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Bitter Harvest – The Union Generals at War

Speaker: Thomas Goss

Our first lecture at the Civil Service Club proved to be (with apologies to those who preceded it) one the best we have had for some time.

Thomas Goss started by outlining the diversity of the 583 Union generals that served during the war. From the best - Grant to the Beast - Butler.

In 1861 Lincoln was faced with a big problem. A large percentage of his officer corps had resigned and he needed some quick solutions. Literally anyone with some ideas and promises of troops and political support was promoted. There was a historical precedent, George Washington was not of military background and later, during the war of 1812, war heroes emerged from men with little military experience. It was after the war of 1812 that moves started to make the military a profession like doctors and lawyers. In 1861 Lincoln had to act to bring the remaining Union states in to line. The north was not Republican - Lincoln stated that "It must not be a Republican war" - the diverse political parties; Whigs, democrats, No-Nothings, Republican and the Border states needed to be appeased and their support gained.

There was also the need to get the support of the ethnic minorities hence the rise of men like Franz Sigel(picture). It was to Lincoln's credit that no significant minority group failed to support him. The Germans, Irish, and later the Negroes swelled the ranks in great numbers.

Goss went on to say that the stereotype that the political officers were useless was true - on the whole. Despite his own views at the time, Butler failed time and time to achieve success. Goss believed that the 10 biggest Union defeats could be blamed on the political and even large defeats such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville could in part be blamed on inefficiencies on the political corps commanders. There were some success stories, John Logan nurtured and matured under Sherman.

Lincoln was no fool and he realised the he needed popular support, the soldiers and congress support, but he also needed military experience. As the war progressed, the real military men rose to the top and the politicals started to disappear. If you imagine the army as a business, all the officers are vying for promotion, trying to please the CEO and outdo the others. They were ambitious men, Butler especially so, and everyone of them probably had ideas that if they did well, they would at some stage have a shot at the Presidency.

The situation in Tennessee was considered. A West Pointer would continue with the war effort. He knew that victory could only be achieved with the destruction of the Confederate armies. He went in, devastated the country and moved on. A political general thought that any ground gained needed to be held and Unionist rule reinstated. With Federal authority restored, the war would be that much closer to ending and Secessionists would be criminals. The political general would also be viewing his occupation as a quasi-governorship, preparing him for greater things to come.

There were conflicts between all the generals within the Union command structure both political and military. In 1864 Banks and Halleck had a lengthy dialogue. Halleck demanded that Banks consolidate and attack. Banks asked for more troops and supplies and if Halleck had problem with that, Banks referred him to his achievements so far. Banks wanted to go into Texas; Halleck wanted a more limited campaign. Both looked to Lincoln and Lincoln supported both! Another good example of Lincoln needing to pander to the political general to keep his support at home.

It was late 1864 when Lincoln started to clear out his political generals. However, he was careful to keep his winners. The military command structure was changing. It had evolved in a short time into the professional service whose legacy is seen today. In future wars, there would be very few political generals. Even by 1898, only a few politicals emerged. However the legacy has a double edge. As we have seen in Iraq, the army can go in and blast away but what is left is chaos. A politically minded commander would be thinking about winning the peace by looking at the area and seeing who should be supported for the next mayor and civilian leadership. In the civil war both Butler and Banks would have read Clausewitz. They believed the war was won when the South was restored and run by Unionists. When Grant became President he was faced with Reconstruction commands run by West Pointers when they should have been his political generals!

Perhaps Thomas Goss's most important remark was the Lincoln realised that he was not just managing professional generals and a professional army. They were voters and they had the power to change the government.

Questions and Answers

1) What about Sickles? - In his view, Sickles was not a true political general because he could achieve high office due to his earlier "problem". But after his wound, he is "reconstructed" and does not return to command.

2) Was New Market included in the top ten disasters? - Yes it should be, it was not Sigel's best day at the office...

3) Did the political achieve high office? - Cleveland got to the top but was a failure. A number of political were also rans.

4) How did the process work? - Logan is a good case to look at. He was an influential Southern Illinois Democrat. The regular army could not get recruits, but Logan could. Logan and his supporters where regularly sent home to get support and new recruits. At election time, Lincoln sent nearly all of the top politicals home to get votes. Logan was snubbed for promotion in 1864 and embittered but he still gave the administration his full support in the November elections.

5) Any further thoughts on Sigel? - He was the worst of them all. Lincoln only wanted him so he could bring in German recruits. Although he had a military background, he was not Van Moltke.

6) The Union command structure further explained - In 1864 Banks had "support and guidance" from Canby. Butler was "advised" by Smith. This was part of Grant's plan to control them.

7) What about McClernand? - Again all Grant had to do was build up the evidence and then he got rid of him when the time was right. He was sidelined, but he was kept sweet with the promise of a follow-up command that never materialised.

8) Did the Professional solider have any success post-War? - All the Presidents except Grant were "volunteers" and by and large rose through the ranks. Hancock ran for the Presidency but failed.

9) What was happening on the Confederate side? - It was almost a mirror image. Davis did not need to act like Lincoln, he was a West pointer and his support was galvanised against the Union aggressor. Politicals did not need to be pampered and it was only Forrest who rose to the top.

10) What was your view of Lincoln? - A natural genius who was instinctively right.

11) What were your sources? - The main biographies helped greatly, but it was the immediate information that was the best, not the 30 year old rose tinted memoirs that put me in the best light possible. It was a simple case of looking at each general and deciding who was selected by Lincoln and why.

12) What effect did this have on the 1864 election? - The victories clearly helped, but Lincoln still had to keep the coalition together.


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