The War List: Overrated Civil War Officers

The War List: Overrated Civil War Officers

By Gary W. Gallagher
8/3/2011 • MHQ Departments

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A Confederate veterans' reunion adornment attests to the popularity of Rebel cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest (Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas).
A Confederate veterans' reunion adornment attests to the popularity of Rebel cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest (Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas).

1. Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest
Reached his full potential
Historian Shelby Foote’s widely quoted view that Forrest stood alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of the war’s “two authentic geniuses” defines hyperbole. Forrest was an excellent cavalry officer who vexed Union forces in the Western Theater. His many admirers claimed he should have been given far greater responsibility, perhaps even army command. But Forrest lacked the administrative skills, temperament, and intellect to lead an army. Nothing in his record suggests he could have succeeded in operational or strategic planning and execution.

2. Major General John Fulton Reynolds
The ‘best’ based on little
Reynolds has often been described as the best corps chief in the Union’s Army of the Potomac, a gifted officer who turned down command of the republic’s largest force on the eve of Gettysburg. But he exemplifies the phenomenon of reputations inflated by death in dramatic circumstances. Prior to Gettysburg, he led the I Corps at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, in neither instance distinguishing himself. The shot that killed him on the morning of July 1, 1863, as he rode toward the fighting along McPherson’s Ridge, elevated him to the status of martyred hero—and sparked untold speculation about what might have been.

3. General Joseph E. Johnston
Retreated all the way to glory
Johnston appeals to those who believe Robert E. Lee too often pursued bloody offensives. Frequently compared to the great Roman general Fabius Maximus, he has been lauded as one who understood that masterful retreats and defensive thinking best suited the Confederacy’s needs. Yet his retreats in Virginia and Georgia demoralized the South, while his logistical blundering after First Bull Run, clumsy offensive on the Peninsula in May 1862, and pathological concern with rank and privilege all harmed the cause.

4. Colonel John Singleton Mosby
Achieved a ghostly impact
Few figures from the Civil War have inspired more romantic adulation than Mosby, whose battalion of partisan rangers operated in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere in northern Virginia. The Gray Ghost’s own postwar writings helped burnish his reputation, leaving no deed unmentioned and undoubtedly persuading 20th-century television producers to create a series based on his exploits. Yet Mosby’s attacks on supply trains and other activities, though annoying to Union commanders, did nothing to shape the larger outcome of the war in Virginia.

5. Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain
Canonized by book and film
Chamberlain, commanding his 20th Maine Infantry, was one of many Union colonels who led their units with distinction at Gettysburg, and he compiled a splendid record in later campaigns. He remained largely forgotten until Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels and Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War sent his stock soaring. By the mid-1990s, his reputation outshone that of all Union officers except Ulysses S. Grant and perhaps William Tecumseh Sherman. The “Hero of Little Round Top,” as he came to be known, surely deserves to be remembered—but only as one among many.

Gary W. Gallagher, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of The Confederate War (1997), Lee and His Army in Confederate History (2001), and The Union War (2011).

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32 Responses to The War List: Overrated Civil War Officers

  1. Lady Val says:

    I cannot speak for the others, but I can for Mosby. Mr. Gallagher is dead wrong. Without Mosby, Stuart might well have met defeat (and/or been killed or captured) at Brandy Station and Lee would have lost his cavalry. Mosby’s presence around Washington kept 6100 Union cavalry in that area to prevent his “depredations” (General Hooker’s testimony). Mosby at the time had about 39 men give or take. That’s a hellova bang for the buck!

    At the end of the war, Mosby still had the Yankees jumping through hoops. He stopped the rebuilding of the Manassas Gap Railroad which would have materially assisted Grant against Lee and again, he kept large numbers of Union troops occupied that might otherwise have been used against the Army of Northern Virginia.

    There can be no doubt that Col. John Mosby did have a considerable affect on the war, especially given his numbers. But, of course, he did not change its outcome – but then, neither did Robert E. Lee and I don’t see Mr. Gallagher denigrating Lee’s contribution. Indeed, of all the men under his command, when Lee’s papers were assembled, the one to whom he gave the most praise was – John Mosby! Lee was not known for giving praise, so I must assume that Mosby earned it.

    Choosing between LEE’s assessment of Mosby’s value and Gallagher’s, I choose Lee.

  2. Grunter Robertson says:

    What a load of rubbish. Even myself as an amateur historian can see through this attempt to have a go at the Confederate historians. I would prefer to read honest articles from good historians than to read something of an agenda that this article is.

  3. Grunter Robertson says:

    Note to self. Dont read any of Gary Callagher’s books.

    • Rea Andrew Redd says:

      You should read Gallagher’s ‘The Confederate War’. I bet you’ll find very little disagree with between the covers. Also, check out The Teaching Company’s lecture series on ‘Robert E. Lee and His Lieutenants’ taught by Gallagher. Gallagher is very complimentary to Lee and his staff.

  4. Corey Meyer says:

    Ah yes, the “you have offended my heritage” crew speaks out…

  5. Grunter Robertson says:

    Not at all. I live in New Zealand & have never been to the States. However I am interested in the Civil War but not articles like this one.

  6. Lady Val says:

    Mr. Gallagher has a right to opine on these matters. Indeed, all aspects of any issue should receive an open hearing unless it is so lacking in even basic historic fact as to be invalid on its face.

    That having been said, it is also necessary to be open to DIFFERENT opinions that do not follow the present “politically correct” version of “history.” Being “open” to different opinions means just that: we do not disregard out of hand an opinion – especially one that is credibly sourced – that isn’t part of the “establishment version” of events. Sadly, it seems that today only CERTAIN opinions are given not only credibility, but exposure – and that is diametric to scholarship and rational debate.

    Knowledge only grows in an environment that is open to rational, reasonable and civil debate. Therefore I do not deny Mr. Gallagher the right to either his opinion or its publication. What I do deny is the belief by a great many in academia and the heritage community that only “acceptable historians” such as Mr. Gallagher have any right to so opine.

  7. Eddie Inman says:

    Forrest doesn’t appear to be overrated in Sherman’s opinion, subdue him at the cost of 10,000 lives and breaking the Treasury —

    IN THE FIELD, June 15, 1864 – 6.30 p. m.
    (Received 12 p. m.)
    Honorable E. M. STANTON,
    Washington, D. C.:

    I will have the matter of Sturgis critically examined, and, if he be at fault, he shall have no mercy at my hands. I cannot but believe he had troops enough. I know I would have been willing to attempt the same task with that force; but Forrest is the very devil, and I think he has got some of our troops under cover. I have two officers at memphis that will fight all the time – A. J. Smith and Mower. The latter is a young brigadier of fine promise, and I commenced him to your notice. I will order them to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death, if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury. There never will be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead. We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and have made good progress to-day, of which I will make a full report as soon as one of my aides comes from the extreme right flank. General Grant may rest easy that Joe Johnston will not trouble him, if I can help it by labor or thought.

    W. T. SHERMAN,
    Major-General, Commanding.

  8. don rhyne says:

    Mr gallager, Your credentials speak for themselves.Professor of history in a rebel virginia, 3 books on the subject.Enough said.Keep the truth coming out.

  9. Cliff Culpeper says:

    “Stand Up for Bastards!” – (with apologies to Shelby Foote in appropriating his MHQ article’s title – Vol 4, Issue 3)
    In Defense of the Historian:

    The job of a historian is not to take at face value the commentaries, opinions or even supposed facts elicted by people living in the period which the historian is writing about. Otherwise, a historian writing of Pompeii’s destruction in 79 AD, for example, would have to agree with some contemporary ancient Romans’ belief that the god Vulcan was “displeased” with that city’s citizens – instead of looking for a more scientific answer.

    Rather, a historian needs to sift through the contemporary writings to determine (with the assistance of cross-references, hindsight, and time) what is fact, what is conjecture, and what became “larger than life” or “magnified beyond proportion”.

    In rationalizing their objections to author Gary Gallagher’s War List, readers Lady Val and Eddie Inman base their arguments on quoting contemporary participants’ testimony (Joe Hooker on Mosby; William Sherman on Forrest). But a proper historian must look beyond these statements (not to ignore them – but like a scientist testing a thesis through laboratory work, a historian must remove the emotion that the participants were experiencing at their time and location). There is no doubt that those Union commanders felt, at various times, flustered or severely alarmed at the aforementioned Confederates’ activities – no historian disputes that – but do their actions at that time justify the magnitude of their reputations years-decades-generations afterwards?

    Mosby and Forrest were incredibly good cavalry officers who managed to tie down an extraordinary number of opposing Federal forces at a huge proportional rate – but did they affect anything (other than being good copy for newspapers and future publishers?). Leave alone the fact that the South lost the war – that argument is immaterial – did Mosby’s or Forrest’s tactics win battles large enough to change strategy or policy? To paraphrase Lady Val, Mosby may have tied down federal forces at the Manassas Gap Railroad, but did Ulysses Grant change his approach to Richmond? Or rather, did Grant treat Mosby as a persistent irritant who could not be ignored, but also was not going to change Union strategy and tactics? As football season is starting, think of a quarterback who needs to have his offensive line double-or-triple team one opposing player – but the quarterback is still going to throw to his intended receiver to get a first down and that opposing player didn’t affect the outcome of the play.

    I liken many partisan/guerrilla activites to road detours: your local Public Works department may have to close your particular roadway to fix/install an underground line – so, you select a different route to get to your destination. With the Union Army vis-a-vis the Rangers, the destinations never changed, their routes were little or not affected, a sizable contingent of soldiers were detached to neutralize the partisans (but not so sizable that it weakened the main army), and in the long run (and that is what the historian is writing about – the “long run”), achieve the objective that one set out to do.

    In a sense, a historian’s analysis is like a Google Earth map – one can zoom on down to individual structures and city streets (like the individual soldier – the “grunt’s” view) – and one can zoom “out” see the major players (Grant, Sherman, Lee, Longstreet, etc) – a proper historian has to adjust that “zoom lens” to see how large an impact was made from the “lesser major” actors upon the “major” actors.

    Personally, I have enjoyed reading of the exploits of John Mosby and Nathan Forrest. I have great respect for Mosby when he disbanded his unit at war’s end – thereby preventing Virginia from sinking into banditry as what happened to major parts of Missouri and Tennessee after the war.

    To Mr. Gallagher – overall, I agree with your list – though I reserve a certain sympathy for Joseph Johnston with his plight later in the war. His conduct was better than John Bell Hood’s in the retreat to and through Georgia and the Carolinas.

  10. Lady Val says:

    Credentials are not all that they’re cracked up to be. Remember, it is the teachings and opinions of those who provide the credentials that influence the individual “earning” them. History is not a science. Even science is not a science except perhaps mathematics. There are periods when different folks come along and re-examine the data and suddenly there are different opinions and people earning credentials based upon those different opinions. Many is the “credentialed” scholar who is just plain wrong, credentials (and books published) notwithstanding.

    The study of the mis-named “civil war” has for a long time been mired in political correctness and the desire to repudiate and refute all things “Southern.” Much of what “credentialed historians” produce today is a direct result of this campaign to consign Southern history and heritage to oblivion and should be seen as such by the public.

    Now, I don’t say that Gallagher is involved in that particular crusade here, but it’s interesting to note that other than Chamberlain (who was not a trained soldier), Gallagher’s Union target is marginal at least in name recognition while his Confederate targets are very well known and highly placed in the hierarchy of Southern leaders. He also has three “over-rated” Confederates to two Federals which shows a certain amount of preference – at least on this site.

  11. Lady Val says:

    When judging a commander, it is unfair to judge him by any standards other than the nature of his command. Thus, a man like Mosby (whose tactics were unique for the time and are still studied at West Point) cannot be judged by evaluating whether or not he changed what Grant was going to do – although he did to a certain extent when he prevented Sheridan from rebuilding the Manassas Gap Railroad.

    When you judge Mosby, you must take into account the limited nature of his efforts. Had he been give a wider scope with more men and had he begun his efforts earlier in the war (remember, he did not begin is partisan career – a full novice at that time – until January of 1863), who knows how much influence he might have had in northern Virginia! But even so, he had more than enough to assure that any fame accruing to him is well and truly earned.

    Again, it is unfair to judge Mosby’s talent by any criteria than that under which he fought. Only then can any kind of conclusion be drawn. To judge that he did not prevent Lee’s surrender or the fall of the Confederacy is akin to comparing apples to hand grenades.

  12. Eddie Inman says:

    Cliff, thanks for the laughs. We can shift through every bit of contemporary writings about him, all that can be found is dread of the mention of his name to any and all union commanders. As far as long terms results, then I suppose Gallagher’s list should have Robert Lee at the top and foremost, afterall, he lost. Forrest’s tactics brought an entire new and lasting contribution to warfare, his absolute dedication to mobility. I’d say all armored and air cavalry can be traced back to his dedication to lightning strikes upon the enemy.

  13. […] out Gary Gallagher’s list of five overrated Civil War officers (with a tip of the hat to John Fea).  One of them is Joshua […]

  14. Al Mackey says:

    Prof. Gallagher has provided incisive analysis as usual, and also as usual he’s spot on. To the legion of “offended” readers, the best advice is one that came from another top historian. Don’t fall in love with dead people.

  15. Martyn says:

    I do not know what world Mr. Gallagher lives that he can call Joe Johnston overrated.

    There is a large portion of Civil War historians who place most of the blame for the failure of the Western Theater on Johnston’s shoulders just as much as others blame Bragg, there are those who demonize his conduct in Virginia so Lee appears all the greater in comparison, and most people seem to agree with Mrs Mary Chestnut’s Wade Hampton story that Johnston always passed up opportunities for battle because he was looking for a better one.

    At best Joe Johnston’s reputation is average bordering on good – at the very best – and very few people claim that was one of the greatest of the war or better than Lee or Grant or Sherman or Thomas. In fact I have come across more people who rate Johnston lower than Hood, Bragg and Pemberton than even would even consider him a half descent army commander.

    I’m afraid that this attack on Joe Johnston appears to have a been a case of a fan of Lee having a go at Lee’s critics by attacking the general some think could have been a better choice. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny by anyone who has even looked at the war in glancing.

  16. Eddie Inman says:

    Yes, Cash, “historians” are infallible and without their own biases and prejudices. I’m sure “give the little son a bitch what he deserves”, from the preface of Longacre’s – A Soldier To The Last, really means give a fair and reasoned accounting of Wheeler.

    excerpt —

    One of our best known Civil War historians, told that I was planning a
    biography of General Joseph Wheeler, wrote me to complain that Wheeler was perhaps the most overrated of the Confederate generals and to express the hopes that I would “give the little son of a bitch what he deserves.”

    A Soldier To The Last
    Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeller in Blue and Gray
    Edward G. Longacre
    Page xi

  17. William Hale says:

    How could you list Johnston as one of the most overrated. He has been badmouthed ever since the Civil War that is is extremely difficult to claim that he is overrated any more than claiming that Burnside is overrated.

    How can you have a list like this without putting Robert E Lee on the list?

    Lee lost 5 of the 6 battles during the 7 days and only “won” a strategic victory because McClellan retreated. Lee didn’t force him to do do anything.

    At 2nd Bull Run, he wanted Longstreet to attack the flank to save Jackson and Longstreet waited until he was completely ready and when he did attack, it was devastating.

    Antietam was a disaster for Lee.

    At Fredricksburg, BURSIDE stole a march on Lee and was sitting across from Fredricksburg unopposed before Lee figured out what was going on and moved. There was no brilliant strategy by Lee that caused a Union defeat at Fredricksburg.

    At Chancellorsville, HOOKER stole a march on Lee and should have been attacking down the Orange Turnpike instead of retreating back to the Chancellor house. Hooker knew prior to his movements that Longstreet was not with Lee and that he had a huge manpower advantage against Lee and failed to use it and allowed a much smaller army to split in his front 3 times. Had Grant or Sherman been faced with that situation, Lee would have been destroyed.

    Gettysburg was a disaster for Lee.

    When Lee faced a Grant, no matter Lee’s supposed omniscience, Grant outmaneuvered Lee repeatedly until Lee was forced to go into the trenches of Richmond/Petersburg which he knew was the end for his army.

    Was he a good Commander, yes, was he an all time great like Caesar, Napoleon, or Alexander, not even close. Take away the publicity of the Lee idolatry of all of the lost causers after the war and a realistic view of Lee is of a good commander faced with many problems, but not a great one.


    • Marshal Cogburn says:

      Well now wait a second there. Certainly Robert E. Lee is not a candidate for any list of underrated Civil War generals, as he’s generally considered one of the two or three greatest commanders of the war, and by no means merely by supporters of the Lost Cause. Nor was his reputation a purely post-war contrivance, as attested by the opinion of him held by officers in the Army of the Potomac. Consider, for instance, Grant’s famous cry of frustration at a subordinate during a crucial moment in the Battle of the Wilderness:

      “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, General, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

      The fair question, I think, is whether Lee was wrong on his contributions to the grand strategy of the war, concerning the preferability of fighting a more strictly defensive war versus the more aggressive and risky “offensive defensive” approach he advocated. Lee’s method led to many spectacular victories, but also some dramatic defeats. And even these victories cost so many men that the Confederacy could not afford to lose. Also, both of Lee’s invasions of the North not only resulted in Union victories – which were presumably more likely than they would have been in Virginia, given the support of the surrounding civilians, the comparative soundness of the armies’ supply lines, and, most of all, the need the Army of Northern Virginia felt in Maryland and Pennsylvania to go avoid entrenching and go on the offensive – but also hurt the Confederacy’s case for official recognition by European powers. To the extent that a credible case could be made for, let’s say, a (Joseph) Johnstonian alternative to Lee’s approach, weighing the probable effects on military and civilian morale in both the South and the North, as well as on the logistical considerations that prompted Lee to move North in 1863 in part to secure fodder for his cavalry’s starving horses and bacon for his starving infantry, and to argue all along that his army could not survive a siege, then Lee is overrated in the sense that all of his victories were Pyrrhic in so far as they led him and others to overestimate their lasting strategic gains, and to underestimate the extent to which they slowly destroyed his army.

      But they were victories, and Lee deserves great credit for them. The analysis I’m responding to represents the kind of cherry-picking by which any General could be made to appear incompetent. To take but one example, it is all very well that anyone ever stole a march on Lee, but this happened to every Civil War general – Grant at Shiloh, for instance, and to his army’s near ruin. A more comprehensive analysis is called for.

      The battles of the Seven Days were a series of Confederate defeats that drove the Union army from the field. Lee and his generals succeeded only in acting with sufficient audacity to spook McClellan into retreat, and no one to my knowledge studies this campaign as a model of great generalship. It was nevertheless a clear strategic victory by an outnumbered force that ended the threat to the Confederate capital.

      Second Manassas was similarly audacious. Longstreet’s charge on the second day led to a rout, and that general deserves considerable credit for insisting on waiting until his corp was fully prepared. But Lee deserves some credit for sustaining Longstreet, and more for putting him in that position to begin with. Jackson’s corp’s march around the Union army and subsequent hedgehog impersonation won major gains for the Confederates in captured stores and prisoners, and in disruption to any Union offensive plans, even before Longstreet joined the field and ended General Pope’s military career in the East. For my part, I think this is Lee’s masterpiece, and the attempt to deny Lee credit for it strikes me as stunningly wrong-headed.

      Antietam is a testament to Lee’s stubbornness. His plan to invade the North and destroy portions of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad while what he imagined as the demoralized remainders of McClellan’s and Pope’s commands licked their wounds around Washington was, again, bold and not entirely implausible. Had, say, McClellan’s opponents in Lincoln’s cabinet – who formed a majority by that point – had their way in keeping that general from command, and especially had Pope stayed in charge, it is not difficult to imagine the Maryland campaign having succeeded spectacularly, perhaps including a battlefield victory somewhere in Maryland or Pennsylvania, and possibly resulting in the recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain and France – which was the Confederacy’s best chance at securing an armistice. But once Lee knew that McClellan was in command, possessed the Confederate campaign orders, and had his much larger army on the move, it was foolish to try to fight north of the Potomac. A strategic withdrawal up the Shenandoah Valley was called for, and all indications are that McClellan would not have pursued vigorously if at all. As it was, the Confederates were lucky at Antietam that McClellan hesitated at the prospect of sending his full army at them, imagining, as always, that a hidden half of the opposing forces lay waiting silently in the woods behind the soldiers he could see. Still, McClellan gets credit for the victory for the same reason that Lee gets credit for the Seven Days. Count it as a loss.

      Fredericksburg counts as Burnside’s folly more than anything else, but I can’t see that that’s Lee’s fault. He placed his army in an unassailable position, and Burnside had his men assail it repeatedly. The much larger Union force suffered horrific casualties, and the Confederates rebuffed their invasion attempt. It wasn’t Lee’s best work, but it was one of the most indubitable wins of the war.

      Chancellorsville is usually cited as Lee’s masterpiece, and with reason. General Hooker had a clever plan to make full use of the odds in his favor, which were greater than 2-to-1. He probably shouldn’t have sent his cavalry away, but his plan to use them to cut off Lee’s supplies was sharp, even if it turned out to be unavailing. When Hooker had his forces locked in position south of the Rappahannock and within shouting distance of the Army of Northern Virginia, he waited, thinking that time was his friend. Lee proceeded to split his vastly smaller army in order to throw large portions of it at the weak spots in Hooker’s line. Jackson’s flank attack on the Union far right the evening of May 2nd gets all of the accolades, but Confederate actions the following day were no less desperate, and likewise depended on standing off a host of Unions corps with a scattering of regiments. I am trying to imagine the Army of the Potomac crossing back over the Rappahannock on May 4th, its tail between its legs, while General Hooker says, “But remember, we stole a march on Lee at the outset.” This was one of the most spectacular victories of the war, and once again ended a Union campaign only shortly after it had begun.

      The story of the Pennsylvania campaign is similar to that of the Maryland campaign. If there was an error, it was most likely simply deciding to invade the North in the first place. Lee’s other main error on the campaign, rejecting Longstreet’s advice to count the first day of Gettysburg as a victory, or, failing that, the first and the second, and sidling around the Union left in search of a piece of high ground between the Army of the Potomac and Washington where the Confederates could try to reprise Fredericksburg, derives from the first mistake, and the resulting pressure not to retreat from a general engagement once enjoined. Lee risked too much here, and lost. There are other examples besides Pickett’s charge of Lee throwing regiments at enemy entrenchments for no gain, but none better.

      I’ll stop with the Wilderness, as the intervening skirmishes are inconclusive, and the subsequent battles largely demonstrate similar
      dynamics between Grant’s and Lee’s forces, or else amount to siege warfare and so fit into a different framework. This battle is fascinating in large part because the Confederates won in almost every respect, only Grant was too stubborn to admit it. The post I’m responding to reminded me of another short piece I read on the internet not long ago, where someone argued that John Bell Hood was a greater general than Grant, because the latter frequently had his flanks turned – even both flanks by Lee in the Wilderness – while Hood repeatedly turned his opponent’s flanks, even in defeat. This was a ludicrous basis for thinking Hood anything but a disaster as a commander, as well as a means of illicitly eliding Grant’s various virtues and accomplishments. And the same is true in reverse here. Yes, Grant was the first Union general to figure out how to take effective advantage of his army;s superior numbers to drive Lee back to the gates of Richmond, and that eventually won the war in the Eastern theater. But the Army of Northern Virginia arguably outfought Grant more severely than they had Hooker, and roughly as well as they had Burnside. Virtually Grant’s only accomplishment in his army’s days in the Wilderness was to keep them moving forward – which was enough. From then on, the pure war of attrition was on, with Lee trying to hold on until Lincoln lost the election in 1864, and hoping that the enormous casualties Grant racked up would contribute to that defeat. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta is generally considered the main reason Lincoln won after all, though I think Grant’s success in at least finally bottling up the seemingly unstoppable Army of Northern Virginia surely had something to do with it.

      In sum, no, Lee was no Caesar, nor Napoleon, nor Alexander. But where did those standards come from? The subject of this post was “Overrated Civil War Officers.” As I said at the outset, Lee’s certainly not underrated, because he’s nearly universally ranked so high. But that’s where he belongs. He’s rated right.

    • Marshal Cogburn says:

      Here’s a funny connection. After responding to whale’s post above, including his charge that Lee as a commander was not “an all time great like Caesar, Napoleon, or Alexander,” I happened to come across the following on p. 224 in T.J. Stile’s fabulous biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. The context is that Kansas City editor John Newman Edwards has begun to serve as de facto press agent for the James gang, as well as polemicist for the ex-Confederate faction in Missouri, explicitly comparing them the former bushwhacker bandits to the knights of the round table. Jesse himself, adopting some of the same ideas and language, writes a letter for publication in Edwards’ paper where he says,

      “Some editors call us thieves. We are not thieves – we are bold robbers. I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.”

      I have no grand point to make here – it was just funny to see the exact same three names that whale used to measure General Lee as a commander being employed by bank robber and murderer Jesse James as the models for his own outlawery. Especially after two hundred pages of Stiles recounting the extensive depredations committed by various parties – but particularly by James and his cohorts – throughout the 1860s, the comparison can’t help but amuse.

  18. Jerry Mitchell says:

    Remarks made about General Lee- I will keep this one short and sweet. What staff do we use to measure a great leader? When he rode by on Traveler, his brigades would stop what they were doing and at times would chant “Masa Robert”. Simply look at the numbers of the A & V, would any one else have lasted the years they did with any other leader? Name him. His brigades would not have followed any other man, there was no one else with honor and integrity of Robert E. Lee.

    • Sharon Green says:

      The federal troops cheered General McClellan too, when he rode by on Dan Webster, his big black horse. Does that mean he was a great leader? Not in any rational sense. Lee can be faulted for continuing the war long beyond the point when any rational leader would have any hope of winning, thus causing many unnecessary deaths of Southern men. Lee lacked the courage to confront Jefferson Davis with the truth of the Southern military options. Lee was as crippled by his own ego as McClellan was — and MacClellan was only 36.

  19. […] and the 20th Maine. For example, in 2011 Gary Gallagher listed Chamberlain as one of the war’s five overrated officers. I guess you could call it a backlash. Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and then […]

  20. […] Originally Posted by Stefany That doesn't count, I rated Joe Johnston a 5 for the Atlanta campaign, but overall he was way above that number… But when did he do better than he did in the Atlanta Campaign? He disgracefully fiddled while Vicksburg burned, and did much the same as Atlanta on the Peninsula, retreated and preserved his army while accomplishing nothing against the enemy. He earns a special place of dishonor on Gary Gallagher's list of overrated Civil War officers. (Gallagher is a big fan of Lee incidentally.)…r-officers.htm […]

  21. Matt Gardiner says:

    I have several of Gary Gallagher’s books (The collected essays on various campaigns) and love them, so I’m not knocking Mr.Gallagher – and like ‘Grunter’ I’m from New Zealand.
    But sorry Gary, I would have to put Stephen Ramseur on the list of over-rated Generals. Seems I never read about him (except at Gettysburg) but that he’s committing some blunder. Especially in 1864. Am I right? Would like to know what others think. Not that many people around me in NZ who can comment on such things.

    • Eddie Inman says:

      Sir, it is only an opinion of mine, but I do not consider Ramseur as being over rated. He was cited for merit and bravery by Jackson, Lee, and Early. He was was the youngest Major-General in the Confederate army. It would be of interest to know of such which you consider as “some blunder”. In 1864 his counter attacks at The Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Courthouse were instrumental in preventing defeat. At Cedar Creek his efforts prevented a bad situation from getting worse, and resulted in his mortal wounding. Have you read Gallagher’s – Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee’s Gallant General ?

  22. Matt Gardiner says:

    Thank you Mr. Inman for your reply. I must say, you have me at a disadvantage. I’m in China for most of the rest of this year away from most of my books, but I will give you a few examples from memory and a quick look at the internet.
    Certainly Ramseur was aggressive (or reckless according to one’s point-of-view). The praise you mention comes mostly from his performance at Chancellorsville (Where J.E.B Stuart recommended his promotion to Major General), but it should also be pointed out that he charged unsupported, and lost more than 50% of his brigade.
    As for ‘\Blunders\; Two from off the top of my head would be Bethesda Church (may 30 ’64?) where he ordered a charge by Willis’ Virginia brigade resulting in it’s virtual destruction (A website I consulted says that \In their diaries many soldiers directly blamed Ramseur for the disaster. One man called it ‘A murder for ambitions sake’).
    The other would have to be Stephenson’s Depot/Rutherford’s Farm (july 20 ’64) where – Against General Early’s direct orders – he left Winchesters defenses and was soundly beaten by William W. Averill (An UNDER-rated general in my opinion) whom he actually outnumbered. A quote from ‘The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan – which I do happen to have with me reads : \Ramseurs disobedience resulted in substantial loss of troops and artillery, and proved to be the only blot on Early’s splendid campaign from Lynchburg to Washington and back to the valley\. (p. xviii of the intro.).
    While , without doubt, personally brave, Ramseur doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of a Bowen, Cleburne, Hoke, Gordon or Mahone as a Confederate Division Commander – In my personal opinion.
    Also, I haven’t had the opportunity to read Gallagher’s book, though I would if I could get a hold of it.
    I have a vague recollection of other instances where he fell short, but am unable to provide you with any at this time.
    I look forward to hearing more from you, or from others on this topic. Hope I haven’t given any offence. It’s all just my opinion.

  23. Rick says:

    Wow!! You are trashing some pretty outstanding soldiers here. Forrest, Reynolds and Chamberlain would stand up to any in comparison. Might want to recheck your facts!

  24. SwampStomper says:

    General Forrest captured over 30,000 yankees and 115 cannons. He captured untold amounts of ammunition, food and other supplies.

    He would have changed the course of the war if it wasn’t for Braxton Bragg in Richmond as a military advisor holding a grudge against him to keep him out of the Atlanta campaign.

    Forrest might be the greatest cavalry commander in history and even General Sherman realized it and offered him command of the entire US cavalry forces during the future war with Spain.

  25. drewkeller100 says:

    No reputed historian thinks NB Forrest was a great General, like they view TJ Jackson. Just the late neo-confederate Foote who was totally biased.

    Forrest never even fought in a major battle that influenced the war. It’s usually neo-confederates and white nationalists who exaggerate Forrest.

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