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One of the world’s foremost military historians evaluates the war’s top commanders.

America was awash with generals in 1865, but when the Civil War began in 1861 there had been almost no generals on either side. The only men holding that status were a few ancients who had risen to their rank during the Mexican War or survived from even earlier conflicts.

The procedure for appointing new generals was strangely unsystematic. Because promotion to general’s rank lay in the hands of Congress, those chosen were normally made brigadier or major generals of U.S. volunteers, which were organizations of the states, rather than in the Regular Army, a federal institution. As they took the field, and if they proved their worth, they might be given Regular Army rank, which was greatly esteemed. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, began his general’s career as a brigadier of Illinois volunteers but was then given a commission as major general in the Regular Army until, in March 1864, he assumed the appointment of general-in-chief and the rank of lieutenant general.

As the war drew out, it became easier for President Abraham Lincoln to identify which of his appointments were good ones and which merited further promotion. What Lincoln looked for in his generals was the ability to achieve results without constantly requiring guidance from Washington or reinforcement by additional troops. The war produced far too few such men. Lincoln’s first choice, Irvin McDowell, faltered at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 and was swiftly removed, replaced by George B. McClellan, who had won a few small battles in the western Virginia mountains early in the war.

McClellan shared some of McDowell’s experience. He had been to Europe to observe the Crimean War, and had also served with distinction in the Mexican War. He had more ability than McDowell, however, particularly in the training of troops, at which he excelled. McClellan was an excellent organizer and master of the details of logistics, whose armies were always well fed and supplied, and whose troops held him in high esteem despite his insistence on strict discipline.

The “Young Napoleon” was always popular with his men. That was partly due to his defects as a commander. Because he did not believe in inflicting heavy costs on the enemy, his soldiers were often not pressed in battle to the point of suffering heavy losses. He also at first got on well with Lincoln, who admired his intellect. The era of good feeling did not last. Civilian though he was, Lincoln knew what he wanted from a principal military adviser, and McClellan quickly revealed that he was not the man to supply it. Appointed to command the Union troops defending Washington in July 1861, and then promoted general-in-chief in November, he dissipated his and his subordinates’ energies in discussion of projects and in reorganization during his first nine months of authority.

When, in April 1862, McClellan eventually embarked on action, he at once began to exhibit symptoms of caution and defeatism, which proved to be fundamental qualities of his character and made him unfit for high command of any sort, let alone supreme command. The first stage of his grand strategic idea, the transshipment of the Army of the Potomac by sea and river to the Virginia Peninsula, was inspired and ought to have led to great results. As soon as his army landed in enemy territory, however, McClellan began to torment himself with fears of being outnumbered. He also failed to do what he could easily have done had he begun forcefully and at once. Confounded by enemy entrenchments across the Peninsula, he declined to storm those defenses, although they were weak and lightly garrisoned. Instead he began to await reinforcements from Washington.

When at last the enemy abandoned his positions and began to retreat toward Richmond, McClellan followed lethargically. Although managing to achieve a small victory at Williamsburg, he eventually arrived outside Richmond in July having scarcely damaged the enemy at all. What followed was even worse than his failure to press his advance up the Peninsula. He began to fight, in what would become known as the Seven Days’ battles, but halfheartedly, so that what should have been victories ended as indecisive defeats, disabling to neither side but fatal to McClellan’s plan of defeating the Confederacy by capturing its capital.

Throughout the Seven Days’ Campaign, the Union commander pestered Washington with requests for reinforcements, predicting disaster unless he was given more troops. Eventually, he was ordered by Henry Halleck, his successor as general-in-chief, to withdraw the army by ship from the Peninsula and bring it back to Washington. Once arrived, he persisted in his distaste for decision by failing to come to the support of General John Pope, who was thereby exposed to defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas. In its aftermath, Robert E. Lee resumed his advance northward until brought to battle at Sharpsburg, Md.

Antietam was a battle McClellan should have won, since he outnumbered Lee several times. He frittered away the advantage in piecemeal attacks, however, and though the result was a sort of Union victory, McClellan’s refusal to pursue the badly shaken Confederates resulted in their escape. Antietam was the end of McClellan’s military career. In November 1862, he was removed from command.

McClellan’s failure in generalship cannot be ascribed to the actions of the enemy but to his own defects of character. His was a curious mixture of high self-regard and disabling anxiety. However many troops he was given, he always chose to believe that the enemy had more and was receiving reinforcements that exceeded in number any he was offered. This was a form of moral cowardice. But it was also an effect of his professionalism. His armies were so well organized that he shrank from exposing them to anything that would disorganize their perfect order, as battle was bound to do.

Convinced of his personal superiority over all others on the Union side, including the president, he took his failures as proof of their failure to support him. McClellan may be thought the worst general of the war, and his reputation has suffered greatly in the war’s aftermath; yet his is one of the most interesting psychological cases in military history: a first-class military mind capable of achieving great results at leisure but utterly incapable of overcoming difficulty, even, perhaps particularly, imagined difficulty.

Without being wholly incompetent, he threw away any chance he was given, wasted time when circumstances were in his favor, and shrank from delivering decisive blows in battle even when events were running his way. It is fortunate that he was never asked to exercise authority in the West, since he was constitutionally incapable of achieving such victories as those at Forts Henry and Donelson, let alone of recovering from a setback such as occurred for the Union on the first day at Shiloh.

McClellan is most obviously contrasted with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who possessed the qualities he lacked and, though indeed often outnumbered, had the gift of compensating for numerical weakness by striking savage and unexpected blows. Jackson’s virtues are easy to enumerate. He had an acute topographical sense, enabling him in the complex geography of the Shenandoah Valley to read the lay of the land as if by instinct. He also had an empathetic understanding of how his enemy would react and how his movements would conform to the geographical accidents of the campaign theater.

His philosophy of war was to establish psychological superiority by surprising, mystifying and misleading his opponent, which he succeeded in doing on occasion after occasion. He succeeded because he was utterly without fear or self-doubt. He was, however, not without faults, notably those of aloofness and secretiveness. He did not explain himself to his subordinates or take them into his confidence, with the result that, when he was not present in person, his plans could miscarry. Generally reckoned the war’s supreme practitioner of battle – field command and an un doubted master of maneuver in small theaters of action, Jackson was not really a general of the highest gifts.

His talents were for operations outside the center of events. Moreover, he was a bad subordinate sometimes, as at the opening of the Seven Days’ battles, when he declined to obey orders or coordinate his movements with those of his superior. He also preferred improvised arrangements than conformity to a system. Thus, before Chancellorsville, he used a clergyman as his chief of staff, without broadcasting the appointment to his subordinates—an obvious recipe for confusion and misunderstanding. A deeply devout Christian and member of the Presbyterian Church, Jackson was Calvinist in his outlook both as an individual and as a military commander, since preordination influenced all his judgments.

He refused to fuss about the risks he ran in the presence of the enemy because he said the time of his death was fixed by God and that there was therefore no point in feeling fear. He said he felt no more fear on the battlefield than he did settling to sleep in his own bed, and that all men should feel the same, in which case all would be equally courageous. Jackson’s supreme lack of anxiety, both under fire and in decision-making, assured him a unique place among Civil War generals, indeed among generals of any army or nationality. He was certainly a very great general, if of a somewhat limited sort.

The North never produced an equivalent to Jackson; no Union general ever matched him in his ability to inspire his soldiers or win their affection, which allowed him to extract from them feats of endurance unequaled by any other units or formations, North or South. Jackson had little or no strategic vision, and poor powers of analysis, but in a small theater whose geography he understood, he was almost invincible. Unlike William T. Sherman, however, he bequeathed no legacy of generalship. His talents were too personal and too momentary in effect to be formalized into an operational system, and though he was to be imitated and admired for generations to come, his achievements could not be turned into lessons or methods for would-be imitators.

Jackson was the complement to Robert E. Lee, whom he served with great loyalty, perhaps because he was impressed, as a deeply devout Christian, by Lee’s purity of character. Even as war broke out, Lee was regarded in both North and South as the most eminent soldier in the country. He was offered command of the Union Army but chose instead to lead Virginia’s troops. Lee had been an outstanding cadet at West Point and a successful engineer officer, and had served with distinction in Mexico. Curiously, he did not enjoy a successful start in the Civil War. He was nevertheless chosen to replace Joseph E. Johnston, wounded during the Seven Days’, as President Jefferson Davis’ principal military adviser, and given command of the Army of Northern Virginia, which he held to the war’s end, then with the additional title of general-in-chief.

Lee’s great talents were as a tactician rather than as a strategist. His strategic views were rather narrow. He really had only one stroke of strategic inspiration throughout the war, which was to carry the war onto Northern soil in 1863, with the object of relieving Virginia of the burden of being fought over, profiting from the supplies that were to be captured, and raising Southern spirits and depressing those of the North. Lee’s generalship, like Jackson’s, was too personal to be formalized as an operational meth – od. Moreover, it was derivative, based on Napoleon’s achievements; Lee believed that the pursuit of victory was the true strategy and that victory was best attained by inflicting crushing defeats on the enemy in the style of Austerlitz or Jena, Napoleon’s great victories over the Austrians and the Prussians.

Those were the victories taught and studied at West Point, and Lee was responsible for achieving at least two in that pattern: Chancellorsville and Second Manassas. Although Lee was a “creative” imitator of Napoleon, he cannot really be credited with any originality. On a battlefield, by contrast, Lee fizzed with ideas that he conceived at high speed and carried out with extreme dispatch. That was particularly evident at Chancellorsville, his military masterpiece, where he deliberately broke several fundamental rules of generalship, yet achieved a striking victory.

Lee’s greatest gifts of generalship were quick and correct decision-making in the face of the enemy, exploitation of his enemy’s mistakes, and economic handling of the force available to him. His defects were excessive sensitivity to the feelings of his subordinates and a failure to insist upon his own judgment, both of which emanated from his breeding as a Virginia gentleman. His defeat at Gettysburg stemmed largely from his failure to give direct orders to General James Longstreet and to insist on those orders being carried out. Lee was undoubtedly a very great soldier and a formidable opponent. He was also, however, a great gentleman and an indulgent colleague, qualities that could detract from his powers of will and decision.

Lee’s generalship was enhanced by the inferiority of his opponents during the first two years of war. McClellan simply was not his match in mental firmness or power of decision. In George Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg, he met a man who equaled him in efficiency, if not in imagination or daring, but it was not until Grant came east in 1864 that he was challenged by someone of equal, indeed superior, quality.

Grant was the greatest general of the war, one who would have excelled at any time in any army. He understood the war in its entirety and quickly grasped how modern methods of communication, particularly the telegraph and the railroads, had endowed the commander with the power to collect information more quickly and the means to disseminate appropriate orders in response. Once his qualities became apparent, as they had by 1862, he rose very quickly.

Nothing in his earlier life had marked him out as exceptional; indeed the contrary was the case. The son of a moderately prosperous Illinois family, he was nominated to West Point against his will, and while a cadet he followed with hope a congressional de bate on closing the academy down. He excelled at his studies, particularly in mathematics, and hoped upon graduation to find employment as a professor. But academy routine carried him into the Army and he served successfully in the war against Mexico, of which he strongly disapproved, believing it to be an aggressive and immoral conflict. After the war he was posted to California, where, separated from his beloved wife, Julia Dent, he took to drink and disputation with his seniors, which led to his resignation from the Army. He was unsuccessful in civilian life, failing as a farmer and in commerce, and reduced eventually to working as a clerk in his father’s tannery.

Redemption came with the outbreak of the Civil War. Grant’s military training and experience proved to be in demand, and enlisted by the governor of Illinois to help organize the state’s volunteers, he gained command of a regiment and commanded it successfully in local action. Grant proved an efficient organizer of men, then in an early action a decisive and successful commander with remarkable intellectual powers, including the gift of dictating clear orders without hesitation in a steady stream. He was quickly advanced from colonel’s to brigadier’s rank and given larger powers in the campaign on the lower Mississippi River.

His victories at Forts Henry and Donelson brought him to the attention of Lincoln and ensured the acceleration of his career. By 1864, when he had overseen a string of victories in the West, including Shiloh and the capture of Vicksburg, he was widely recognized as the best Union general, brought to Washington, and appointed general-in-chief, thus embarking on a new passage, against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln had decided he was indispensable.

Most of Grant’s battles were costly in casualties. He nevertheless retained his men’s confidence and devotion, and eventually he came to be almost venerated by his soldiers, who would gather in silent groups to watch him walk past. Grant seemed at home in the West. He applied his keen sense of topography to its sinuous rivers and jumbled hills and mountains and never seemed to have been confused by their complexity. He certainly did not allow difficulties of terrain to interfere with the supply of his troops, which was never interrupted even during the most difficult passages of his campaigns.

Grant had a philosophy of war, which was to keep the enemy under relentless pressure at all points and to fight whenever opportunity offered. This style of generalship tried his men very hard. Indeed, without the assurance of frequent reinforcement, Grant would have had to desist from his desire to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before its destruction was achieved. Grant’s reputation was made late.

It was greatly to Grant’s advantage that he was served by talented subordinates, with whom he established cordial personal relations. That was particularly so with Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Sherman was a sort of alter-Grant, having the same aggressiveness and relentlessness, though he went even further than Grant in his belief in the moral effect of offensive force on the enemy’s will to resist. Sherman resembled Grant in his originality; his determination to attack the spirit of the Southern people was an entirely novel approach to war-making and anticipated the technique of psychological warfare as employed by 20th-century European commanders fighting against national liberation movements in post-1945 colonial campaigns. Sherman came to believe that the South could only be beaten if its people were made to suffer both in body and spirit.

Sherman applied his philosophy of destruction and spoliation first in Georgia, then in the Carolinas, and it worked as he believed it would. It is not surprising that he has been made the object of study by modern strategic analysts. He also showed something of Grant’s gifts of communication, quickness of decision and ruthless analysis of the military situation. Although not as gifted a writer as Grant, Sherman composed several aphorisms about war that have passed into the anthologies.

His most considered statement of his beliefs was “we are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as the organised armies.” Sherman and Grant were the two outstanding generals of the war. Sherman’s legacy was the more lasting, since his style of war-making—brutal and decisive—was highly imitable. As a battlefield commander, however, Grant was more able, with higher achievements and more decisive victories to his credit.

Sheridan, Grant’s cavalry commander in the East during the last year of the war, owed much to Grant’s sponsorship and, like him, had an unpromising start. His first appointment was as a quartermaster officer, but he excelled at the unglamorous duties of supply in a war where supply was of paramount importance. He also later demonstrated unequalled powers of leadership, by personal example and vivid inspiration, as during the campaign against Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. Grant even succeeded in keeping on terms with General Meade, a notoriously cantankerous man with reason for dissatisfaction, after Grant ranked him as general-in-chief and then established his headquarters with Meade’s personal command, the Army of the Potomac.

In panoramic view, it remains remarkable that, out of a body of trained officers not more than 3,000 strong, America should have produced between 1861 and 1865 two unquestionably great soldiers, Grant and Sherman, of whom Sherman was also a visionary. Just below their level it also produced a gifted battle-winner in Lee, who would have shone in any of the contemporary European wars of maneuver. Not far below them in workaday talent belonged Philip Sheridan, and the Cromwellian Stonewall Jackson. America’s Civil War continues to provide a wealth of material for the study of generalship of the highest order.


This article is excerpted from The American Civil War, by John Keegan. Copyright 2009 by John Keegan. Published by arrangement with Alfred A Knopf, and imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here