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Top Five - Civil War Generals

As a history buff in general, I am a particular fan of the Civil War. It was a weird war, as wars go; one which largely featured Napoleonic tactics despite the fact that the rise of rifled weaponry made such tactics suicidal. Some leaders adapted, albeit slowly, while others did not. Lee figured out the value of field fortifications early on (in West Virginia) and put them to good use when fighting on the defensive later on. The fortifications he built around Petersburg and Richmond, and the long siege that followed, presaged the trench warfare on the western front during World War I. Sherman, with a couple notable exceptions, was smart enough to realize that an attack that consisted of nothing more than rows of targets neatly marching toward an entrenched opponent was an idiotic way to fight a war, opting for maneuver instead and paying close attention to logistics. At the other end of the spectrum, there were generals like John Bell Hood and Ambrose Burnside who threw away their troops in hopeless frontal assaults.

Picking a top five from this war is tough. The honorable mention list is long, including such luminaries as Winfield Scott Hancock (“the Superb”), one of the heroes of Gettysburg; Richard Taylor, who did great things under Jackson and then fought an inspired – if ultimately unsuccessful – war in the Trans-Mississippi. Sherman (and I suspect many will disagree with me here) doesn’t make my final cut. The “red clay minuet” that he danced with Joe Johnston was an operational masterpiece, and his “March to the Sea” called to mind Pattonesque audacity. And yet…

In actual battle, Sherman never really made his mark. He had strategic and operational gifts galore, but – with the exception of Shiloh where his stubborn defense helped save the day – he never stood out as a tactician. It’s close, and I truly admire this most American of American generals, but William Tecumsah doesn’t quite make my cut. Samuel Curtis, A.J. Smith, Patrick Cleburne, Edmund Kirby Smith, James Longstreet and Horatio Wright all deserve consideration too.

There are a few popular names that don’t, in my estimation, come close to making a “Top Five” cut. J.E.B. Stuart rode rings around McClellan, but he got himself lost during the Gettysburg campaign and – arguably – set Lee up for the disaster to follow. As for Little Mac, Lee called McClellan his toughest opponent once the war was over, but I think Bobby Lee was just being kind. McClellan’s contribution in organizing the Army of the Potomac was invaluable to the Union cause, but his timidity in leading that army bordered on the absurd. George Meade? He stumbled into victory at Gettysburg, thanks mostly to John Buford, Gouverneur Warren, Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Chamberlin, but did little to distinguish himself afterword. He was competent, but hardly exceptionally skilled or imaginative.

All that said, here’s my top five:

#5: Robert E. Lee – You can’t keep Lee off of this kind of a list, but he doesn’t deserve the top spot. His victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville were masterpieces that would be studied for years. Nobody, except Pat Cleburne, put up a more stubborn defense. Yet, for all of that battlefield brilliance, Lee’s strategic vision was badly flawed. George Washington understood that the first rule of rebellion is to keep the rebellious army intact and effective for as long as possible, refusing to risk the Continental Army in pitched battle. Lee’s aggressive nature led him to two disastrous invasions of the north in a futile effort to end the war quickly, when he should have been content to wait it out. That, combined with the utter foolishness of ordering Pickett’s Charge when it should have been damned clear to him (as it was to Longstreet) that it was doomed to fail, weighs heavily against all of his spectacular successes. Still, we’ll give Bobby the number five slot.

#4: George Thomas – He drove Grant nuts, because U.S.G. found him much too deliberate, but Thomas’ record speaks for itself. The Rock of Chickamauga prevented disaster in the west when the Confederates won their only significant victory there. At Missionary Ridge, it was his stubborn veterans who charged and took a position that nobody – including Grant and Thomas – thought could be captured. At Franklin/Nashville, he was the architect of the most decisive large-scale battle of the war, one that destroyed Confederate power in the western theater forever. Slow? Perhaps. Effective? You bet. Thomas was the north’s Longstreet, but he had the distinct advantage of being on the winning side.

#3: Ulysses S. Grant – If one forgets the bloody Forty Days Campaign, U.S. Grant would be the best general of the Civil War, hands down. Prior to the Forty Days, all he had done was to accept the surrender of two armies (Fort Donelson and Vicksburg), open up the Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers, resurrect the Armies of the Tennessee and Cumberland (Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge) and – for the first time – put into effect a coordinated national strategy. But, then came the Forty Days. Yeah, Grant would ultimately win, but at a terrible price, one that – if at Cold Harbor if no place else – he didn’t have to pay. All in all, Grant deserves accolades, but much like his great opponent Robert E. Lee, he certainly had his failings.

#2: Stonewall Jackson – Old Blue Light: brilliant, driven and marginally insane. The only blemish on his record is his sleep-walking performance during the Seven Days campaign. (I don’t count Kernstown, which was basically a speed bump in Jackson’s spectacular Valley Campaign). He was equally good on the defensive, as he proved at Second Manassas, as he was on the offensive, as he showed at Chancellorsville. If he had been at Gettysburg, might have that battle turned out differently? I rather think it would have, suggesting that there are times in history when one man – or the lack of one man – can change everything.

#1: Nathan Bedford Forrest – No matter what happened, Nathan Bedford Forrest won. He was almost always outnumbered and outgunned. He won. He was occasionally outmaneuvered. He won. High command took away his finely trained troops leaving him to recruit scalawags and teenagers to fill his billets. He won. He was shot in the middle of battles. He won. The only soldier on either side to rise from private to general, Forrest’s axiom “get their firstest with the mostest” was problematic, since he rarely actually had the mostest. Like Grant, Forrest instinctively understood that his enemy was as worn-out and frightened as his troops and he had the knack for picking exactly the right moment to exploit the opposition’s fears.

Jefferson Davis, never one to admit to a mistake, said after the war that his greatest regret was not recognizing Forrest’s genius earlier and giving him greater responsibility. It is sometimes noted that, after the war, Forrest was instrumental in forming the KKK. Not as well known are the facts that: a) Forrest distanced himself from the KKK when it started lynching and burning crosses, and b) when it came time to surrender, Forrest (like Lee) dismissed the idea of conducting guerilla war and ordered his troops to return to their farms and to become good citizens of the reunited United States. Forrest was, and remains, one of a kind.

27 comments to Top Five – Civil War Generals

  • Scott M.

    Wonderful post, really know your stuff.Good that you recognize George Thomas,who was indeed a fine commander(although he was fortunate to face off against 2 of the Confederacy’s biggest dolts,John Bell Hood and Braxton Bragg).Forrest,as you know,is buried here in Memphis,in a little park named for him,under a very fine equestrian statue.His exploits were many:one of the finest was his breakout from Grant’s siege of Fort Donalson.

  • Can’t argue with this list. I too salute your inclusion of Thomas.

  • Scott M.

    I take it that you’ve been to many of the battlefields here in Tennessee….my dad used to take my sister and me around when we were kids.Shiloh,Murfreesboro,Lookout Mountain,Franklin(oh was that a slaughterhouse,thanks to Jefferson Davis’ pet Hood).Man,I wish you could come down here and take me on a tour…would be a great education,I expect.

  • I’m not enough of a Civil War expert to speak on all of these, but I think I would place Sherman and Grant higher because, while they might not have been the battlefield tacticians Forrest was… the word “General” as in general officer — by my lights anyway — has a more macro feel. In other words… there may have been better generals from a battle perspective, but that’s only part of what a general does. The March to the Sea and Grant’s overall policy to fight and push as compared to McClellan’s seeming near-treasonous stubborn refusal to do anything.

    In that way… Eisenhower would be as great if not a greater general than Patton (very arguably) … Ike could probably do more of what Patton did than Patton could ever have done what Ike did. Ditto A lot of those generals compared to Lee, Grant, and Sherman.

    It’s a great post and you’re right about Forrest… excessively maligned. Agree with Scott on the Rich tour of Civil war battlefields… maybe we could have a Threedonia Mississippi Cruise like all of those radio shows and NRO.

  • Glad you guys enjoyed. I’ve always been a Civil War buff – even did the re-enactor thing once for a story. (I “died” in spectacular fashion). Scott, you make and excellent point about Thomas: having Bragg and that idiot Hood as your opponents does make things easier!

    I’ve been to Lookout, Missionary Ridge, Franklin, Chickamauga and Nashville, but not – regrettably – to Shiloh or Murfreesboro yet. Have to rectify that sometime and, when I do, I’ll definitely put a shout out to all our friends in Tennessee. A cruise is probably not a good idea however, since the first thing that Rufus would try to do would be to recreate the “jam everybody in once cabin” scene from Night at the Opera…

  • Rich, what’s your take on Gen. George G. Meade?

  • Scott M.

    Rich,what do you think of Joseph Johnston?I thought that he did very well with what he had in North Georgia in 1864…that idiot Jeff Davis didn’t like him!

  • Okay, I will respectfully take issue with your comments about Lee, both his two great “raids” and his action on the 3rd Day at Gettysburg.

    1.) Both of Lee’s forays to the north were political and strategic in nature. Neither was designed with a primary purpose of a decisive battle with federal forces. The 1862 foray that resulted in the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) had three purposed: Show the world that CS forces could go where they wished; help push Maryland further into the Confederacy, thus isolating Washington; and taking Federal pressure off of the Shenandoah and northern Virginia so that the crops could be harvested unmolested.

    The campaign that resulted in Gettysburg’s great battle was done to try and convince foreign leaders that the South could win, and, as in the previous year, CS forces could maneuver where and when they wished. Again, Lee felt that the best way to take pressure off of Virginia was to take the war north, and draw Federal forces off to deal with his army in the field.

    Gettysburg: I have no problems with Lee’s decision to attack Cemetery Ridge on the 3rd day. Look at it through his eyes: He smashed the federal right on day 1, the federal left on day 2. If he attacks the Federal center, there will be little left to support it due to the previous’ day’s casualties. If he breaks through, the road to Washington is open for his army, the Federal forces will be broken and scattered, and he may well win the war outright. Tactically, he did everything right. Ewell and Longstreet were supposed to threaten on the fronts and pin the federals defending there in place. Stuart was to ride around behind, and threaten the federal rear, and be prepared to exploit a Confederate breakthrough in the center. Lee had fresh troops from Anderson and Picket for the assault. Even with a 1 in 3 chance of success, (using Longstreet’s math) who wouldn’t pick up the dice and roll them, knowing you could end it all right there?

    Alright, my list: These are the five I choose, and are NOT in any sort of order, just all in the top 5.

    Oliver Otis Howard. Real hero of Gettysburg, as opposed to that pompous rat-bastard Hancock. See my post here:

    Daniel Sickles. The second hero of Gettysburg. Saved Meade’s patoot by moving his Corps forward. His recon of Pitzer’s Woods developed the intel that Lee was maneuvering to flank the federals from the south. His pushing his corps out delayed Longstreet’s advance by several hours and his new positions acted as a “speed bump” for Hood’s and McLaw’s divisions that bought time for Meade to rearrange his army (he was expecting an attack from Ewell, not Longstreet) and reinforce his lines. For those who would disparage Sickles, I would ask you to gather up copies of his orders, the intelligence he had available to him, and a topo map of the area where he was to deploy initially, and then go and walk the ground yourself. Sickles was ordered into an untenable position with no field of fire for his batteries, He made the only choice possible, IMHO.

    Jonathon Letterman. Chief Medical Officer of the AOP. Developed much of the organizational structure and philosophy which the Army and much civilian medical units are based upon today. Saved countless lives and millions of dollars through organizational brilliance and outside the box thinking. More here:

    Montgomery Meigs. He was the logistical genius who supplied the armies of the Federal Government. He got all the depots, arsenals and contractors working on the same page, streamlined the bidding and contracting process, and delivered what was need when it was needed. An unsung hero who deserves as much credit as Grant or Sherman for his work. CW logistics article here:

    US Grant. He was the one General Officer in the north who understood clearly that the key to victory was destruction of the Confederate field armies. He was able to articulate the strategy to Lincoln, then work with Sherman to make it happen. As long as the Northen goal was “On to Richmond!”, the south would survive, because they could simply move the capitol around, like a three-card Monty game. However, without an army to enforce it’s political will, the Southern government could not govern, nor long stand. Destroy the army, and the government will soon follow.

    I know this is a long post. My apologies for that. There’s also no CS Generals listed, because I feel that that is best saved for another post.

    • Great comments Tim. (And I don’t know why you were “awaiting moderation” – our spam filter freaks out at times).

      We’re going to disagree on Lee’s invasions. In my book, yeah, IF he was successful the South wins, but the risk was too great. Their best hope was to prolong the conflict till war weariness set in up north.

      Regards Howard, I agree that he has been maligned unfairly, and yes – Hooker did ignore his warnings at Chancellorsville – but why in the hell didn’t Howard have more than two guns covering his flank if he perceived the risk? Did Hooker specifically forbid him to strengthen his flank? I’m curious, since I haven’t read the dispatches and you obviously have. But Howard certainly deserves a much better reputation than the one he has.

      And I am going to pout for at least a month about having my view of Hancock shattered. Hancock, slowly marching up and down along the line at Cemetery Ridge with shells going off all around him, saying “there are times when a Corps commanders life doesn’t count”! Hancock, taking splinters in the nads! Hancock, busting through at Spotsylvania Courthouse! Hancock, the Superb!

      Seriously dude, did Howard really pick the fish hook position at Gettysburg? I have always read that it was Hancock, but I have been wrong before (as my wife points out like 17 times per day).

      • Yup… It was Howard’s eye for terrain that led him to detach a brigade to stay there as a rallying point on the 1st Day. As he was the senior commander present, when 1st and 11th Corps fell back, it was Howard who posted them along the “fish hook”.

        And yes, I pick on Hancock, but not his bravery or his skill as a Corps commander. You have to have an ego to rise in rank, but his was a spectacular sort, right up there with Hooker and Lil’ Mac. That’s my main beef with him, along with his instance that he take command at Cemetary ridge until Meade arrived, even though Howard was senior.


      • forgivable jones

        hey hey bye bye

  • Meade? A good Corps commander, but only average as an Army commander. As noted in my post, Meade didn’t do much – outside of accepting Hancock’s choice of the Army of the Potomac’s defensive position – to win at Gettysburg, and his failure to pursue Lee aggressively afterwards was a glaring error. He made a number of mistakes after Grant came east, none of them spectacular, but mistakes none-the-less. I’ve always viewed Meade as a “workmanlike” general. He wasn’t going to be routed, but nor was he going to win big.

    Johnston? I agree with you Scott. Johnston was a soldier’s general – his troops loved him. He is often criticized for being too cautious, but I think he was being realistic. You’re fighting an enemy that is far larger and better equipped than you so you damn well better preserve what you have. That’s what Johnston tried to do and Davis hated it. He wanted Johnston to be audacious and aggressive like Lee, but there was only one Bobby Lee. We know how it worked out when Davis got his “fighter”: John Bell Hood. I suspect that had Davis left Johnston in place, then Johnston would have eventually retreated to the Gulf of Mexico (as his critics often said), but he would have done so slowly and skillfully with the Army of the Tennessee intact and North frustrated that they couldn’t get rid of it.

    • Thanks for the better perspective. Was always impressed by the great statue of him in the Corry, PA town square as a kid, but admittedly never delved much into his war record outside of knowing he won at Gettysburg.

  • Veruckt

    What?!? No Burnside!! This is an outrage Rich!

    Little known Nathan Bedford Forrest fact. Less than 5 miles from my current position is a giant statue of him on horseback. It may be the ugliest statue ever forged and sort of looks like an overgrown paper mache done by an overly ambitious third grader. It used to be surrounded by rebel flags but the flags and the statue both have been so frequently vandalized that the flags had to be taken down. The ugly statue remains.

  • Scott M.

    A sidebar to what what Tim said….Howard University in Washington is named after General Howard

  • Scott M.

    Well said,Rich…Johnston pretty much knew that there no hope in 1864,and what he did was preserve the lives of his men.He did what he had to do..he was not going to shed needless blood.He left John Bell Hood with one of greatest armies ever…Hood destroyed it between Atlanta and Nashville,drowned it in blood

  • G. E. McCulley

    I don’t know how you can leave Sherman off the list. He understood how to destroy the enemies will to fight and did so.

  • Scott M.

    Hope Rich follows up and gives us his list of the worst generals,some of whom have already been mentioned here..

  • Slowtrot

    Your inclusion shows a greater knowledge of the military aspects of the Civil War than many of our military men demonstrate.

    The inclusion of Thomas as your second choice is right on the head. That Thomas was not put in charge of the western theater was Grant’s most foolish mistake. Sherman did not like to fight battles and said so in letters to his daughters. However, Sherman’s brother John was a force in the U. S. Senate at the time and Grant sought a higher political position and John Sherman could help him. I’m not sure why others think Sherman was any kind of tactician. Without going into a lot of detail he showed his lack of military competence at Resaca at the beginning of the campaign in May, when he sent McPherson with no cavalry and only 20,000 Infantry to cut Johnston off. He should have listened to Thomas (who developed the plan). With 58,000 Infantry and three divisions of Cavalry Thomas was more than a match for Johnston. Instead he sent Mac and instead of ending the war in the west within a couple of weeks, it took him until September to capture Atlanta.

    Grant was no tactician either. He sacrificed his men to the tune of approximately 100 killed to Thomas’ 10!


    • p

      Grant was a great tacticain over and over again sending troops and equipment in almost the perfect ammount needed. If you study Grant you will see that he often did not send a 500 wagon train when he only needed 300. Grant used speed as much as resources in winning battles while other Union generals would take weeks and weeks just to go a few miles Grant would leave what he didnt need behind and let it catch up later. And Grant did not sacrifice his men at every turn in fact until he faced Lee(who sacrificed his men as a rule) Grants loss of men was very low for an attacking army.

  • Don Mickon

    I agree with your comments about Tom Jackson; marginally insane or e truly religeous zealot. Read Jed Hotkiss,s book about Jackson,s Velley campaign. Hotkiss was a civil engineer, ahom Stonewall corralled to become his cartographer. …and a good one he became it was his maps that lent much to the tactical manuevers Jackson was able to make. Later when Jackson came through the gap to aid his new commander, Lee, Jackson promptly got lost without good maps and because there were two “Church Roads”. As a matter of fact Jackson’s men lent little to the first three days of McClellan’s seven days of bewilderment.
    Also, it,s my belief that Tim is far afield in calling Sickles a second hero at Gettysberg. on the second day, Sickles disobeied orders by posting his men far afront of surrounding regiments, putting them in great peril to defend the peach orchard and the wheat field. As as the concept that Sickles forward position caused Longstreet,s delay; I recall something different. I could be wrong here, but wasn,t Longstreet delayed becausehe had to countermarch to avoid being seenby union signal corps observers on Round Top?? Dan Sickles makes many lists as one of the worst. He was a ward heeler from Tammany Hall, s political hack who got his appointment through friends in Congress. He was less deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor than the poor nurse from upstate NY that was stripped of her,s. To me a flat out tyo put Sickles on any h.eros lisThe man who almost single-handedly lost the second day at Gettysburg. Don MIcklon

  • p

    While i like Forrest he was really just a sideshow to me a great general has to invade and take something. Grant was so much better than everyone else im surprised anyone would make a list. Grant was a quartermaster during the Mexican war and new the importance of starving the ememy of men,materials and food. To me he chose Sherman and Sharidan as the fastest way to starve the south and Lee. Grant took one of the best generals of all time and reduced his army to the point of annihlation. Lee had only 7000-8000 armed men out of the 20000 still with him at Appomattox.

  • p

    Well if your going to make a list….#1Grant…#2Lee…#3Sherman…#4Jackson…#5Forrest. Forrest somehow did not rise to the top,nor take a great prize such as Washington DC,but the record of what he did i have to put Forrest in my top five. Grant in 1861 was in the middle of nowhere with fail stamped all over him,yet somehow a little scared looking man with the reputation as a drunk (you can go on and on)rose to the top. Grant was always fighting on enemy soil never seamed to be bothered by the fog of war in fact the speed of his armies just amazed me. Grant not only did not let CSA armies get away he accepted the surrender of three whole CSA armies of 20000 or more men that fact alone puts him #1.

  • bruce

    I would replace Lee with Sherman. Lee didn’t win Chancellorsville, Joe Hooker lost. Fredericksburg was the reverse of Gettysburg and Burnside was just as stupid as Lee with the nonsensical frontal assaults against the high ground. Lee’s early victories are similar to other rebellions where emotion and the newness of battle create early victories and momentum. Washington won because of his strategy of not committing large forces against superior numbers. Forrest knew this as well. Southerner love affair with Lee is simple as they needed a hero after the war so his mystique remains. This continues today.

    Lee used the tactics of Napoleon with huge frontal assaults while Sherman was our first modern general. Waterloo was similar to Gettysburg as Napoleon in desperation sent his elite Old Guards against Wellington’s center, a career limiting tactic.

    Soon after the last charge at Gettysburg, Pickett said, “that old man destroyed my division.” If Lee would have listened to Hood and Longstreet and flank Hancock around the Roundtops, Lincoln would have accepted Davis’ offer for an armistice. We could have easily ended like Ireland, the north and south.

  • Brandon

    1) Jackson
    2) Thomas
    3) Lee
    4) Johnston
    5) McLellan

  • josh

    It’s criminal to not add Patrick Cleburne to this list!

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