Why was the American Civil War badly commanded on both sides?

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,765
It wasn't without the very notable exception of General Hood, the CSA was commanded very well. Might be the only reason the war lasted as well as it did.
The idea that the Confederacy possessed better generals is one of the great myths of the Civil War. Virtually all of the trained officers from Union states and 40% of the officers from the Confederate states fought for the Union. Once you take a real look at Robert E Lee, or at war as a whole, it's clear that the CSA military record was largely one of failure. CSA attempts to invade Union territory, from Gettysburg to Glorietta Pass always ended in failure. Even in an era that favored the defense, the Union successfully took and held an area about the size of modern Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. Union generals Burnside, Butler, Hooker, Pleasanton, Pope, and Sigel are generally considered to be some of the worst generals of the war, but outside of Virginia they repeatedly beat the Confederates – Sigel was competent at Pea Ridge, Burnside shut down most of the North Carolina coast and later beat Longstreet, Hooker performed well at Chattanooga and in the Atlanta Campaign, Pleasanton drove the Confederates from Missouri, Pope cleared the Mississippi south to Memphis, and Butler waltzed into New Orleans.

Robert E Lee was arguably the Confederacy's best, yet he never won a campaign outside of Virginia and he was beaten by Meade, who is generally considered a second-string Union general, and by Rosecrans, who is often considered one of the Union's worst generals.
Jackson varied in quality - his performance in the Seven Days Battles was poor. At Brawner's Farm, Jackson only managed a stalemate even though he had a 3-to-1 advantage in numbers. At Brandy Station, Stuart was surprised by Pleasanton, who as noted, is often considered one of the Union's worst generals. At Knoxbville, Longstreet was beaten by Burnside, who is also considered one of the Union's worst generals. During Early's solo command in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 he was unable to defeat Franz Sigel, who as you may guess was also considered one of the Union's worst generals, then fatally delayed at the Battle of Monocacy, by Lew Wallace, a man far more noted for his literary accomplishments than his military skill.

Joe Johnston was probably the best the Confederacy had in the west, and he wasn’t good enough. AS Johnston was out of his depth - he did not just fail as an army commander, he failed to be an army commander. Floyd and Pillow were cowards. Sibley led his forces to disaster in Arizona. Van Dorn did the same in Arkansas. Price did the same in Kansas, losing to Pleasanton, who is often considered one of the Union's worst generals. Polk was an incompetent backstabber; the Union did a service for the Confederacy when they killed Polk with artillery fire. Hood was a backstabbing subordinate and a total disaster in command. Bragg was one of the few Confederate generals to win battles, but he had no idea what to do with a victory and his abrasive nature helped erode what little cohesion his Confederate army had. .
 

Zip

Jan 2018
487
Comancheria
One disagreement Fiver, on Rosecrans. I think the consensus on him was that he was a talented soldier but with a fatal loss of grip at Chickamauga and then Chattanooga and certainly far better than one of the Federal's worst. And he was slow in the first half of 63 when fast was needed.

But once he got moving he did OK until after capturing Chattanooga when his over confidence put his army in peril.

Regards
 
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May 2019
180
Salt Lake City, Utah
I agree with some of that, Zip, abot Rosecrans. His major weaknesses were personal enmity toward those he thought had done better than he (despite the facts). How, more importantly to this thread, although he could defeat his enemies in battle (Iuka, Corinth, Stone's River, the advance on Chattanooga; Chickamauga was lost because of a lower commander uncovering part of the battle, which the CSA drove through), he had not the will to pursue and thrust to the jugular. Grant could not forgive that inability, and Rosecrans could not forgive Grant.
 
Jun 2017
2,969
Connecticut
The idea that the Confederacy possessed better generals is one of the great myths of the Civil War. Virtually all of the trained officers from Union states and 40% of the officers from the Confederate states fought for the Union. Once you take a real look at Robert E Lee, or at war as a whole, it's clear that the CSA military record was largely one of failure. CSA attempts to invade Union territory, from Gettysburg to Glorietta Pass always ended in failure. Even in an era that favored the defense, the Union successfully took and held an area about the size of modern Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. Union generals Burnside, Butler, Hooker, Pleasanton, Pope, and Sigel are generally considered to be some of the worst generals of the war, but outside of Virginia they repeatedly beat the Confederates – Sigel was competent at Pea Ridge, Burnside shut down most of the North Carolina coast and later beat Longstreet, Hooker performed well at Chattanooga and in the Atlanta Campaign, Pleasanton drove the Confederates from Missouri, Pope cleared the Mississippi south to Memphis, and Butler waltzed into New Orleans.

Robert E Lee was arguably the Confederacy's best, yet he never won a campaign outside of Virginia and he was beaten by Meade, who is generally considered a second-string Union general, and by Rosecrans, who is often considered one of the Union's worst generals.
Jackson varied in quality - his performance in the Seven Days Battles was poor. At Brawner's Farm, Jackson only managed a stalemate even though he had a 3-to-1 advantage in numbers. At Brandy Station, Stuart was surprised by Pleasanton, who as noted, is often considered one of the Union's worst generals. At Knoxbville, Longstreet was beaten by Burnside, who is also considered one of the Union's worst generals. During Early's solo command in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 he was unable to defeat Franz Sigel, who as you may guess was also considered one of the Union's worst generals, then fatally delayed at the Battle of Monocacy, by Lew Wallace, a man far more noted for his literary accomplishments than his military skill.

Joe Johnston was probably the best the Confederacy had in the west, and he wasn’t good enough. AS Johnston was out of his depth - he did not just fail as an army commander, he failed to be an army commander. Floyd and Pillow were cowards. Sibley led his forces to disaster in Arizona. Van Dorn did the same in Arkansas. Price did the same in Kansas, losing to Pleasanton, who is often considered one of the Union's worst generals. Polk was an incompetent backstabber; the Union did a service for the Confederacy when they killed Polk with artillery fire. Hood was a backstabbing subordinate and a total disaster in command. Bragg was one of the few Confederate generals to win battles, but he had no idea what to do with a victory and his abrasive nature helped erode what little cohesion his Confederate army had. .
I disagree. I think the fact if the CSA didn't have superior officers the war would have been over much sooner and I think judging the CSA generals by the standard of "winning campaigns" isn't realistic. And the Eastern confederate officers were superior to the West, that is why the Union won most major battles in the west. However there was no single victory in the East that could end the war and it took time for those victories to add up. The CSA might have been large but in terms of population it had a much smaller population than those places(maybe not Poland) especially a free population. There were less than 6 million free people in the CSA in 1860. They were outnumbered almost 4 to 1.

I do think the Union commanders except McClellan(who was as terrible as advertised) and Grant(who I think was a general who was reliant on his situation to succeed) were underrated. Hooker and Meade in particular should have been given more rope to hang themselves before losing their jobs seeing how much deference was given to McCllellan and later Grant. Nothing Hooker could have done against Robert Lee and Jackson's most brilliant battle and Meade was fired/demoted(I know he technically kept his job but Grant was in charge) after Gettysburgh for making IMO the right decision to not chase Lee. The scenario's chasing Lee at Sharspburg that got McClellan fired and the one with Meade were two entirely different scenarios and I feel Lincoln treated them same because the earlier dealings with McClellan biased him against caution.

Never winning a campaign outside of Virginia is a cherrypicked criteria IMO because that was where a lionshare of the wars important fights were held. At Shaprsburg the Union owed their victory(or even the fact the battle occurred) to the dropped CSA orders(which is the premise of the most famed ALT history scenario book series) as it caused a temporary drastic change in McClellan behavior. That leaves Gettysburgh.

To defend Johnston who was the best in the West, he didn't get a fair chance given he was fired for not being aggressive enough then was rehired when Hood had gotten much of his army killed and there was no longer anything he could do. Not sure he could have prevented the fall of Atlanta but he was successfully slowing Sherman down and could have prevented the March to Sea. Instead Hood basically ended the war in the West by gambling on two offensives in Tennessee that were disasters. From that point on there was very little Johnston could do except observe the March to the Sea as he no longer had the soldiers to effect Sherman's behavior and Sherman was comfortable enough ignoring his existence. Any ability Johnston had to do his best was taken from him and given how crucial Sherman's victory's in 1864 were to Lincon's reelection campaign Johnston even holding Sherman down a few months might have been decisive if a Democratic administration was indeed willing to settle.

The Union did keep most of their officer corps but I'd say the CSA got the best officers/the Union didn't utilize the talent they did have as well as they could have. General superiority is one thing where quality beats quantity as there's only one person who can run an army and only so many corps. Having a deeper bench doesn't matter if the bench isn't used and McClellan spent much of those first two years in charge in the East. Remember for Lee to even get full command factor Johnston did need to get injured, if so his talent would have mattered(or would have mattered considerably less).
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,984
Sydney
@ emperor of Wurttenberg
" Meade was fired/demoted after Gettysburg for making IMO the right decision to not chase Lee "

?? please expound your thinking , I would think Lee could be crushed against a river in flood
He certainly feared as much

as for Meade authority , he was still in command of the army of the Potomac
he did sterling service in refusing to attack fortified position at Mine run
 
May 2019
180
Salt Lake City, Utah
Yes, the quality of generals are always determined by the quality of their campaigns.

That's why Grant, Jackson, and to a lesser extent, Lee, are considered very good generals.
 

Zip

Jan 2018
487
Comancheria
The rebel bench was very thin. They produced one very capable commander of a large army, Lee, and two very capable corps commanders, Longstreet and Jackson. Ewell and AP Hill were OK. In the west the rebels produced no capable army commander and no really capable corps commanders. Polk, Hardee, Cheatham, Breckinridge, DH Hill, Lee, Stewart, Pemberton--none stood out and some were dangerously incompetent. Even the normally level headed Longstreet acted goofy and carelessly out west after his outstanding turn at Chickamauga.

Joe Johnston accomplished little in the west, both while in charge of the west during the Vicksburg campaign and while commanding the Army of Tennessee in Georgia. Lots of could'as and would'as, that's all.

Grant's Army of the Tennessee had a first rate commander in Grant, two excellent corps commanders in Sherman and McPherson and even McClernand, who commanded the 13th Corps until relieved was a fairly capable corps commander. Ord who took the 13th Corps after his relief was first rate both as a corps and then army commander; he tuned the Army of the James into a fast moving and hard hitting force that was in on the kill at Petersburg and Appomattox.

Other very capable Federal commanders in the West were Thomas, Logan, Hooker, Blair, Stanley, AJ Smith, Wood, Jefferson Davis and Howard.

The four corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac at war's end were also very capable--Parke, Humphreys, Wright and Griffin. And Phil Sheridan was around as Grant's go to guy and ass kicker.
 

Zip

Jan 2018
487
Comancheria
Pat Cleburne ?
Excellent division commander. After Chattanooga, where Cleburne (and Cleburne alone) was very impressive, Hood, Lee, Stewart and Cheatham passed over him for corps command, possibly because he'd proposed arming Blacks or maybe because he was closely tied to Hardee and the near mutinous anti Bragg faction of the army. Or both. He was probably a better soldier though than any of those four fellas.
 
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Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,765
One disagreement Fiver, on Rosecrans. I think the consensus on him was that he was a talented soldier but with a fatal loss of grip at Chickamauga and then Chattanooga and certainly far better than one of the Federal's worst. And he was slow in the first half of 63 when fast was needed.

But once he got moving he did OK until after capturing Chattanooga when his over confidence put his army in peril.

Regards
Thanks for the response. I had meant to say that Rosecrans is generally also considered a second string Union general.
 
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