Ranking the greatest generals in the American Civil War

Seeing how it's a point of contention on the internet these days it seems, I was curious as to what you all would think about the topic. Specifically, on a scale of 1-10, how would you rank each general from both the Union and Confederacy in the American Civil War?
 

RousseauX

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These vids are long but done with a professional civil war historian:



They are very informative and interesting if yeah long

Spoilers, he ranks George Thomas to be the best general of either side in the Civil War
 
Shouldn't we be judging generals with scores on multiple criteria, like competence at each of the strategic, operational, and tactical levels?
 
Well my thoughts at each level:

Strategy:
There are plenty of generals who score very high marks in this regard.
Starting with a surprising choice, William S. Rosecrans, the victor of Tullahoma and Stones River, stands out as an excellent strategist. He basically rebuilt the Army of the Cumberland (especially the cavalry) from the shambles that the Army of the Ohio was and successfully outmaneuvered Bragg in daring maneuvers that almost enveloped Bragg twice. The period of inactivity between Stones River and Tullohoma was needed for the logistical buildup to enter the "Barrens" of Tennessee.

That said, Rosecrans does have serious flaws at the strategic level, namely his unique ability to annoy his superiors and his sometimes spotty reading of intelligence. The latter contributed to the delays prior to the Tullahoma Campaign, where Rosecrans misinterpreted the departures from Bragg's Army to Mississippi to be reinforcements to Bragg although some of this blame falls on the confused picture provided by the intelligence staff, and nearly caused a great disaster during the Chickamauga Campaign, where Rosecrans ignored intelligence suggesting that Bragg had stopped fleeing and was in fact turning around for a counterattack.

On the other hand, Rosecrans was not as passive as past accounts suggest when he was besieged at Chattanooga. Most of the negative accounts from Charles Dana, Secretary of War Stanton's spy, who was Rosecrans' enemy. Rosecrans actually developed the Cracker Line plan to get his army resupplied and was only carried out after Grant and Stanton took the opportunity to relieve Rosecrans of his command, a consequence of Rosecrans' inability to get along well with his superiors.
William T. Sherman is a great strategist. Certainly someone who understood the importance of logistics and the art of maneuver. His March to the Sea and Carolinas Campaigns were well-conceived and effective. However, Sherman's strategic vision wasn't perfect. He, unlike Grant, pursued geographic military objectives rather than armies, and Sherman in fact disliked battles for the unpredictability involved. This allowed the Confederates to escape certain destruction several times. Furthermore, Sherman's marches were a strategic idea from Grant, not completely of Sherman's original design. Sherman's handling of cavalry is also pretty bad, though you could ascribe a lot of blame onto the mediocre talents of his cavalry subordinates.
Robert E. Lee, as a strategist, has achieved mixed results. In 1862, I'd argue that his aggressive strategy of exhaustion was the right one. If there ever was a limited window of opportunity to use military force to achieve a negotiated peace, it was probably 1862. Lee deserves a lot more credit for the Valley Campaign than he usually gets and I'd argue that his Second Bull Run Campaign was his magnum opus rather than Chancellorsville. But his conduct during the Maryland Campaign was almost horrifying. While I'd agree with the idea of carrying the fight to the enemy, dividing forces before an opponent was imprudent and even worse was the decision making prior and after the battle of Antietam. Lee was still thinking of trying to slip past McClellan to the north before and after the battle. Even Stonewall Jackson was of the opinion that it couldn't be done.

Between Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, Lee was only reacting. The Pennsylvania Campaign actually made good sense - Virginia was out of resources and the Army of the Potomac's 2-year regiments were leaving the army, weakening it to its lowest point thus far. Of course, the failed execution brought substantial costs but the resources plundered from Pennsylvania actually enable the army to survive the winter of 1863. That said, one can argue that one particularly negative strategic impact Lee had was the drain of resources elsewhere to his army. The Atlanta depot, which gathered resources from Tennessee and Georgia, sent half a million pounds of meat to Lee's Army while Bragg's army was only begrudgingly given 60,000 pounds of meat (3 days' supply). Lee was also responsible for blocking any transfers to the Western Theater until he was forced to agree.

For 1864-65, Lee was mostly reacting and though he created a stalemate that might have been beneficial for getting McClellan in the White House, Lee himself admitted that he was losing in a siege of Petersburg/Richmond. His decision to send Jubal Early to raid the North again was a good one but I do have to wonder what Jubal Early could have accomplished if he was sent to Atlanta instead.
Ulysses S. Grant: Early in the war, Grant deserves credit for carrying out the Fort Henry-Donelson Campaign energetically. Shiloh was a bad moment for Grant, though some blame must go to Sherman, who insisted that there were no Confederates nearby and Grant readily accepted it. The Second Corinth Campaign perhaps represented Grant's aggression at its lowest point as he seemed to be avoiding major risks - perhaps related to his career concerns after Shiloh. The Vicksburg Campaign stood out as the most brilliantly engineered strategic victory of the ACW albeit after many engineering mishaps. Chattanooga was a campaign where little went according to plan, but Grant's strategic flexibility allowed the Union army to still triumph despite this.

As the general-in-chief, Grant gives the Union army the clear direction to victory - the concentration in time and the Raiding Strategy. The Raiding Strategy was Grant's solution to the Union's extended supply lines; if the rebels weren't going to let them stay, then they'd move rapidly through enemy territory and destroy the rebel supply infrastructure in the process - the basis of Sherman's marches.

In the Eastern theater, it's interesting to note that Grant actually did not want to fight directly with Lee. Instead Grant proposed to invade North Carolina with 60,000 men and conduct a March through North Carolina to cripple Lee's supply line to Wilmington, the key blockade runner port supplying Lee. Lee even mentioned in a letter to Richmond that a delay in supply for even a week was unacceptable. But political realities deemed the strategy unacceptable for the Lincoln administration.

The Overland Campaign is not in fact a campaign of attrition. If it was, then it was a failure. Looking at Albert C. Young's book on the numbers of Lee's Army, Lee actually suffered a net loss of 3,468 casualties after reinforcements and replacements. The Overland Campaign was a campaign of maneuver and by that measure, it succeeded although it was an incomplete success. Grant was strategically flexible throughout the campaign. If he could decisively defeat Lee in battle and take Richmond, he would do so. If it couldn't be done, but his secondary armies under Sigel and Butler make significant progress, then he would hold Lee. If they failed as they did IOTL, then Grant would maneuver to the James River, cross it and attack Petersburg. And when that ultimately fails, Grant would besiege Petersburg, where Lee cannot escape and assist the Army of Tennessee.

That said, for Grant's biggest flaw, it would have to be impulsiveness. Some historians note that Grant was not very good at setting timetables for his subordinates' advance. Some of this I agree with (Sigel's timetable) and others I disagree with (Meade's timetable for Spotsylvania). Furthermore, Grant could also hastily approve of ideas, without giving much time to flesh them out.

Operational:
During the opening moves of the Tullahoma and Chattanooga Campaign, Rosecrans had completely befuddled Bragg. His maneuvers and deceptions had Bragg paralyzed as Bragg tried to determine how to counter Rosecrans' moves. Rosecrans' movements came very close to cutting Bragg off twice but rainy weather and a hasty decision to retreat saved Bragg in the Tullahoma and Chattanooga Campaigns. That said, Rosecrans' pursuit of Bragg, spurred on by Stanton's threat to fire him, was recklessly conducted. If not for Confederate bungling, Rosecrans' army could have defeated in detail. McLemore's Cove was a famous golden opportunity to smash a part of Thomas' Corps and Crittenden's isolated XXI Corps was a notable alternative target for Bragg.
Earl J. Hess praises Sherman for his unique operational approach. Sherman used trenches in an aggressive manner-he dug in and used the manpower freed up to find the enemy's flank. It could be argued that Sherman did this better than Grant at Petersburg. However, Russell Weigley also criticizes Sherman for not really using his multiple armies to their fullest potential operationally as opposed for limited outflanking. Sherman's reluctance to engage in battle also meant that these maneuvers could only achieve so much damage on the enemy. Sherman could also get sloppy at times, exposing himself to counterattacks like Bentonville or Peach Tree Creek and Bald Hill (July 22). His subordinates' actions did much to prevent disaster.
Lee is undoubtedly an excellent practitioner of the operational arts. In an offensive, his favorite move was the turning maneuver. Through this maneuver, Lee managed to slip into the rear and defeat Pope at Bull Run quite badly and plunder Pennsylvania before Union forces could halt him. On the defensive, Lee deserves credit for being able to react rapidly and decisively to his opponent's movements - though there were occasional and serious lapses (Burnside almost got to Fredericksburg before Lee could react, Lee was confused as to what Grant's intentions were when Grant crossed the James).
In the Overland Campaign, Grant proved to be just as capable as Lee in the operational arts. In most maneuvers, Grant's rapid movements were usually only parried by Lee's swift reaction at the last minute. Grant shows daring willingness in his schemes, shown in the Vicksburg Campaign and his decision to build the world's longest pontoon bridge across the James River to surprise Lee. Grant was also superb at deception, successfully misling his opponents (Pemberton, Longstreet, Lee) as to what his intentions were.

That said, Grant's impulsiveness did cost opportunities and he used too much of his cavalry on raiding until 1865.

Tactical:
Rosecrans is not much of a tactician. Unfortunately, we'll never know how well he'd organize an attack since he always found himself being attacked. During a defense, Rosecrans reacted well for the most part. He was quick to rush troops to the endangered location and could organize a stubborn resistance. But he had one key flaw: he couldn't communicate his orders very well. Famously, one general actually sent one of Rosecrans' orders back with a note: "Respectfully returned. I cannot understand it."

During the Second Battle of Corinth, Rosecrans recognized he could outflank his opponent and sent the necessary orders to take advantage of the opportunity... except Rosecrans somehow messed up his left and right, confusing the division commander in charge. 3 hours were lost sorting out the confusion. I'd also say that Rosecrans was a bit too deferential to Thomas during Chickamauga as well. He gave Thomas the troops he wanted from other corps and ignored how weak the rest of his army became because of it. If he recognized the serious situation of the left flank as Thomas did, it would've probably been best for Rosecrans to pull back the rest of the army to redeploy and improve their situation.
Sherman... it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that the man never lost a campaign yet never won a battle. On the defensive, Sherman wasn't bad. At Shiloh, he did a good job of rallying his green division. On the offensive, Sherman got a bloody nose at Chickasaw Bayou, Chattanooga and Kennesaw Mountain during frontal attacks and usually committed too little into his attacks when they could've been successful. McPherson came very close to cutting Johnston's escape route during the Battle of Resaca. Sherman could've crushed the Confederates at Jonesborough. Sherman is almost McClellan-esque in this department.
Lee was undeniably a capable battlefield commander. The clumsiness of the Seven Days' Campaign is largely due to his army's inexperience, especially the officers, at offensive warfare. Lee was able to recognize and cultivate talent in his army to quickly act out his intention during battle. Lee's turning maneuvers were well-executed by the corps commanders. During the Overland Campaign, as Lee was put in desperate straits, he did a good job of personally intervening to save his army.
That said, there are a few really questionable moments during Lee's career. At Antietam, Lee seemed almost desperate to attack McClellan's left, despite his subordinates' insistence that they couldn't do it. At Chancellorsville, Lee was determined to throw his troops onto Hooker's fortified position on May 6th and was saved only by Hooker's decision to withdraw before the assault. At Gettysburg, Lee's plan on Day 2 fell apart because Lee based his entire plan on intelligence provided 6 hours prior to the attack and only inflicted heavier losses thanks to Sickles' foolish decision.
This might be a controversial take, but I'd argue that Grant isn't an awful tactician. Yes, he's stained with the title of "Butcher" for heavy losses, but there's plenty of blame to go around. In complete honesty, Grant's style of battlefield command isn't unlike Lee's. It's quite off hands as Grant preferred to let the corps commanders handle their battles. In the Western Theater, Grant saw to it that his corps commanders were moving and cooperating as intended. The most involved he got was probably Champion Hill, where he directed McPherson's Corps. Champion Hill was basically Grant's Glendale, as Pemberton was only spared by McClernand's inactivity.

In the Eastern Theater, Grant wasn't constantly battering his head against Lee's trenches, except for May 10 and June 3. Grant repeatedly maneuvered in hopes of gaining the advantage over Lee or attempted to strike Lee's weakspots. At the Wilderness, Grant correctly identified Lee's weak spot on May 6 and struck hard. Only Longstreet's superb tactics, however, managed to not only halt but turn the tables on Grant. At Spotsylvania Court House, Grant was willing to adopt Upton's columnar tactics and successfully gutted Ewell's II Corps on May 12. He also managed to surprise Lee though the attack was unsuccessful on May 18.

A large share of Grant's tactical failings on the Eastern Theater fall on the Army of the Potomac's sluggishness. A good portion of the Wilderness' casualties originate from Warren's mismanaged attack on the first day. On May 10, the Army of the Potomac's planned simultaneous attack fell apart by Warren's sudden decision to attack early.

That said, Grant still deserves blame for his impulsive decision making. Sometimes Grant would try a scheme without conducting a thorough reconnaissance or giving adequate time for implementation. This is best seen during May 9-10 of Spotsylvania, where Grant tried flanking Lee's line too late in the day and thus exposed his hand to Lee. Grant was sometimes too hands off and came to regret it during the First Offensive at Petersburg, where Meade and Butler failed to breakthrough Beauregard's weak line. I believe that Grant was perhaps distancing himself from the battle due to Meade's outburst after North Anna that Meade was getting sick and tired of Grant's growing management of the Army of the Potomac.

On the other hand, when Grant rebuilt the Army of the Potomac to become a fighting force of his own, it performed flawlessly during the Appomattox Campaign.
 
1. Lee - 7
2. Grant - 9
3. Sherman - 9
4. Hood - 2
5. McClellan - 4
6. Johnston - 6
7. Bragg - 3
8. Burnside - 3
9. Hooker - 4
10. Rosecrans - 6
11. Sheriden - 7
12. Forrest - 8
13. Longstreet - 8
.
 
These vids are long but done with a professional civil war historian:



They are very informative and interesting if yeah long

Spoilers, he ranks Geoslow rge Thomas to be the best general of either side in the Civil War
I was rooting for "Old slow trot". The rock of Chickamauga is one of the most underrated, and under appreciated generals of the war. Thomas was to the Union what Davout was to Napoleon. You could give him the hardest assignment, and he'd carry it out with grim determination. He was honest, unflappable, and always methodical. He took his time, but unlike MacLellan when the time was right he would attack without hesitation. His judgments were sound, and like Grant he never engaged in handwringing.
 
I have started threads about ranking the Union and Confederate corps commanders of the war, as well as just a general ranking of the best generals. Furthermore, I also started one with best Civil War army compositions. There a lot of materiel to read in them, if you are interested. As for my personal rankings:
Union Generals
  1. George H. Thomas
  2. Ulysses S. Grant
  3. William T. Sherman
  4. John A. Logan
  5. Samuel R. Curtis
  6. Andrew Jackson Smith
  7. George G. Meade
  8. Winfield S. Hancock
  9. Philip H. Sheridan
  10. Alpheus S. Williams
  11. William S. Rosecrans
  12. David S. Stanley
Confederate Generals
  1. Robert E. Lee
  2. Richard Taylor
  3. James Longstreet
  4. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
  5. Wade Hampton III
  6. John B. Gordon
  7. Patrick Cleburne
  8. Daniel Harvey Hill
  9. Joseph E. Johnston
  10. J.E.B. Stuart
  11. William J. Hardee
Overall Top 10
  1. George H. Thomas
  2. Ulysses S. Grant
  3. Robert E. Lee
  4. William T. Sherman
  5. Richard Taylor
  6. James Longstreet
  7. John A. Logan
  8. Samuel R. Curtis
  9. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
  10. Tie: Andrew Jackson Smith and Wade Hampton III
And now a few appropriate remarks. I don't think any of the names of my list will be too controversial (with the exception of two I will get to later), although the order I have them might cause some stir. I will admit that my views on some generals since I have joined this site have changed, with some increasing (Joseph E. Johnston, William S. Rosecrans, Richard Taylor, George G. Meade), while others decreased (Stonewall Jackson, Ambrose Burnside [surprising right?], William J. Hardee). In the end, however, my opinions, as are everyone's, are affected by underlying bias, so a completely objective list is impossible. Anyways, despite having what I believe is good grasp on Civil War history, I am by no means the final authority on it.

Now with that said, I think I'll get to what are perhaps my most controversial (although I wouldn't say most unique) picks, which I think are Rosecrans and Johnston. In recent years, both men have undergone significant reputation rehabilitation, so I might be trying to address the concerns of no one and rehashing old arguments, but here is my reasoning. Both Rosecrans and Johnston proved to be something both sides of the war were in desperate need of during the conflict: competent army commanders. Neither of them were stragetic genius à la Grant & Lee, or tactical genius à la Thomas & Longstreet, but both had enough facility in those two fields to prove to the right men for most jobs, not to mention both were beloved by the armies they commanded. Both whipped demoralized armies in poor shape into hard-fighting military machines who turned in capable performances (Army of the Ohio 1862 for Stones River Campaign and Army of Tennessee 1864 for Atlanta Campaign). It is easy to find men who could serve well as a division commander, or even to a lesser degree find corps commanders, but I would say that someone could count on their fingers the number of capable full-sized (50,000+) army commanders produced by the war.

It is easy to bash both men for the failures during their time in command, but in comparison to their successes, and in consideration of the positions they held, they are understandable, and it is laudable that they didn't make more. You can find plenty of Union division commanders for Rosecrans and Confederate division commanders for Johnston who would on a basis of solely considering success-failure ratio seem to be the better general, but for many of them I would interested in seeing how well they would fare if placed in the boots of an army command. For their performance as an army commander, I think both men merit on spot on the list.
 
Yes, he's stained with the title of "Butcher" for heavy losses
Grant's losses are drastically overstated, and the reputation comes from slander by Lost Causers. Lee lost both more men, and a far higher percentage of his army throughout his campaign than Grant did. Far from being a butcher Grant's campaigns are notable for being light on casualties. The entire "butcher" figures come from the very late war, as it transitioned into a more brutal affair.

Anyhoo, on the Union's side Grant is the best hands down. He had both solid tactical ability, and the absolute best strategic vision of the war. Yes, he was better than Thomas, though Thomas is easily second.

For the Confederate's I'd put Joseph E. Johnston higher than Lee, since Johnston was unique among Confederate generals for having strategic ability.
 
I begin to realize that there are SO MANY of these guys. I think that there were a bunch of incompetent bozos on each side - Hood, Bragg, McClellan, Burnside, Pemberton. I lot of people like Jeb Stuart but he may have been responsible for the South losing at Gettysburg. It is a formidable task.
 
This guy does all generals, not just the Civil War. He takes the baseball concept of wins above replacement (which gives an appropriate acronym):


I don't like his methodology, which measures "total wins above replacement" rather than "winning percentage above replacement". So Napoleon, who fought in a huge number of battles, with quite good but not perfect average results, does better than generals like Hannibal or Alexander, who won every battle they fought, but who fought in fewer total battles.

Not to mention that he does not include many outstanding generals, such as most of the top Mongol generals.
 
I don't like his methodology, which measures "total wins above replacement" rather than "winning percentage above replacement". So Napoleon, who fought in a huge number of battles, with quite good but not perfect average results, does better than generals like Hannibal or Alexander, who won every battle they fought, but who fought in fewer total battles.

Not to mention that he does not include many outstanding generals, such as most of the top Mongol generals.

It's also subjective - you don't have the same kind of data that you do with baseball.

Of course, so is the whole exercise so that's just one guy's opinion (which you can filter for the Civil War).
 
For the Confederate's I'd put Joseph E. Johnston higher than Lee, since Johnston was unique among Confederate generals for having strategic ability.
I must disagree with this one. It's a fair argument that Johnston had a better strategic vision than Lee - recognizing that Southern manpower was limited and that opportunities for a counterattack would arise as the Union army overextended itself. That said, Johnston's strategic vision was also somewhat flawed. I get the impression that Johnston prioritized his armies over strategic cities way too much, ignoring the impact on politics, morale and material. Rome, Georgia and Selma, Alabama were both industrial and productive cities that were abandoned without a fight. Furthermore, Johnston's retreats Some historians also point out that there is some circumstancial evidence that Johnston really was going to abandon Atlanta.

A more serious issue for Joseph Johnston's generalship is his relatively poor operational conduct. While the Peninsula Campaign was fine, Johnston's conduct in the Vicksburg and Atlanta were undeniably poor. Simply put, Johnston too often merely waited for an opportunity to arise rather than create an opportunity to exploit and was unwilling to take risks - even if they were defensive battles. Yes, he did try to exploit his enemy's mistakes at Seven Pines, Cassville and Bentonville. But these opportunities came at the cost of ceding large amount of ground and none of these succeeded.

In the Atlanta Campaign, historian Earl J. Hess notes that Johnston was too ready to abandon his fortified positions at the first hint that the enemy was about to turn them. Given the mountainous terrain of Northern Georgia, Johnston was not tenacious enough in this good defensible terrain. In a campaign where time was essential, Johnston gave up the best ground to buy that time. Furthermore, Johnston was not very good at watching for his flanks at times.

Vicksburg is the more damning campaign for Johnston by far. With each book on Vicksburg I read, I become increasingly convinced that Johnston's conduct was outright cowardly and inept. When Johnston arrived to Jackson, Johnston had concluded "I am too late" from the moment he arrived, and did nothing to retrieve the situation. More damning was his actions between the battle of Jackson and the siege of Vicksburg. He promised to Pemberton that Johnston's army would link up with Pemberton if Pemberton would move to strike Grant. The reality - Johnston was moving away from said rendezvous point and made no effort to turn around to carry out the link up.

Pemberton marched and almost got annihilated at Champion Hill. Johnston's second set of instructions to Pemberton was to recommend an evacuation of Vicksburg... despite not knowing that Pemberton had been badly beaten. When Pemberton was besieged, Johnston did almost nothing to try to link up with Pemberton despite his insistence that the rebel armies had to concentrate. At this stage of the siege, the lines were still quite porous - a breakout was still in the cards. Yes, Johnston's force was relatively small but Grant was also sweating about his ability to maintain the siege and fight off Johnston. It's not unreasonable to think that Johnston could at least tried to draw off troops from Grant's siege line to allow Pemberton to make a breakout attempt. By spending an entire month and a half waiting for reinforcements and doing nothing, Grant was given time to dig a second line of fortifications outside Vicksburg and gain reinforcements.

In short, I think that Johnston's strategic ideas were good tho flawed, but the implementation of these ideas was awful.
 

CalBear

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This guy does all generals, not just the Civil War. He takes the baseball concept of wins above replacement (which gives an appropriate acronym):

Anytime I see something like this it reminds me of the famed old saw -

There are Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (full disclosure: I spent more time as a Budget and data analyst that I care to admit).

Number mean a lot, the don't mean all. In the case of Generals there is one non statistical factor that outweighs all else. Did he win? Full Stop.

Not "Yes but..." Did he win. Full Stop. Napoleon is probably the best example of this. "Best Ever?" The same officer who destroyed his own army through sheer hubris? Nope.

To get back to the thread question this is also where Lee utterly fails, much worse than Napoleon. Lee had one job. ONE. Survive (some would argue protect Richmond, which is valid, but misses the point). Lee had to do the same thing as two other, vastly superior commanding generals, he had to maintain a credible force in the field. As long as an actual Army of Northern Virginia was in the field the Confederate States of America were an actual tangible thing; the moment it wasn't the Confederacy was a memory. Washington understood this, almost two centuries later, another general, also fighting one of the World's super powers, Võ Nguyên Giáp understood it as well. Both understood, as Lee did not, that their real job was to stay on their feet, to out last the enemy. Just stay there and make the other guy bleed until the mothers and fathers and merchants and bankers compelled the enemy's government to pick up their ball and walk away. Anytime Lee advanced his main force beyond his primary defensive works outside of Petersburg he was failing to do his only job. He could surely send Jackson or Longstreet or A.P. Hill, or the glory-seeking J.E.B Stuart North to raise hell and terrorize the countryside as long as they had to obey on ironclad order (on literal pain of death) "do not be drawn into a set piece battle against a superior enemy force".

Lee's ego failed to allow him to do this. He escaped the first time, at Sharpsburg/Antietam thanks to the stunning incompetence of McClellan who let the war slip through his overly frightened fingers on the bloody September Day, with most of his army intact. He should have learned from that near disaster. He didn't. Less than 10 months later he allowed his forces to be drawn into a meeting engagement against a superior force operating along interior lines of communication without any real knowledge of the disposition of the enemy force. He then, of course, compounded the error by failing to regain control of both the battle and his own emotions and made two full days of head on charges into prepared positions despite being deficient in artillery, manpower, and lacking sufficient knowledge of his enemy dispositions, state of supply, and ability to reinforce. Lee shattered the single most powerful, and handily best equipped and led, force his nation possessed in a pointless, utterly needless, and more or less hopeless offensive when his ONE JOB was to keep that force intact. Again, his error was somewhat hidden by yet another Union commander who was insufficiently aggressive (some would argue overly casualty adverse) who allowed the remnants of his command to escape, despite being trapped against a river, in "Red" level of supply, especially munitions, encumbered by huge numbers of wounded, and with most major formations rendered combat incapable by absolutely incredible losses, not just in enlisted personnel but in regimental, brigade, and even divisional commanders (Lee had FIVE Brigadier Generals KIA, 10 WIA, 3 PoW, all told EIGHTEEN Brigades lost their CO, four of which lost BOTH the CO and his deputy commander). Meade let him get away. Civil war should have ended by August 1, 1863.

So the first thing to look at is winning. The second thing to look at is effectiveness. Here three officers stand out - Grant, for obvious reasons. Sherman, for understanding exactly what sort of war he was fighting. Nathan Bedford Forrest, for perhaps less obvious reasons.

Forrest, despite his manifest personality flaws (including being what, in later years, would be considered a Category A War Criminal) was brilliant, arguably the best cavalry officer of the war, rarely defeated and never defeated by equal numbers of Union troops. He tied up several times his number of Union foces throughout the war, always keeping a credible force in the field. Forrest was a right bastard, certainly deserved to be hanged by the standards of the era (although he does deserve credit for telling his troops that their duty after surrender was to obey the civilian authority, he loses it for establishing the Klan, despite his later repudiation of the monster he had created) but he was one hell of an effective officer.

Lacking both of these ingredients, no matter what sort of stats they put up pulls a general officer off any "Greatest' List.
 
Anytime I see something like this it reminds me of the famed old saw -

There are Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (full disclosure: I spent more time as a Budget and data analyst that I care to admit).

Number mean a lot, the don't mean all. In the case of Generals there is one non statistical factor that outweighs all else. Did he win? Full Stop.

Not "Yes but..." Did he win. Full Stop. Napoleon is probably the best example of this. "Best Ever?" The same officer who destroyed his own army through sheer hubris? Nope.

Honestly, I kinda love this explanation.

We can debate tactical effectiveness, strategic intentions and logistics in terms of counterfactuals, but when it comes to solid rankings, at the end of the day, it comes down to who emerged victorious on the battlefield. Just to use one example, had Napoleon stopped after Wagram and simply chosen to fight his battles through diplomacy and kept his new European hegemony together through his Austrian alliance and the mere threat of military force, no matter what his descendants did we would probably be calling him the greatest conqueror in recent history rather than having a "Waterloo" emerge as a catchall for a point of failure in the English language.

On another vein, had Grant turned back after any of the bloodier battles in the Overland Campaign, losing his nerve or resolve in the face of defeat like McClellan, Pope, and Hooker before him, the Northern cause may conceivably have failed in 1864 and we would regard Lee as the soldier who allowed for Southern Independence to be possible. Had Sherman suffered a paranoid fit similar to what happened in 1861 and been turned back from Atlanta, Joseph Johnston would have a far less controversial place in history, and we may see him as a very successful employer of Fabian tactics. The fact is that none of those things happened, Sherman walloped Hood outside Atlanta and Grant left a trail of corpses in blue and red in a continuous thrust on Richmond to bring Lee to heel. The Confederates were ground to dust, and the worst idea in American history since the mullet was consigned to the dustbin.
 
Again, his error was somewhat hidden by yet another Union commander who was insufficiently aggressive (some would argue overly casualty adverse) who allowed the remnants of his command to escape, despite being trapped against a river
I do feel the need to speak in defense of Meade here. While he was a cautious (and perhaps overly so) general, he also had standing orders to keep his army such that Lee could not approach Washington DC, and also he was dealing with an army that had also been exhausted by three days of battle, and the advance to Gettysburg which had been rapid, and then the later pursuit of the ANV was across even longer roads, and through bad weather. He also had not received much in the way of reinforcements as many of his men's enslistments had expired, and the NYC Draft riots happened a week after Gettysburg.

Could he have been more aggressive, probably, but I don't think he was necessarily making a bad call in failing to attack Lee's positions. It might have been wrong, but that wouldn't necessarily make it bad.

Also I think it should be remembered that Washington was heavily obsessed with fighting a decisive battle with the British, and he attempted to force one repeatedly. Germantown and Monmouth Courthouse were both attempts at this. So focused was Washington on this that he had to be begged and pleaded to go to Yorktown to trap Cornwallis, because he had spent so much of the war readying for his big showdown with the British in New York. Washington was absolutely the master of getting his army out of any bad spot they got into though.
 

CalBear

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I do feel the need to speak in defense of Meade here. While he was a cautious (and perhaps overly so) general, he also had standing orders to keep his army such that Lee could not approach Washington DC, and also he was dealing with an army that had also been exhausted by three days of battle, and the advance to Gettysburg which had been rapid, and then the later pursuit of the ANV was across even longer roads, and through bad weather. He also had not received much in the way of reinforcements as many of his men's enslistments had expired, and the NYC Draft riots happened a week after Gettysburg.

Could he have been more aggressive, probably, but I don't think he was necessarily making a bad call in failing to attack Lee's positions. It might have been wrong, but that wouldn't necessarily make it bad.

Also I think it should be remembered that Washington was heavily obsessed with fighting a decisive battle with the British, and he attempted to force one repeatedly. Germantown and Monmouth Courthouse were both attempts at this. So focused was Washington on this that he had to be begged and pleaded to go to Yorktown to trap Cornwallis, because he had spent so much of the war readying for his big showdown with the British in New York. Washington was absolutely the master of getting his army out of any bad spot they got into though.
RE; Meade. The man who gave Meade his orders, Abraham Lincoln, exploded in anger when it became clear that Meade had let Lee get away. Lee's forces didn't get across the Potomac until the 14th, they hadn't even completed their defensive works until July 11th.

It is one of the classic WI of the Civil War. I tend to fall in the side that sees Meade as too timid.
 
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