When the union garrison at Fort Sumter surrendered, no one could imagine that over 600,000 would die in battle. During the four-year conflict, soldiers on both sides were mowed down by cannon fire and Minnie balls. They were sent to their deaths by both good and bad generals of the Civil War. The terms “good” and “bad” are in the context of military skill. Judging by the unflattering photos of that era, there were a few generals who could be called “ugly.” For this article, however, “ugly” encompasses both those generals lacking in military skill and undeserving of rank.
This article will highlight both the best and worst Union and Confederate generals of the Civil War. The good are headed by Generals U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. The bad were George McClellan and Braxton Bragg. Two of the ugly were Union General Benjamin Butler and the Confederacy’s John B. Floyd.
The Good: Grant, Sherman, Lee, & Jackson
1. Ulysses S. Grant (Union Army)
One of the most inspirational generals of the Civil War was Ulysses S. Grant. He treated the defeated Confederates with gentility and respect. His humane treatment avoided a protracted guerrilla war that probably would have extended the conflict indefinitely.
Ulysses S. Grant Had a drinking problem, but Lincoln liked a fighter. Grant was a failure during his early career and was forced to resign because of drunkenness. When war broke out, Grant rejoined the Union Army. Grant, who could not stand the sight of blood and detested wearing a uniform, outlasted and out-generaled his contemporaries.
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Grant commanded Union forces during the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Although a Union victory, the over 10,000 casualties at Shiloh shocked the country. Because of the bad press, Grant’s superior, General Halleck, demoted Grant to second in command. Grant seriously considered resigning, but his friend General William T. Sherman talked him out of it.
Lincoln reinstated Grant, who went on to lead the Union Army to final victory. Grant fought with determination and the knowledge that he was fighting a war of attrition. The North would win because it had more men, money, and material.
Years later, knowing he was dying, Grant fought his last battle with illness. Having lost his considerable wealth in a fraudulent investment scheme and facing financial ruin, Grant wrote his wartime memoirs.
Grant saved his family from financial ruin by writing with the help of his publisher, Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain). Their collaboration produced one of the most best-selling books in the United States, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Grant is best represented in one touchingly modest passage in the last paragraphs of his memoir:
“The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it is supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to ‘let us have peace.'”
2. William Tecumseh Sherman (Union Army)
William Tecumseh Sherman was a friend and loyal subordinate to U.S. Grant. When Grant was called east to fight Robert E. Lee, Sherman led his army of rough westerners through the heartland of Georgia and up through the Carolinas.
Famous for the quote, “War is hell,” Sherman brought the hell of war to the South. Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia and up through the Carolinas destroyed the infrastructure and public morale of the Confederacy. The fall of Atlanta was just the good news that helped President Lincoln win reelection.
3. Robert E. Lee (Confederate Army)
Robert E. Lee was a 30-year veteran of the US Army and served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. He had a reputation as one of the finest officers in the US Army. President Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces, but Lee declined. Like many of his southern cohorts, he resigned from his commission to fight for his home state.
As a Confederate field commander, Lee got off to a shaky start. He fought Union forces in West Virginia and had to call off an attack in the face of fierce Union resistance at Cheat Mountain.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis nevertheless gave Lee command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s tactical skill and guile helped defeat a superior Union force under the command of George McClellan. His skills and leadership prolonged the life of the Confederacy and the Civil War.
Lee realized that the days of the Confederacy were numbered. Jefferson Davis preferred a defensive strategy, hoping the North would tire of the struggle. Lee, however, believed that a stunning victory in the North could even help the South gain foreign recognition.
Those hopes died at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during Pickett’s charge up Cemetery Ridge. Losing 15,000 men—one-third of his army—Lee limped home. He had no choice but to fight a brilliant but hopeless defensive battle in Virginia that would extend the Civil War another two years and add thousands of battle deaths to the rolls.
4. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Confederate Army)
Stonewall Jackson was a skilled military tactician and nearly as popular as Robert E. Lee. Jackson earned the colorful nickname “Stonewall” at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). He charged his army to bridge a gap in the defensive line against a strong Union attack and impressed his commander, who exclaimed that Jackson was “standing like a stone wall.”
General Jackson died on May 5, 1863 from complications of a gunshot wound to his left arm, which surgeons had amputated. He was hit by two .69-caliber rounds from a smallbore musket fired by his own troops. His loss was a grievous blow to the Confederacy.
Historians attribute Lee’s loss at Gettysburg to the poor performance of his generals in the field. Lee’s stubbornness and impatience for a decisive victory were also factors. Another factor could have been the absence of his trusted corps commander, Stonewall Jackson.
The Bad & Ugly: McClellan & Bragg
5. George S. McClellan (Union Army)
George B. McClellan, was a great organizer and administrator but reluctant to fight. Had it not been for the fact that he was actually required to fight, he probably would have been a successful military leader. President Lincoln relied on McClellan to reorganize his disheveled and demoralized army. “Little Mac” did well but was reluctant to put his army into the field against the Confederates.
Lincoln lost patience and relieved McClellan after the battle of Antietam. At Antietam, McClellan was the beneficiary of one of the greatest strokes of luck of the Civil War. A copy of Lee’s battle plans, including troop strength, fell into Union hands. Despite documented evidence to the contrary, McClellan still feared that he was outnumbered, failed to press his advantage, and lost an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army.
6. Braxton Bragg (Confederate Army)
Braxton Bragg was undoubtedly the worst general of the Confederacy. In positions of high command of the Confederacy’s western armies, Bragg was responsible for several costly southern defeats and the loss of thousands of men.
Braxton Bragg’s personality and body language were described as “that of a cornered animal.” To those officers under his command, Bragg was described as “vindictive, contrary, and deceitful.” Even after Jefferson Davis had no choice but to relieve his old army buddy, he gave Bragg a high government job as a principal military advisor, a sort of “quasi-commander in chief,” where he also proved ineffective.
Honorable (& Not-So-Honorable) Mentions:
Honorable mention goes to these skilled generals of the Civil War:
- Major General John Buford, who commanded the delaying action during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. His disposition of troops and skillful tactics slowed the Confederate advance on the high ground.
- Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who was wounded six times. He led the 20th Maine Infantry in a desperate bayonet charge down Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. His heroism solidified the Union’s position. Holding the high ground was what won the Battle of Gettysburg.
- Lieutenant General James Longstreet led the Confederate mass assault that collapsed the Union left flank at Second Bull Run. At Gettysburg, he implored Lee to reposition Confederate troops so that the Union would have to abandon the high ground and defend Washington, DC. Lee refused and sent 5,000 Confederate soldiers on a frontal assault at Missionary Ridge.
- Major General J.E.B. Stuart was a master of cavalry tactics. At First Bull Run, his swift action undid the Union Army’s early success. Stuart was placed in command of the cavalry units in Stonewall Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah. Stuart died on the outskirts of Richmond in May of 1864, defending the Confederate capital.
Two not-so-honorable mentions: Political Generals
- Union General Benjamin Butler was a lawyer and a Massachusetts politician. His war record included a series of failures. As a Democrat who supported the war, Butler was politically useful to Republican President Lincoln. After General Grant took command, he relieved Butler and sent him home.
- Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd tangled with U.S. Grant and lost Fort Donelson. Floyd was a Virginia politician who served as state governor. He later resigned as US Secretary of War during the secession crisis of 1860. Floyd was in the Confederate forces at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. When Union Forces arrived, Floyd escaped, leaving his command behind.