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.