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 Armies of the Union in May 1864

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the WildernessUlysses S. Grant was named General-in-Chief on March 9, 1864. He was one month shy of his forty-second birthday. Grant immediately began to formulate a new coordinated strategy for the field armies of the Union.

His strategy called for coordinated offensives against the Confederate armies in order to prevent them to keep the Confederates from shifting reinforcements within southern interior lines. Grant had realized early on in the Western Theater that defeating the Confederate armies rather than capturing geographical objectives must be the goal of the Union armies.

‘Wear them down and grind them up’ were the keys to this war of attrition. With the Union’s overwhelming industrial strength and its population superiority Grant knew that the Union armies would eventually destroy the Southern Confederacy’s will to resist. The only things that stood in the way of this bloody strategy would be the political will of the Union leaders and the war weariness of the North’s civilian population.

As Grant formulated and implemented his strategy he had at his disposal a number of military formations.

In the Western Theater, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman had been promoted to overall command of all Union armies in the region. Technically, he was commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Within his division  Sherman had three different armies at his command. At the start of the campaign Sherman had 95,000 men, a number that increased to 112,000 by June. This was more than double the Confederate’s manpower.

The Army of the Tennessee had been under the command and Sherman. It now was commanded by Major General James B. McPherson, a 35-year old former engineer. His army included the corps of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan (XV Corps), Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge (XVI Corps), and Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair, Jr. (XVII Corps).

Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield‘s Army of the Ohio, consisting of his own XXIII Corps and a cavalry division commanded by Maj. Gen. George Stoneman.

Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas‘s Army of the Cumberland, including the corps of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (IV Corps), Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer (XIV Corps), Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (XX Corps), and Brig. Gen. Washington L. Elliott (Cavalry Corps).

Sherman’s goals were two-fold: the capture of the key rail junction of Atlanta and the destruction of the Confederate’s Army of Tennessee in battle. With the capture of the city, Sherman would then be in a position to eviscerate the Deep South.

The balance of the armies were in the Eastern Theater. The largest and most well-known was the Army of the Potomac commanded by Major General George Gordon Meade. Meade’s army consisted of three infantry and one cavalry corps. In addition there was one corps, the IX under Major General Ambrose Burnside, that reported directly to Grant rather than Meade.

At the start of the Overland Campaign this force totaled totaled 118,700 men and 316 guns. They were opposed by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with 64,000 men and 274 guns. The goal of Meade’s army was to engage the Confederates in constant battle while driving them east toward Richmond.

The Army of the Potomac was to be aided by Major General Benjamin Butler‘s Army of the James. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. The objective was not to capture the Confederate capital directly, but to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad—a critical Southern supply line—and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade.

Butler’s army consisted of two corps, the X under Major General Q.A.Gillmore with three divisions and the XVIII under Major General W.F.Smith with three divisions. He also had at least 20 batteries of artillery and various cavalry and engineering units under his command.

Major General Franz Siegal commanded the Union Army of West Virginia. Grant commanded Siegal to invade the Shenandoah Valley and destroy Robert E. Lee’s supply lines by driving south and capturing the key city of Lynchburg. Unfortunately, Siegal was only given 10,000 men to accomplish his goals. After his defeat at the Battle of New Market on May 15th, he was relieved and replaced by Major General David Hunter.

Brigadier General George Crook was ordered by Grant to take his Kanawha Division and attack the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, Richmond’s primary link to Knoxville and the southwest, and to destroy the Confederate salt works at Saltville, Virginia. Once he had accomplished this mission he was to was to march east and join forces with Major General Franz Sigel, who meanwhile was to be driving south up the Shenandoah Valley.

Brigadier General William W. Averell was ordered to conduct a cavalry raid against Saltville but he was repulsed at the Battle of Cove Mountain, in Wythe County, Virginia. In this engagement Averell had one cavalry brigade of 2,500 while his opponent, Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, had a force of 4,000.