Lincoln’s Political Generals

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

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.




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.



Political Generals of the Union: Ben Butler

This entry is part 9 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Political Generals of the Union: Ben ButlerBenjamin Butler of Massachusetts was among the worst of generals yet in certain circumstances he made a dramatic impact on the Union war effort. He was politician and shrewd businessman who never ceased to be both even though who wore the uniform of a major general of volunteers.

Butler had served in a variety of militia positions in his state, rising to the rank of brigadier general of the militia. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a fellow Democrat, appointed him to the Board of Visitors of West Point. Despite this, these positions did not give him any significant military experience.

Butler was a Democrat who was opposed to abolition was defeated for the governorship by Democrat-turned-Republican Nathaniel Bank. He was generally active in Democrat state politics having served one term in the state legislature. He was a lawyer whose success allowed him to buy into the Massachusetts clothing mill industry.

At the start of the war Butler sought and eventually received a commission as brigadier general of the Massachusetts forces that were raised from Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers. As a mill owner he was able to take advantage of the mobilization to secure the contract for the heavy cloth that the militia would need for uniforms. Military contracts became a significant source of profits for mill.

Butler commanded the two regiments that were involved in the riots in Baltimore when they attempted to march through the city from one train station to the other. Secessionists mobs attacked the first regiment and Butler who landed at Annapolis with the second regiment was able to restore order with several not so subtle threats to the governor.  He also threatened Maryland legislators with arrest if they voted in favor of secession, and eventually seized the Great Seal of Maryland.

He was ordered to occupy Baltimore by the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. However, even though he successful in keeping open the vital rail link from the North to Washington, Scott criticized him. Despite this criticism, Butler received one of the early appointments as a major general of volunteers.

His next assignment was the command of Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. He sailed there and took command of the formidable fortification in May 1861. He also sent a force to occupy Newport News which gave the U.S. Navy an excellent anchorage.

The Confederates saw the occupation of Fort Monroe and the immediate area as a significant threat to Richmond. Robert E. Lee, then commander of all Virginia’s forces, sent Brig. Gen. John Magruder to secure a forward post at Big Bethel hoping to lure Butler into premature action. Butler took the bait and his forces suffered an embarrassing at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10.

Butler did not personally lead the force and was later criticized for that action. His plan was much too complex for untrained and undertrained subordinates and troops to execute. In addition, there was a friendly fire incident. The Union troops advanced without scouting the enemy positions or knowing the strength of their opponent.

Butler was also involved in a significant policy decision when he refused to return three runaway slaves to their master. His reasoning was pure legal brilliance. When the owner appeared at the fort in a Confederate officer’s uniform, Butler refused to return the slaves because the Fugitive Slaw Law did not apply as the South was no longer part of the United States. He declared them contraband of war, a decision that President Lincoln officially approved.

Later in 1861, Butler commanded an expeditionary force that, in conjunction with the United States Navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. He directed the first Union expedition to Ship Island, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in December 1861. In May 1862, he commanded the force that conducted the capture of New Orleans after its occupation by the Navy after the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and political subtlety. He devised a plan for poor relief, demanded oaths of allegiance from anyone who sought any privilege from government, and confiscated weapons. Union officials noted that Butler the politician was successful as an administrator even though he was not a very good commander.

However, many of his acts while in command at New Orleans were controversial. Most notorious was Butler’s General Order No. 28 of May 15, 1862, that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation”, i.e., a prostitute. This was in response to women in the town who were pouring buckets of their own urine on Union soldiers, and who at the time could get away with anything as respectable women.

The uproar was heard all of the way to Washington, London and Paris. He was nicknamed “‘Beast’ Butler” or alternatively “‘Spoons’ Butler,” the latter nickname derived from an incident in which a woman was arrested for smuggling and the silverware she was carrying was confiscated.

There were also suspicions of corruption, although not proven, that he knew about the activities of hos brother Andrew who was also in the army stationed in New Orleans. Upon arriving in the city Butler immediately began attempts to participate in the lucrative inter-belligerent trade.

He used a Federal warship to send $60,000 in sugar to Boston where he expected to sell it for $160,000. His use of the government ship was reported and instead of earning a profit, military authorities permitted him to recover only his $60,000 plus expenses. Thereafter, his brother Andrew officially represented the family in such activities. Everyone in New Orleans believed that Andrew accumulated a profit of $1–$2 million while in Louisiana. Upon inquiry from Treasury Secretary Chase in October 1862, Butler responded that his brother actually cleared less than $200,000.

The Second Confiscation Act gave the Butler brothers a golden opportunity to profit from the seizures of Confederate cotton and other materials. First, Butler conducted a census during which 4,000 respondents refused to take a loyalty oath. He then banished them and had their property seized. It was then sold at very low auction prices where Andrew Butler was often the buyer.

Next the general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal. Once brought into New Orleans the cotton would be similarly sold in rigged auctions. To maintain correct appearances, auction proceeds were dutifully held for the benefit of “just claimants”, but the Butler consortium still ended-up owning the cotton at bargain prices.

Butler also conducted censorship of the newspaper, jailing one editor for three months and confiscating his press. Butler also ran afoul of the foreign consuls residing in New Orleans. Although his actions were popular in the North, they made the Union government uneasy and President Lincoln authorized his recall and replacement by Nathaniel Banks in December 1862.

Lincoln finally in November 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. In May 1864 the forces under his command were designated as the Army of the James. General Ulysses Grant, now General-in-Chief, assigned Butler the task of attacking Petersburg from the east.

Butler’s offensive bogged down at the Bermuda Hundred, immobilized by the greatly inferior force of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and he was unable to accomplish any of his assigned objectives. But it was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that finally led to his recall by General Grant.

Butler’s importance to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln precluded his removal before the November 1864 election. Butler who by now was a Radical Republican was considered as a possible opponent to Lincoln. After the election Grant appealed directly to Lincoln for Butler’s relief, noting “there is a lack of confidence felt in [Butler’s] military ability”. Lincoln agreed and Grant relieved Butler of the command of the Army of the James on January 8, 1865.

Butler was retained by the army until November 1865 with the idea that he might act as military prosecutor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But that opportunity never came and he returned to Massachusetts where after serving 10 years as a member of the House he was elected as Governor in 1882.

Ben Butler never ceased to be politician even though he was nominally a soldier. He was not very good as a military man but he did have value as an administrator. His decision to name escaped slaves as contraband of war was a major step to the eventual emancipation of slaves.