Re-evaluating leaders of the Civil War

It’s still Tuesday, so we haven’t missed a day.

Having finished Foote’s Civil War magnum opus, I find my opinion of some Civil War figures changing. Let’s take a look at how. I’ve noted changes of opinion in an upward direction with a plus sign, of downward direction with a minus sign, and no change (where some commentary is required to justify the choice) with an o.

Lincoln: +

Honest Abe, even in his own day, has (had) about him a sort of mythic status. The epithet ‘The Great Emancipator’ came about during Lincoln’s life. That’s the sort of thing that can go to a man’s head.

And yet it never did for Lincoln. Foote portrays him as an extremely human figure, warm to his family, fond of bad jokes, and distressed by the human cost of the war. He comes across as a genuinely good man, and one entirely equal to the task thrust upon him, no matter what his critics at the time said.

He only gets one plus because I had a high opinion of him before.

Jeff Davis: —

Ol’ Jeff Davis was not equal to the task before him.

Leaving aside the moral component of the war and any discussion of its secondary and tertiary reasons, Davis was simply not a great man. You couldn’t ask for a better parable: Lincoln, humble in the face of the many and varied slings and arrows thrown his way, led the Union successfully; Davis, uptight and concerned for his personal honor, never forgot a slight and drove away a number of capable subordinates over the course of the war.

Two minuses, because I went from a neutral opinion of him to a very negative one.

Grant: o

Grant goes up in my estimation in some ways and down in others.

The downsides first: Grant didn’t have very many battles where he wowed me with his tactical prowess. Once forces were engaged, he strikes me as a fairly conventional commander, buoyed by an unflappable confidence, good subordinates, and a willingness to improvise.

The upsides next: Grant was an excellent strategist, and very hard to discourage. In both the Vicksburg Campaign and the Overland Campaign, he parlayed repeated failure into ultimate success. On the Mississippi, he had the hardest of times getting below Vicksburg, kept trying, and eventually penned Pemberton in and stopped Johnston from getting there with reinforcements. North of Richmond, he correctly realized that his side had a natural supply line from the sea and a much larger army, and that Lee couldn’t abandon his capital. A few leftward sidles and a long siege later, and Grant had his victory.

Sherman: +++

Sherman is an interesting one, and the only man to get three pluses in this article.

Why? Because I think Sherman was probably the best Union commander of the war. He was an able battlefield leader, as he demonstrated under Grant, but he was also a superb strategist in his own right. The campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta features Sherman waltzing around Johnston, who found himself turned out of strong position after strong position. Sherman’s superpower was looking at a map, pondering for a bit, then deciding exactly where to march to make an enemy fortification useless.

Sherman gets three pluses instead of one or two because I’d previously thought of him as Grant’s shadow, when he might have been the better general in the final reckoning. I would have loved to see a Lee vs. Sherman campaign.

Lee: +

Lee had a superpower, too, in which he would say, out of nowhere, “I think those people will march to Location So-and-So,” and be one hundred percent spot-on correct, sometimes before the Union line officers even knew where they were going.

Lee has a bit of a mythical reputation already, but the fact that he was right so many times earns him a plus.

Beauregard: –

Beauregard was widely beloved and effective on the rare occasions he actually had some men to command, but spent so much of his time cooling his heels away from battle, planning insane long-shot schemes for Confederate victory, that I find his prominence in history is not commensurate to his prominence in fact.

Johnston (Joe): –

Given half a chance, Johnston would have retreated all the way to Tampa Bay.

Stuart (Jeb): –

Jeb Stuart loses a plus for abandoning Lee on the way to Gettysburg, and hence causing Gettysburg.

Lee might have lost some points for Gettysburg if he had his cavalry at hand, too.

Rosencrans: +

Rosencrans is my first pick against the spread, as it were. He was extremely slow to get moving, but I have a hard time arguing with his results. The Tullahoma Campaign, unlike many of the large-scale, multi-column plans in the war, went off pretty much without a hitch. Largely bloodless, it allowed for the capture of Chattanooga and enabled later victories on the road to Atlanta. Unlike Sherman’s campaign, Rosencrans conducted it against an enemy who had roughly equivalent forces, even if that enemy was Braxton Bragg.

Rosencrans did lose Chickamauga in rather embarrassing fashion, and bears a good deal of responsibility for it. Had he shown a bit more battlefield spine, he might have gone down in history as one of the Union’s best.

Burnside: +

Burnside knew the Army of the Potomac was a job above his competence, said so, and did his best not to lose the army after he was appointed over his own protests.

His plan for Fredericksburg was sound at heart, and in fact Burnside is in rarefied company as one of the few men to steal a march on Lee. He doesn’t get full marks for it, however, because ensuring you have adequate bridging material is part of your job as general.

Meade: ++

Meade was a workaday commander who was perfectly effective under Grant, and Grant had confidence enough in him to leave the Army of the Potomac under his control when Grant had other places to be.

He gets some extra credit for taking over the army in the midst of its pursuit of Lee toward Gettysburg, and reacting quickly enough to news of the developing battle to get his entire army on the field. Most generals looked bad facing Lee. Meade merely looked average.

Sheridan: –

Sheridan gets a lot of credit as one of the Union’s only reasonably competent cavalry commanders. I think he gets a bit too much. He never really faced a peer cavalry force and won, most of his great victories were won against weakened enemies. Against better opposition, his aggression might have gotten him into trouble.

J.B. Hood: +

Hood was an aggressive, competent commander hamstrung by the fact that his side was badly deficient in providing men and matériel. Had he been a Union general, I suspect he might have been one of Grant’s favorite corps commanders.

He wasn’t really cut out for command of an army, though, easily frustrated as he was; he needed a superior to draw rein now and then. After his well-planned first sortie from Atlanta met with failure due to bad luck and bad subordinates, he planned a bunch of less likely sorties. Later, on the road to Nashville, his attack against Franklin was an ill-considered disaster.

He’s the nega-Grant, in a sense—pretty good at tactics, not very good at all at strategy.

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