American Civil War Generalship

Generalship in the American Civil War was an uneven skill. None of the Army commanders had ever led planned tactics or led large groups of troops in combat. Those who were career military men were junior officers during the Mexican War. Before that war the peacetime United States Army was small force numbering around 7,400. It swelled with volunteers who enlisted for the duration. Then it returned to its former size after the conflict was over. By comparison many Civil War divisions were the size of the entire pre-Mexican War army. At the beginning of the Civil Warthe Army consisted of 1,080 commissioned officers and 15,000 enlisted men.

The general officers that commanded during the Mexican War were long gone by the time of the Civil War with the exception of Winfield Scott who was the Commanding General of the United States. Scott was approaching 75 when the war began and held the position until November 1861 when he resigned due to ill health. In the intervening months Scott had drawn up a complicated plan that he named Anaconda because he expected that it would choke the South with a coastal blockade and the closure of the Mississippi River. It was substantially the same plan that the North used to defeat the Southern Confederacy.


Robert E. Lee was a staff officer during the war and was promoted to brevet major during the war. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855. Future Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had a similar career path as Lee.

American Civil War Generalship

The much younger Ulysses Grant was lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps but did see action. Most of the other officers of similar age had a similar rank. George Pickett, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock were also lieutenants.

At the onset of the war many of the Federal general officers were political appointees who had virtually no military experience. This was a situation that cost the Union Army dearly. Gradually the incompetents were weeded out and the better officers rose to higher command. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor, and Francis C, Barlow, a lawyer, for the North and John B. Gordon, a lawyer, for the South were three future generals that come to mind. (Barlow was my 2nd great grandfather's commanding officer at Antietam). Eventually, there were many more like them.

The Civil War was fought in stages and dissimilar regions of the country. Let's look at the various stages of the war. In the early stage, say from April 1861 to April 1862 the armies were no more than armed mobs. The commanders were not used to leading or maneuvering large groups of troops. First Manassas is a classic example of this. Anyone who thinks that this battle was anything but a clash of two armed mobs needs to reread accounts of the battle. On the Federal side the main goal was "On to Richmond" and most of the battles in this time period were attempts to capture the Confederate capital.

After a succession of near catastrophic defeats and close victories fought by inept generals Lincoln finally settled on Ulysses S. Grant who had won a succession of bloody battles in the Western Theater: Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, the capture of Vicksburg and battles around Chattanooga. Grant after his elevation to Commanding General selected officers who understood the the destruction of the Confederate armies and their supply lines were the two paramount goals of the Federal armies.

Of course, there were several deviations in this strategy: the Vicksburg campaign because it split the Confederacy in half comes to mind. Antietam was a meeting engagement that was precipitated by Lee's invasion of the North, as was Gettysburg.

Many of the Federal generals rehabilitated their reputations in subordinate commands and by being transferred to different theaters. Joseph Hooker who was relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac in late-June 1863 was instrumental in the Federal victories around Chattanooga in the fall of 1863.

Comparing early generalship to later generalship is like comparing apples to oranges. McClellan was the right officer for the Union up until Antietam. At Antietam he was afraid to risk the army that he had created against Lee's much smaller force. If Grant, Sherman or Sheridan had commanded the Federal army the war probably would have ended right there with Lee's army defeated in detail.

The consistency of the Confederate leadership in the East enabled them to hold out far longer than they should have. Lee was both an offensive genius and a more than competent defensive commander. His subordinate commanders were mostly graduates of West Point. Men like Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, Pickett, Lewis Armistead, Longstreet, Jubal Early and A.P. Hill were all West Pointers. Lee who had been the Superintendent from 1852 until 1885 was personally familiar with many of his future division and brigade commanders from his tour on the Hudson. His oldest son, a future general, Custis Lee graduated first in his class in 1854. It was the combination of superior generalship and dedicated soldiers that kept the Southern Confederacy in the war for so long.

From then to now West Point trains its officers to 'pursue the enemy with the utmost audacity' in the words of George S. Patton. At the battle of the Bulge Gen. Lawton J. Collins (Lightning Joe) was said to have told the British General Montgomery that the American Army organizes at the line of attack. And they did sweeping the enemy before them.

Up until modern times the United States military has always been a conscript army. In 1973 the United States instituted an all-volunteer force for all branches of the military. Previous to that we have had to create conscript armies by the use of a draft. The Civil War was no different. Both sides asked for and depended on volunteers for their armies. Eventually, due to casualty rates and the expansion of the fighting both sides resorted to conscription. The battles over conscription in the North and the South is a subject for another day.

From the middle of the war on generalship and leadership on both sides was similar. Their were competent officers and incompetent officers on each side. Eventually, the North, the side with the most men, material and industry won.

American Civil War Generalship

Richard Billies
Richard is a blogger and small business owner in central Virginia.