Unsung Heroes: 10 Union Generals Who Won Without All the Headlines MENU
General William Tecumseh Sherman with his staff including Oliver Otis Howard, John A. Logan, William B. Hazen, Jefferson C. Davis, Henry Warner Slocum, and Joseph A. Mower.

Unsung Heroes: 10 Union Generals Who Won Without All the Headlines

By Ethan S. Rafuse
NOVEMBER 2017 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

There must be more historians of the Civil War than there were generals fighting it,” David Herbert Donald declared in his book Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, adding dryly: “[O]f the two groups, the historians are the more belligerent.” One would think that by now, some 150-plus years after the war, every Union and Confederate general would certainly have received the level of attention and appreciation his services merited. And yet that is not the case. What follows is a look at 10 leaders whose service to the Union cause makes them worthy of a place on any list of Civil War notables.

 

John G. Parke (Library of Congress)

10. John G. Parke

The Union 9th Corps served everywhere, from the coast of North Carolina to the banks of Antietam Creek to the swamps of Vicksburg to the mountains of eastern Tennessee. Because it never really belonged to any single theater of the war, the 9th Corps and its leadership—with the notable exception of Ambrose Burnside—has had a hard time getting the recognition it deserves. Thus, it is not surprising that John G. Parke, who assumed command of the corps after the July 1864 Battle of the Crater fiasco and led it through the end of the war, has not figured prominently in discussions of important Civil War generals.

A Pennsylvania native and West Point graduate, Parke first saw significant service as a brigade commander during Burnside’s 1862 North Carolina Expedition, and was promoted to major general later that year. He spent much of the rest of the war as Burnside’s chief of staff, but commanded the corps during part of Ulysses Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg Campaign while Burnside was stationed in Ohio. Parke returned as Burnside’s chief of staff in eastern Tennessee later that year, and continued in that capacity until the early stages of the 1864 Petersburg Campaign.

After replacing Burnside, Parke gave the 9th Corps solid leadership in the fall offensives around Petersburg. He commanded the Union forces in the critical March 1865 fighting at Fort Stedman and was instrumental in the final push that chased the Rebels out of Petersburg and Richmond on April 2.

 

Well-Rounded: A Mexican War veteran, Nathan Kimball gained notice in Indiana politics, and as a physician and postmaster. (Library of Congress)

9. Nathan Kimball

Any man with a battlefield victory over Stonewall Jackson on his résumé—especially one earned in the Shenandoah Valley—merits more attention and respect from students of the war than Nathan Kimball has enjoyed. Though he lacked a West Point pedigree, Kimball possessed a record of distinguished service in the Mexican War, a willingness to leave a flourishing medical practice, and active support for the Republican Party when Indiana Governor Oliver Morton began looking for a commander for the 14th Indiana. Kimball accepted the post and led his unit in the operations in western Virginia that culminated at Cheat Mountain. By March 1862, Kimball was commanding a brigade in James Shields’ division in the Shenandoah Valley. When Shields was wounded on March 22, Kimball found himself in charge of the Union force at First Kernstown that Jackson believed would be easy pickings. The following day, Kimball and his command corrected this misperception, beating back Confederate attacks until Jackson and his badly bloodied command were forced to make a unpleasant retreat back up the Valley.

For his victory, Kimball received promotion to brigadier general, but had no opportunity to add further laurels to his record until Antietam, where his brigade was among those that assaulted the Sunken Road and won the nickname “the Gibraltar Brigade” for its conduct. After suffering wounds during the fight for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg and declining to return to Indiana to run for office, Kimball transferred to the Western Theater and in June 1863 took command of a division. After participating in operations against Vicksburg and in Arkansas, in April 1864 Kimball was called to Georgia and won praise for his conduct at Peach Tree Creek. Shortly thereafter, Kimball was summoned to Indiana to help the governor deal with disloyal elements in the state, then returned to the field as a division commander in the Army of the Ohio and led his command at Franklin and Nashville.

 

“Fighting Joe”: Joseph Mower (also pictured with Sherman’s other commanders) was a rising star in the U.S. Army but died of pneumonia in New Orleans in 1870, at age 45. (National Archives)

8. Joseph A. Mower

Although he was not a West Point graduate, two years’ attendance at Norwich Academy and service as a private in the Mexican War were enough to secure for Joseph Mower a commission in the Regular Army in 1855. When civil war came in 1861, like many of his peers Mower experienced a rapid rise in rank. After a stint as commander of a Missouri regiment in which he distinguished himself in the capture of Corinth, Miss., Mower ascended to brigade command in the Army of the Mississippi. In fighting at Iuka and Corinth in the fall of 1862, he survived a neck wound and earned promotion to brigadier general.

During the Vicksburg Campaign, Mower’s performances continued to impress his superiors. Among those was William T. Sherman, who proclaimed him the “boldest young soldier we have.” In the Red River Campaign of 1864, Mower was one of the few bright spots for the Union, commanding a successful assault on Fort DeRussy, a post Rebel authorities proclaimed to be “the Confederate Gibraltar,” and fighting effectively at Yellow Bayou. He followed this with a solid performance as a division commander at the July 1864 Battle of Tupelo.

Following promotion to major general, Mower joined Sherman’s army at Atlanta and received command of a division in the 17th Corps, which he led during the Federal marches through Georgia and the Carolinas. Once again he impressed Sherman, who after the Battle of Bentonville elevated Mower to command of the 20th Corps. After the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston’s army, Mower and his command were sent to Texas, where he received the task of organizing and training African-American units and became a champion of civil and political rights for the freedmen before a fatal pneumonia attack brought an end to his distinguished career.

 

Able Leader: The famously plainspoken Canby made up for a lack of charisma and social skills with his adroit administrative abilities. (Library of Congress)

7. Edward R.S. Canby

In early 1862, Confederate forces were on the march with the ambition of staking claim to the region west of Texas and possibly extending the new nation’s boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. The man the U.S. government entrusted the task of denying the Confederates their goals was Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, commander of the Department of New Mexico. Through careful management of the limited resources at his disposal, Canby was able to recover from an early tactical setback at Valverde and, by compelling the Confederates to retreat back to Texas, win a major strategic victory for the Union. A little more than three years later, the Kentucky native added another major accomplishment to his résumé. In one of the last major actions of the war, forces under Canby’s command successfully assaulted Fort Blakely, Ala., and brought Mobile into Federal possession in early April 1865. Canby then accepted the surrender of Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. His long career in the U.S. Army, which included service in the Second Seminole War and Mexican War, came to a tragic end in 1873 when Modoc warriors murdered him in the middle of peace talks in California—the only general officer killed during the Indian Wars.

Undoubtedly, the main reason Canby’s accomplishments have not made him a household name is that they occurred far from the “main stages” of the Civil War. Another consideration is that though he conducted his work with solid competence and quiet modesty, he seemed to lack personal charisma or social skills. Furthermore, Ulysses S. Grant, whose writings have done so much to shape our sense of just who the Union stars of the war were, seems not to have thought too highly of Canby’s qualities as a field commander, even though he shared the near universal respect for his administrative abilities.

 

Trusty Dave: David Gregg survived typhoid fever early in the war to play a key role in several major campaigns and battles, such as at Raccoon Ford, Va., in September 1863. (Library of Congress)

6. David M. Gregg

David McMurtrie Gregg is almost the only cavalry commander to fight at Gettysburg who has not received significant attention from historians. Although the Pennsylvanian performed solidly during the first two years of the war, it was not until George Stoneman’s raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign that he had an opportunity to seriously test his talents as a division commander. Although the raid failed to accomplish much, Gregg not only retained command of his division but also led one wing of the attack on the Confederates at Brandy Station that demonstrated the Union cavalry was becoming a force with which to be reckoned.

In the Gettysburg Campaign, Gregg and his division partook in the engagements in Virginia’s Loudoun Valley during the armies’ marches north and screened the advance of the Army of the Potomac’s right wing as it advanced toward the Mason-Dixon Line. Arriving at Gettysburg on July 2, Gregg received the critical task of covering the army’s right and rear. The following day, Gregg kept his command near the Hanover Road and ordered George Custer’s brigade to come to his assistance. These actions ensured there would be sufficient force available to thwart whatever J.E.B. Stuart hoped to accomplish that day—though given the flair with which Custer did just about everything, it is not that surprising that Gregg would be overshadowed in accounts of the fight at East Cavalry Field.

Gregg followed up the Gettysburg Campaign with important service in the Bristoe Station Campaign and the 1864 raid that culminated at Yellow Tavern, as well as engagements at Haw’s Shop, Trevilian Station, and Saint Mary’s Church during the Overland Campaign. During the Petersburg Campaign, Gregg and his division played important roles in the operations at Deep Bottom and attacks on Confederate logistical networks south and west of Petersburg.

Unfortunately, shortly after Hatcher’s Run, Gregg decided he had had enough and resigned his commission. Given just how much active service he had seen, it is understandable that Gregg could not face another day in the saddle. Nevertheless, the end of his distinguished career meant he missed the final stages of the Petersburg and Appomattox Campaign.

 

One Wild Ride: If nothing else, James Ricketts’ Civil War was eventful from the start. He suffered a wound (and was captured) at First Bull Run and nearly missed the end of the war due to a serious chest wound at Cedar Creek. (Library of Congress)

 

5. James B. Ricketts

At First Bull Run, the war’s first major battle, James Brewerton Ricketts figured prominently, commanding one of the Union batteries during the fierce fighting on Henry Hill, where one of his foes, Thomas J. Jackson, won fame for standing “like a stone wall.” When the Federal army withdrew from Henry Hill, Ricketts was left behind, having suffered multiple wounds, and ended up spending several months in Richmond, during which time his wife, Fannie, made well-publicized visits to minister to her husband. After being exchanged, having recuperated from his wounds, the New Yorker in April 1862 accepted appointment as brigadier general and command of a division.

During the Second Bull Run Campaign, Ricketts and the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps, had the thankless task of obstructing the march of James Longstreet’s wing of the Army of Northern Virginia through Thoroughfare Gap. Ricketts probably did as well as he could, but simply did not have enough men to hold off Longstreet’s command. In the fighting at Second Bull Run that followed, Ricketts once again played a significant role. A few weeks later, his division was in the thick of the morning’s fight at Antietam.

Ricketts, though, would not get a chance to demonstrate what he could do in the field for more than a year after Antietam, probably due to his lack of zeal for the prosecution’s case when he served on Fitz-John Porter’s notorious court-martial. Finally, in March 1864, Ricketts received command of the 3rd Division in the 6th Corps, which he led through the Overland Campaign and the opening stages of the Petersburg Campaign.

Then, in response to Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Raid, Ricketts’ division was sent north to defend Washington, D.C., received praise for its efforts on the Union left at Monocacy, and had a significant hand in defeating the Confederates in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Wounded severely in the chest at Cedar Creek, where he exercised corps command briefly, Ricketts nevertheless managed to resume command of his old division two days before the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox. Ricketts never fully recovered from his wounds, and today this underappreciated officer rests next to his wife and son (who served with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War) at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

‘Papa Willich’: Though a disciplinarian, August Willich remained popular among his soldiers, most of them German-born. They no doubt appreciated that he preferred leading from the front. (Library of Congress)

4. August Willich

The man born Johann August Ernst von Willich left Europe in the early 1850s following a duel with a man who had taken exception to Willich’s characterization of Karl Marx as being too conservative. When civil war broke out in his adopted homeland, Willich did not hesitate to offer his talents to the Union as an officer and leader of men—refined during a youth spent in the Prussian army and his experience commanding forces in the German revolutions of 1846-48 (during which no less than Friedrich Engels served as his aide). After service in western Virginia in 1861, Willich raised a regiment of Germans and under his driving, innovative leadership it quickly won recognition as one of the crack units in the Union Army.

For his superlative performances at Rowlett’s Station and Shiloh, Willich won promotion to brigade command and a brigadier generalship. (At the latter engagement, Willich conspicuously had his regimental band play the revolutionary anthem “La Marseillaise” as it maneuvered on the battlefield.) He fell into Confederate hands when they shot his horse from under him at Stones River and endured captivity until May 1863. After being exchanged, Willich returned to the field and once again performed exceptionally in the campaigns for Tullahoma and Chickamauga, where his men employed the innovative tactics he had drilled into them. He subsequently led the assault on Missionary Ridge that broke the Confederate defenses at Chattanooga, with his brigade among the first to reach the top of the ridge. He was wounded in the fighting at Resaca, Ga., in May 1864, and was relegated to administrative posts for the rest of the war. One of the truly great combat leaders in the Union Army, Willich ended the war a brevet major general.

Any man who was too “Red” for Marx and too tough for the Rebels deserves to be far better remembered by posterity.

 

Out of the Shadows: Horatio Wright faced a tall task in replacing the popular John Sedgwick in command of the 6th Corps but proved up to the challenge. (Library of Congress)

3. Horatio G. Wright

On May 9, 1864, John Sedgwick inadvertently ensured that he would be eternally remembered when he uttered perhaps the most famous last words ever spoken by an American general, declaring to his nervous men that the Confederates at Spotsylvania “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” just before he was struck down by a Rebel sharpshooter. Lamentably, Sedgwick’s legacy casts a huge shadow over the capable officer who took his place as commander of
the Union 6th Corps: Horatio G. Wright.

The Connecticut native’s Civil War began at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va., where he was captured while trying to destroy it so the Rebels could not use its facilities. After his release, Wright assisted in the massive fortification of Washington and served as a staff officer at First Bull Run, earning promotion to brigadier general. He saw service in South Carolina and Florida, then received command of the Department of the Ohio, where he bolstered his reputation during the successful Federal response to the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in 1862. Wright finally took command of a division in the 6th Corps in May 1863 and led it through the Gettysburg Campaign and the fall campaigns of 1863. He was the senior division commander when the 6th Corps lost its beloved “Uncle John” and subsequently found himself overshadowed not just by his predecessor but the more celebrated Winfield Scott Hancock and Gouverneur K. Warren, despite leading his corps through some of the most brutal and demanding operations of the war in Virginia.

Wright finally got the opportunity to show what he could do when his command was detached from the Army of the Potomac and sent from Petersburg to Washington. Wright’s men reached the capital in time for their presence at Fort Stevens to ensure the Confederates under Jubal Early would go no farther. Wright was critical to Phil Sheridan’s ability to defeat Early in the Shenandoah Valley. He then returned to Petersburg and commanded the decisive assault that finally broke the Confederate lines there on April 2, 1865. Four days later, he followed this up by smashing the Confederate defensive line at Sailor’s Creek. It was a remarkable record that merits far greater appreciation from students of the Civil War.

 

Stricken in Texas: Griffin died only two years after the war. Named colonel of the 35th Infantry and given command of the District of Texas, he died of yellow fever during an epidemic in Galveston. (National Archives)

 

2. Charles Griffin

Charles Griffin was one of the pivotal figures in the fight for Henry Hill at First Bull Run, which decided the outcome of the war’s first major battle. In 1865, Griffin led one of the corps threatening the Army of Northern Virginia near Appomattox Court House that sealed the fate of Robert E. Lee’s command. In an army in which turnover in personnel was constant and upon which the nation’s attention was persistently fixed, it is surprising that a man who was such a continual presence in its officer corps (and who married a prominent Maryland society lady) has not garnered more notice.

Griffin was teaching artillery tactics at West Point when slave states began leaving the Union and responded by organizing the so-called “West Point Battery.” After leading the battery at First Bull Run and during the opening stages of the Peninsula Campaign, the Ohio native was promoted to brigadier general in June 1862 and earned praise for his brigade’s performance during the Seven Days. Although he did not play significant roles at either Second Bull Run or Antietam, Griffin was promoted to division command during the fall of 1862. He then led his division through the great campaigns that culminated at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor—and on through the Siege of Petersburg. Griffin finally received well-earned promotion to command of the 5th Corps when Phil Sheridan controversially relieved Gouveneur Warren in the aftermath of Five Forks and subsequently led the corps in the Appomattox Campaign.

Unfortunately for his place in history, illness forced Griffin to miss all but the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. There his division’s three brigades, especially the one commanded by Colonel Strong Vincent, made the most of their moment on the war’s grandest stage and winning the sort of attention from history that Griffin, despite his long record of meritorious service, has never really garnered.

 

The Cornerstone: Like Griffin, Curtis enjoyed the spoils of war only briefly, dying in 1866 in Iowa while studying construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. (Library of Congress)

1. Samuel R. Curtis

A West Point graduate and one-time U.S. congressman from Iowa, Samuel Ryan Curtis first came to notice when, as commander of the Army of the Southwest, he led one of the North’s first successful major campaigns. In early 1862, as Union forces elsewhere seemed inextricably stuck in the proverbial mud, Curtis drove out of Missouri the last remnants of the Confederate army that had embarrassed the Federals at Wilson’s Creek back in August. He then pushed into Arkansas and won decisively at Pea Ridge in March before moving east to capture Helena, crushing the hopes of pro-Confederate Missourians.

These accomplishments in the field should have been enough to ensure Curtis a significant place in the war’s historiography—or at least a major command in one of the war’s main theaters. Unfortunately for Curtis, they were followed by two years in which he faced the thankless task of managing affairs in Kansas and Missouri, places where bitter interstate antagonism, guerrilla warfare, intense internal factionalism, and his own abolitionist sentiments made for unending headaches. Despite these obstacles, as commander of the Department of Kansas, Curtis was able in the fall of 1864 to organize an “Army of the Border” in response to a major Confederate invasion of Missouri and decisively defeat Sterling Price at the Battle of Westport.

Arguably, no man did more for the Union cause west of the Mississippi River than did Curtis. And yet, in scholarship on the war in the region, he remains overshadowed by such (admittedly more exciting and dynamic) figures as Jim Lane, Nathaniel Lyon, Sterling Price, and Earl Van Dorn.

 

Ethan S. Rafuse, a regular contributor to America’s Civil War, teaches at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is the author of several books, including McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.

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