Every war produces officers who distinguish themselves with honor and prowess, and officers who earn a legacy of disdain.
Early in 1862, when his effort to defend the Confederate heartland appeared to be on the verge of complete failure, General Albert Sidney Johnston declared in a private letter that “the test of merit in my profession is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right.”
Yet we assess generals on the basis of more than cold calculations of victory or defeat on the battlefield. Indeed, several generals have not only become targets of criticism for their generalship, but have inspired something more, something akin to loathing and contempt.
In short, they are hated.
No surprise there—Americans care deeply about the Civil War, as it is inextricably intertwined with questions of national and sectional character. Not to mention the cast of colorful and fascinating players the war brought to prominence.
Students of the war invariably find themselves attracted to particular generals—Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Joshua L. Chamberlain, James Longstreet and Patrick Cleburne, for example—partly because they see in these individuals models of leadership and personal character that resonate on a deep, emotional level. Lee and Stonewall Jackson stand head and shoulders above other Confederate leaders because Southerners see in them what they want to believe about their ancestors and society. Yankee enthusiasts likewise see in Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant the embodiment of what they want to believe about themselves, and what made the Union worth fighting for.
This emotional reaction to generals also has its dark side. Just as love and admiration can cloud assessments of some generals, other generals inspire revulsion. Here’s a look at the six generals who arguably stir the greatest degree of hatred. What all but one of them have in common is that they were, on balance, losers on the battlefield who failed Johnston’s ultimate “test of merit.” There were plenty of battlefield losers to be sure, but some like Irvin McDowell, William Rosecrans, John Bell Hood and Ambrose Burnside seem to evoke more pity than hatred.
Can’t say that for these guys.
Any discussion of loathed Civil War generals must begin with George McClellan. Even Little Mac’s sympathizers (and there are some) can’t deny he generates disdain in the broader community of Civil War students. And no wonder. Whatever his merits as an organizer and strategist, there is no question McClellan turned in a decidedly mixed performance as a tactician. This could perhaps be forgiven were it not for the cautiousness that, to many, crossed the line to timidity and lends itself easily to mockery; “cowards die many times before their deaths,” after all, “the valiant never taste death but once.” McClellan also was on the losing side of the debate over whether emancipation should be a Union war aim, and even had the gall in 1864 to challenge his commander in chief for the presidency. Making matters worse, McClellan seemed on the surface to have no compunctions about defying hallowed American traditions of civil–military relations, at times even ignoring the president.
Then there were the Young Napoleon’s personal foibles: the vanity, the contempt toward those he deemed his inferiors (which was just about everybody) and the unwavering certitude of his own correctness. Moreover, for many of us there’s something immensely satisfying in seeing the smartest kid in the class fail, especially when he demonstrates the sort of unbounded arrogance and egotism McClellan seemed to possess. Perhaps it vindicates our democratic impulses or allays insecurities over our own shortcomings, but there’s no question it colors how people responded to McClellan.
But above all, McClellan’s tumultuous relationship with Abraham Lincoln provokes abhorrence. Lincoln remains the most beloved of American presidents, and it is safe to say that few frustrated him more than McClellan, though we can thank the general for inspiring some of Lincoln’s more memorable quotes: “He seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine”; “he has got the slows”; “if he does not use the army, I would like to borrow it.” For generations the central theme in the story of the Union war effort has been Lincoln’s search for a winning general. McClellan and the troublesome Army of the Potomac he created was the great cross Lincoln had to bear until he “found” Grant.
Whatever his faults, McClellan at least was a professional soldier with dash and personal charisma. By contrast, Benjamin Butler’s charms are difficult to discern; his faults, not so much. Indeed, the principal challenge in explaining why so many despise Butler is deciding where to start.
Even his physical appearance was against him. Artists could hardly have asked for a better image of the ugliness and perfidy of the Union cause than Butler’s mug. Then there were Butler’s equally repulsive political machinations. Not only was he the quintessential political general who pulled strings to secure ranks and commands far beyond his credentials and abilities, he was a perfect chameleon, morphing from champion of Jefferson Davis’ presidential aspirations in 1860 to Radical Reconstruction point man in Congress.
That might have been acceptable—and Butler a bit less loathsome—had he been a successful military commander. But he was not. He began well enough in 1861, reopening communication between Washington and the rest of the North and delivering the first blow against slavery by declaring escaped slaves “contraband of war,” thus evading the Fugitive Slave Act. But his defeat at Big Bethel, Va., offered the first sign that Butler had little business commanding troops in the field. Nowhere would this be more evident than in 1864 when he missed a magnificent opportunity to deliver a decisive blow against Richmond. Butler’s Army of the James was driven back to Bermuda Hundred by a much smaller force and trapped as though in “a bottle strongly corked.” Then there was his fantastic scheme to capture Fort Fisher, on the North Carolina coast, which had as its linchpin the explosion of a ship loaded with gunpowder. Its dismal failure is at least good for a laugh, if nothing else.
Above all, of course, Butler’s stormy tenure in command at New Orleans in 1862 earned generations of animosity. It spawned Butler’s nicknames “Spoons”—as silver and other valuables mysteriously disappeared from the city on his watch—and “the Beast,” a consequence of his infamous General Order No. 28. “When any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States,” it declared, “she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
The disrespectful conduct of New Orleans women provoked Butler’s order, and he displayed a certain creativity in crafting it. To his credit, he also demonstrated a degree of administrative ability that has been all too rare in the history of the Crescent City. But given the exaggerated regard then held of the virtues of Southern women, it is not surprising Butler has had few defenders—then or since.
Few obstacles were more formidable, or decidedly noxious, to Ulysses S. Grant’s rise to prominence than John A. McClernand. Like Butler, McClernand was a political general whose aspirations Lincoln indulged in the hope of rallying Democratic support for the war. Though not a particularly bad commander, McClernand was too much of a politician—too full of self-importance and too willing to pull strings—to work effectively within the military chain of command. Indeed, the remarkable harmony that prevailed between the Army and Navy during the operations at Vicksburg might be attributed to the mutual hatred officers in both branches felt for McClernand.
McClernand’s leap from mere nuisance to genuine menace came in autumn 1862. While Grant wrestled Rebels in the Western Theater, glory-seeking McClernand was pulling strings in Washington to secure an independent command that neither his accomplishments, rank nor talents merited. Grant managed to foil McClernand’s schemes by moving on Vicksburg in December 1862, before McClernand could get there. That Grant and William T. Sherman proceeded to botch affairs in Mississippi does little to diminish relief at McClernand’s absence or dismay at his arrival.
McClernand led 32,000 Union forces on what Grant characterized as a “wild-goose chase” to capture Arkansas Post. When Grant arrived in person to assume command of McClernand’s troops, McClernand whined to Lincoln about his situation in a letter bristling with indignation and wounded pride—prompting Lincoln to practically beg McClernand to place the interests of the country ahead of his bruised ego. It was futile. McClernand continued antagonizing Grant, Sherman and Admiral David Porter and may even have gone so far as to add his name to the list of jealous officers who stirred up rumors Grant was drinking.
Like so many villains, McClernand sealed his own fate. During the great campaign that captured Vicksburg, Grant was unimpressed with McClernand’s lackluster performance at Champion Hill. McClernand then misled Grant about whether further assaults on the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg could accomplish anything worth the costs, and convinced the ever-patient Grant to finally proclaim McClernand “entirely unfit for the position of Corps commander.” Blinded by vanity, McClernand then issued a congratulatory order to his troops and released it to the press in blatant defiance of Grant’s orders about such ego stroking, giving Grant the excuse he needed to free himself from his nemesis. When orders relieving him from command arrived, McClernand reportedly exclaimed to the officer delivering them, “Well sir! I am relieved. By God, sir, we are both relieved.”
The other generals listed here have ultimately been judged losers on the battlefield. William T. Sherman, on the other hand, was clearly a winner: the conqueror of Atlanta and the Carolinas, second only to Grant in the pantheon of Union war heroes, the much ballyhooed “prophet of modern warfare” whose methods seem to have anticipated those the United States and allies employed in the world wars of the next century.
Yet several aspects of Sherman’s generalship and character make him a target for scorn. His performance as a tactician in the Western Theater can be charitably described as problematic and less charitably (but perhaps more honestly) as criminal. At Shiloh, his negligence cost countless lives and resulted in the Union army being pushed to the brink of disaster. At Chickasaw Bayou, he threw soldiers away in pointless assaults on an impregnable position. A few months later, he objected to Grant’s strategy for taking Vicksburg, only to see it spectacularly vindicated. At Chattanooga, he floundered against Tunnel Hill. And this is by no means a complete list of Sherman’s battlefield failings. Had any general compiled such a record for ineptitude in Virginia, he would not have lasted long in the Army of the Potomac.
If that weren’t enough, there was the arrogant contempt with which Sherman dismissed the colonel vainly trying to warn him of a Rebel attack at Shiloh, the callousness with which he brushed off the prospect of senseless losses at Chickasaw Bayou, the way he sneered at the character of the men in the Army of the Cumberland at Peachtree Creek, the blatant playing of favorites among subordinates and the outright contempt for the press and democracy that is evident throughout his writings.
And then, of course, there is the special, enduring hatred toward Sherman that Southerners might be destined to never get over, the sources of which are so well known it seems unnecessary to list them again here.
It’s striking, though not surprising, what an embarrassment of riches in odious officers the Union provided—offering, beyond those already discussed, such risible figures as Henry Halleck, James Ledlie, John Pope and Daniel Sickles. It is comparatively difficult to find Confederate officers who generate such aversion. This is doubtless attributable in large part to the South’s underdog status in the Civil War. The war by its very nature inflicted far greater damage on the South, and, because they lost, engendered deep bitterness among Southerners toward the Northern army.
But there is also the matter of Jefferson Davis. While Lincoln is beloved, Davis evokes mixed emotions, with not a few folks placing considerable blame for the Confederacy’s failure at his feet. Indeed, by the 1960s, Davis’ status among enthusiasts of the Lost Cause had fallen so low that historian Thomas L. Connelly called his fabulous spoof of the Civil War Centennial Will Success Spoil Jeff Davis?—and declared that, in addition to crying during Gone With the Wind and gritting one’s teeth when saying “Sherman,” one must “hate Jefferson Davis” to become an amateur Confederate (the first step to professional status). Thus it is not surprising that one of the few things the two Confederates on this list have in common is enjoying close relationships with the Confederate president.
Selecting the most hated Confederate general was fairly easy. Braxton Bragg was the architect of a remarkable record of defeat. He led his army into Kentucky then retreated back to Tennessee after the Battle of Perryville, where he failed to engage his entire force. He delivered a powerful attack against the enemy at Murfreesboro, but didn’t capitalize on it and retreated again. He retreated from Tullahoma after being thoroughly outmaneuvered, then gave up Chattanooga after being outmaneuvered again. Thanks to a magnificent stroke of luck he managed to stumble to victory at Chickamauga, only to let the enemy escape from the field. Finally, after his incompetence and inability to work with fellow officers was demonstrated beyond doubt at Chattanooga, Jefferson Davis was forced to remove him from command of the Army of Tennessee.
“You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward,” Nathan Bedford Forrest declared when he confronted Bragg after Chickamauga. “And if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it.” That it even got to this point is a source of unending frustration to students of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg’s talent for alienating people was evident before the war; he quarreled almost incessantly with superior and subordinate officers and was fortunate not only to survive combat with the Mexicans, but two assassination attempts by his own comrades.
By the time the Civil War began, age and poor health exacerbated Bragg’s faults as a man and commander—excess in imposing discipline, inability to control his anger, lack of imagination as a tactician and stinginess with praise even when his men performed well. He made life unbearable for the men under his command, but did become the rare officer capable of losing the confidence and winning the disdain of all his subordinate officers. Yet President Davis stubbornly stuck with him, even appointing him military adviser after Chattanooga—enabling Bragg to keep sowing mischief for the Rebel war effort and giving posterity reason to lament his presence in the Confederate high command.
In fairness to Bragg, he did have the misfortune of working with the perhaps even more repugnant Leonidas Polk, a man who thought so little of military service and the education he received at West Point—and the obligation to the nation at whose expense he received it—he immediately resigned his commission to enter the priesthood. That this might have been an indication of the bishop’s unsuitability for command was lost on Davis, who in 1861 gave Polk a major general’s commission and command of affairs in vital western Tennessee.
Bragg is reported to have described Polk as “an old woman, utterly worthless.” Worthless, that is, to the Confederacy; to the Union, Polk was an absolute gift. He first demonstrated this value when he took it upon himself to wreck whatever hopes existed for bringing Kentucky into the Confederacy by ordering his troops to seize Columbus. This violation of the Bluegrass State’s proclaimed “neutrality” not only gave the Union a critical propaganda victory, but allowed Federal forces to seize positions at the mouths of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers that would serve as the staging ground for advancing deep into the Confederate heartland in early 1862. Many argue that this single move did more to set the Confederacy on the road to defeat in the heartland than any other.
Polk’s disservice to the Confederacy, however, had only just begun. At Perryville, he demonstrated both incompetence and an unwillingness to properly obey orders, which could perhaps be excused were it not for the arrogance and self-righteousness with which Polk presumed he was fit to determine which orders to obey. These qualities would surface repeatedly in 1862 and 1863, with Polk convinced Davis would shield him from the retribution his toxic conduct and active intrigue against Bragg merited. Polk was not content merely to complain to Richmond, but used his unquestioned charisma and popularity with the troops (in part a consequence of his unwillingness to sufficiently discipline them) to foster a cancerous spirit within the Army of Tennessee.
Nowhere did Polk’s presence bear more bitter fruit than during the Chickamauga Campaign, when defiance of Bragg’s orders resulted in Confederates repeatedly missing opportunities to deliver decisive blows against the Federals. On the second day at Chickamauga, Polk’s trademark casual attitude delayed the launch of an attack on the Union left, at inestimable cost to Confederate fortunes.
If, as some claimed, Sherman was indeed responsible for the shot that killed Polk in June 1864, he must at some point have realized he had performed himself a disservice. After all, it was Polk’s feeble efforts after Chickamauga that made it so easy for Sherman’s troops to wreck the interior of Mississippi early in 1864.
Perhaps it would be best if we could assess generals logically, gauging the merits of their actions by the light of pure reason. But as Carl von Clausewitz advised, war is a human activity in which rational and irrational forces are at work and in which the emotions cannot help but be involved. No wonder military history—especially from the Civil War—has given us such a fine venue to find reasons to hate the individuals upon whom fate placed responsibility for directing the violence that is at the heart of war.
Historian Ethan S. Rafuse is a professor at the U.S. Army Command General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.