Theater, there were Maj. Gens. Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. Both of them were relieved of command. Rosecrans carried on a feud with his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, until his dying day.

Many of the Union Army’s failed general officers were so-called ‘political generals’ like Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegal. Many of them were Democrats whose support Abraham Lincoln saw as critical to the war effort. He did not want the war to be a Republican one but rather wanted it to be a Union effort.

However, some of the ‘political generals’ were not schooled in any type of military training or if they were their experience dated from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 when they were junior officers. These officers tended to make a hash of their battle assignments.

One successful ‘political general’ was Ben Butler who precipitated the ‘contraband’ rules that the Union government adopted when he was the commander of Fortress Monroe. He was also successful when he was the military commander of occupied New Orleans. However, he was never very successful as a battle commander.



The Rape of Athens, Alabama

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Colonel John B. TurchinAs the Union armies in the Western Theater penetrated deeper into Confederate territory there were increasing numbers of attacks by irregulars against them. The attacks would precipitate the sacking of the northern Alabama town of Athens.

Guerrillas made regular attacks against Union troop trains, supply columns, stragglers and isolated outposts. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in southeastern Tennessee and northern Alabama.

The first Union troops in the area was a division of 8,000 under Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel. His division entered the area in April 1862, just after the bloody Battle of Shiloh from April 6-7, 1862. Ormsby was best known for ordering  espionage agent James J. Andrews to steal a train in Georgia and disrupt a railroad vital to the Confederate States Army coincident with Mitchel’s planned attack on Chattanooga, Tennessee. The raid failed, as did Mitchel’s military operation.

Ormsby’s troops had a number of experiences with local residents that prompted almost immediate reprisals. A company from the 21st Ohio, passing through the area by train, were fired upon by snipers. The company commander stopped the train at the next station and ordered the house where he believed the sniping came from to be set on fire.

Col. John Beatty warned the residents of the Paint Rock, Alabama area that every time a telegraph wire was cut, he would burn a house. Every time a train was fired upon, Berry warned them that a man would be hung. “We would continue to do this until every house was burned and every man was hung between Decatur and Bridgeport…” He then ordered the town burned and three citizens taken as hostages.

Mitchel approved of these actions by his subordinates. No one seriously expected the Union Army to ignore partisan attacks and  summary execution for those who fought outside regular military formations was a long-accepted tradition. Besides the partisans also preyed on local civilians, taking food, horses and other supplies.

The sack of Athens, Alabama on May 2, 1862 by troops under the command of Col. John B. Turchin was the most famous incident of the time. Turchin was a Russian emigre who commanded an infantry brigade in Mitchel’s division. The attack on Athens was precipitated by Union reports that a recent cavalry raid against them originated from the town. Some of the soldiers believed that they had seen civilians from the town assisting the cavalry by firing on the Union troops.

Turchin assembled his men and told them: “I shut my eyes for two hours. I see nothing.” Business were hit first, and anything of value that could be carried away were looted and anything that could not be was simply destroyed. After rampaging through stores the soldiers plundered private homes.

A slave girl was raped. The soldiers also attempted to rape a servant girl. The violent behavior of the soldiers caused a pregnant woman to suffer a miscarriage and die. The townspeople estimated the damage to be fifty-five thousand dollars. The resulting pillage and plunder came to be known as the Rape of Athens.

No immediate action was taken to investigate the sacking of the town. The citizens of Athens complained to Mitchel, asking for redress. He responded that their charges were non-specific with no individual soldiers being identified. Col. Jesse S. Norton of the 21st Ohio investigated the attack. He submitted a report to Mitchel but it was ignored.

When word reached Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, he insisted on a court-martial of Turchin. Buell was a noted member of the conciliation party within the Union Army. Norton had gone to Washington to press his case with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton found out he pressed charges against Norton who was sent home in disgrace.

Turchin’s court proceedings received national attention and became a focal point for the debate on the conduct of the war, related to the conciliatory policy as Union casualties in the war mounted. However, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Turchin to brigadier general before the court-martial was finished.

Turchin received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Chicago. Prominent figures called for the removal of Buell and a more aggressive conduct of the war such that it be brought to a swift end. Turchin was given command of a new brigade. He distinguished himself during the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and in the Atlanta Campaign.

Turchin has been portrayed by many in the South as a villainous figure for the so called “Rape of Athens,” however his actions presaged those that other Union commanders, in particular William Tecumseh Sherman, would adopt in prosecuting total war against the Confederacy.





The War of the Generals

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series The Western Theater Part Two

The War of the Generals

After the capture of Fort Donelson, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck continued his campaign of undermining Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant, unbeknownst to Grant this was a war of the generals. Halleck was not a particularly good military general but in the field of bureaucratic infighting, he was a polished warrior.

Halleck had attempted to diminish Grant’s stature in the eyes of Washington from the very beginning. He constantly badgered Grant on every detail of his planning. It seemed that Grant could do nothing right.

At the head of the Department of Missouri, Halleck wanted as much of the credit for Grant’s victories as he could garner. After the victory at Fort General Henry HalleckDonelson, Halleck recommended that Don Carlos Buell, Grant and John Pope be promoted to the rank of major general of volunteers and that he himself be given the overall command in the West. General-in-chief George B. McClellan. “I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson”, wrote Halleck.

By adding Buell and Pope, who had done absolutely nothing, Halleck sought to diminish Grant’s achievements. Halleck sought to expand his sphere of command by absorbing Buell’s Department of the Ohio into his own. Fort Donelson only fell to Grant because Halleck’s orders to halt the advance was intercepted by a Confederate-synpathizer in the Cairo telegraph office.

Halleck also persisted in setting up a reasonable alternative to Grant by continuing to ask for Charles F. Smith’s promotion to major-general. Smith, indeed, deserved promotion but Halleck’s only desired it to diminish Grant. McClellan turned down all of Halleck’s requests except for Grant’s promotion which President Lincoln immediately sent to the Senate who approved it without delay. Smith was promoted at a decent interval after Grant.

It seems that Ulysses Grant was not very aware of Halleck’s attempts to sideline him. He continued to plan for further advances after Fort Donelson.  After the capture of the fort, the Confederates had evacuated Columbus, Kentucky on the Mississippi and the Tennessee River towns of Clarksville and Nashville.

Grant continued to keep Halleck informed of his activities. On February 19th, he informed Halleck’s chief of staff that he was sending General Smith to occupy Clarksville. He also suggested a further advance to Nashville which was there for the taking. On the 20th, Grant accompanied by General John McClernand and other staff officers sailed down to Clarksville and toured the town. General Smith and part of his division set out for the same destination on the 21st.

By now, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee number 27,000 men. He reorganized his growing force into four division with the addition of the Fourth Division under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut. The new division commander was an Illinois lawyer who had been born in South Carolina to New England parents. He was a partisan politician who had been elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1859 and again in 1861.

Hurlbut was another bureaucratic infighter who had been favored by Halleck for his administrative skills. Halleck had recommended him to Grant General Ulysses Grantwho gave him the Fourth Division. He was not well liked by his troops and there was some question about his character.

With the contemplated movement to Nashville, Grant was beginning to encroach into the department of Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell. Buell was a general who was very much like Halleck. While Halleck fretted over the possibility of a Confederate attack on Cairo, Buell became decidedly nervous when his troops came within a three day march of the enemy.

Nashville was in Buell’s department and despite constant prodding from McClellan and Halleck, he was not about to be rushed. The constant bickering between Buell and Halleck was becoming a problem for the Union fortunes in the Western Theater.

When Grant thought that he needed reinforcement, Halleck asked for the use of a division for the Fort Donelson campaign. In typical Buell fashion, the division of Brig. Gen. William Nelson a week after the Confederates had surrendered. Grant dispatched them back to Buell by way of Nashville.

When Buell arrived in the city on February 25th, Nelson and his troops were already there, sent by steamboat from Fort Donelson. Buell was quite upset and complained to Smith at Clarksville that with Nelson in possession of the city, he would now have to hold the south bank at Nashville. He opined that the enemy was about to attack at any time, which was purely delusional. Buell ordered Smith, who was technically in his department, to report to him in Nashville with his entire force.

General Don Carlos BuellGrant chose this moment to visit Nashville. When he stopped in Clarksville, Smith showed him Buell’s order. Grant agreed that it was nonsensical but told Smith to obey it anyway. Arriving in Nashville, Grant toured the city and happened to meet Buell as he was leaving. According to a member of Grant’s staff, Buell was an angry man. When Grant told Buell of his intelligence that the Confederates were actually heading south as fast as possible, Buell said it was not so.

On March 2nd, Halleck ordered Grant to move his army to the southern Tennessee border. It was at this point that Halleck attempted to relieve Grant. He accused him, in a telegram to McClellan, of not communicating with headquarters. He also suggested that the army was demoralized after the victory at Fort Donelson, a charge that was patently false.

McClellan responded that Halleck had his permission to relieve the victorious Grant at his discretion. Halleck immediately ordered Grant to turn over command of the army to Smith and remain at Fort Henry. The most successful general in the Union Army had been relieved for being just that. Halleck followed this up with a series of condescending dispatches, lecturing Grant on the importance of “order and system” in the army. Grant was thunderstruck by Halleck’s actions and followed his commands to the letter.

Henry Halleck had won this battle of the bureaucratic war. However, on the evening of March 12th, Smith suffered a freak accident while boarding a rowboat. Within two weeks of his relief Grant was back in command. He had sent Halleck a response to all of his accusations, explaining his action.

Then Grant did something that Halleck never thought that he would do, he forwarded copies to Congressman Elihu Washburne. Washburne was Grant’s patron and also a friend of Lincoln’s. Washburne went to Lincoln who instructed the adjutant general of the army to demand a full report from Halleck. Providentially for Halleck, McClellan had been relived of command and Halleck had been promoted to replace him.

Halleck, in order to begin his new job on the right foot, restored Grant to command and left for Washington. A truce had been declared in the war of the generals. Grant hurried upriver and arrived at Savannah, Tennessee on March 17th to find Smith in poor health. His injured shin had become inflamed and shortly after Grant’s arrival took to his bed. Smith died on April 25, 1862 from his injury, a deep loss for the Army of Tennessee and Ulysses Grant.