Ranking the greatest generals in the American Civil War

To me Sherman is hands down the best. It’s thought of (outside the US) as a war remarkable for poor generalship, but imo Sherman grasped modern warfare in a way that would translate anywhere.

edit: not on the same level, or even close, but a guy who will make none of these lists and is imo underrated is McLellan.
 
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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.
Sure, maybe. My argument isn't that he was perfect, or that he shouldn't have attacked. But rather that he didn't make a mistake in not doing so, at most he made the wrong decision, but one which was still understandable and logical based on the information he had available.

Also, back on the topic a bit, if people are putting forward Forrest for his cavalry maneuvers, don't forget Benjamin Grierson, who was at least Forrest's match. The man led an expedition of just over 1500 men from southern Tennessee through to Union occupied Baton Rouge, wrecking every Confederate position he found along the way as a diversion from Grant's main thrust at Vickburg. He destroyed storehouses, plantations, and railroads. He freed slaves, and captured prisoners. He fought the Confederates repeatedly, and won. His forces moved nearly fifty miles a day, across roads that no Union army had yet reached, and inflicted immense economic damage on the south. And throughout this entire expedition he lost a mere three men killed, seven wounded, and nine missing.

Oh, and at the end of the raid he joined in the Siege of Port Hudson.

He also captured Forrest's camp on Christmas Day 1964.
 

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Sure, maybe. My argument isn't that he was perfect, or that he shouldn't have attacked. But rather that he didn't make a mistake in not doing so, at most he made the wrong decision, but one which was still understandable and logical based on the information he had available.

Also, back on the topic a bit, if people are putting forward Forrest for his cavalry maneuvers, don't forget Benjamin Grierson, who was at least Forrest's match. The man led an expedition of just over 1500 men from southern Tennessee through to Union occupied Baton Rouge, wrecking every Confederate position he found along the way as a diversion from Grant's main thrust at Vickburg. He destroyed storehouses, plantations, and railroads. He freed slaves, and captured prisoners. He fought the Confederates repeatedly, and won. His forces moved nearly fifty miles a day, across roads that no Union army had yet reached, and inflicted immense economic damage on the south. And throughout this entire expedition he lost a mere three men killed, seven wounded, and nine missing.

Oh, and at the end of the raid he joined in the Siege of Port Hudson.

He also captured Forrest's camp on Christmas Day 1964.
Grierson was an exceptional cavalry officer, which is all the more surprising give the Union's prefered tactics for cavalry engagements (dismount if possible, one trooper in four holds the reins of his squadmates' mount).
 
The Civil War produced many skilled generals that excelled in a number of areas, but there was no Alexander or Caesar that stood far above the rest of their era.

Sherman understood and effectively instituted the Total War concept like few generals since Scipio Aemilianus. General Jackson argued for a more biblical institution of the Total War concept, but would never have a chance to see it through and likely wouldn't have been allowed to even if he did. What Jackson understood very well was the importance of quick movements and that concentrating force and fury on key areas can overwhelm a much larger force.

Grant understood the need for constant pressure on the opposing force and instituted successful policies of unrelenting hammering of his opponents.

General Scott had perhaps the best strategic view of the conflict and if his ideas had been fully instituted it might have been a much less bloody war. He understood that time was very much on the North's side and each day that passes relative power and skill would grow faster in the North. Few generals are able to get their strategy fully realized. Lee wanted a larger mobilization and a two army force in the mid Atlantic one to defend Richmond and another to make forays into northern territory. That was turned down and he ended up trying to not all that wisely to split the baby in half with his strategic vision using only one army.

What Lee stood above the rest in was understanding the psychology of his army and what was needed to build a cohesive fighting force that is highly motivated and works in tandem (most of the time). He congealed his force by a number of techniques that would take to long to get into, but above all he tried to give his troops a feeling of ownership over their mission. Even for the black troops he wanted them to develop their own name for themselves to give them a feeling they had a stake (and also because also because he didn't like that certain northern generals came up with the term CTs already).
 
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You mean the ones that didn't exist?

I was talking about the units that were forming in the last weeks as they got the Richmond Congress to relent. The issues involved, thoughts, and difficulties were transcribed.

Hd Qs CS Armies
27th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
Commdg General,

General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 25th inst: and to say that he much regrets the unwillingness of owners to permit their slaves to enter the service. If the state authorities can do nothing to get those negroes who are willing to join the army, but whose masters refuse their consent, there is no authority to do it at all. What benefit they expect their negroes to be to them, if the enemy occupies the country, it is impossible to say.

He hopes you will endeavor to get the assistance of citizens who favor the measure, and bring every influence you can to bear. When a negro is willing, and his master objects, there would be less objection to compulsion, if the state has the authority. It is however of primary importance that the negroes should know that the service is voluntary on their part. As to the name of the troops, the general thinks you cannot do better than consult the men themselves. His only objection to calling them colored troops was that the enemy had selected that designation for theirs. But this has no weight against the choice of the troops and he recommends that they be called colored or if they prefer, they can be called simply Confederate troops or volunteers.

Everything should be done to impress them with the responsibility and character of their position, and while of course due respect and subordination should be exacted, they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier and their rights and privileges dependent in law & order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves. Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials. You will readily understand however how to conciliate their good will & elevate the tone and character of the men….
Link
 
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Washington was a great general, and the British military establishment rates him very very highly. But he had one big advantage that Lee did not.
If you could stay in a conflict with England for more than a couple of years, some great world war would break out involving a laundry list of European powers. The late 1700s were just like that. Barring bigtime stupidity on the part of the North (say massively botching the Trent incident), Lee can't bank on that.
 
Also to be fair to Meade he was put in command on June 28th so by the start of the battle he was in command for only 3 days. Add to that during the battle he lost his most aggressive generals and then had very rainy weather after the battle.
 
I don't think Thomas really warrants ranking alongside Grant and Lee; each of them faced the ultimate test the war had for a Union or Confederate general, respectively, while Thomas, in his tenure as an independent commander, never had to pick on someone his own size.
 
I'd put Grant slightly above Thomas, overall.
Years ago I was reading the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MILITARY HISTORY, a colossal tome that summarizes every battle in recorded history from 3050 BC up through the 1990's. The authors were a father and son British team, ex-military both of them. Their comment on Grant's Little Black River campaign (the one that led to the siege of Vicksburg) was that it was the most flawless military campaign ever waged in North America. Grant fought a war of attrition when he was forced to do it, but when he was in the open, fighting on his terms, he was pretty near unstoppable.
 
The Civil War produced many skilled generals that excelled in a number of areas, but there was no Alexander or Caesar that stood far above the rest of their era.

Sherman understood and effectively instituted the Total War concept like few generals since Scipio Aemilianus. General Jackson argued for a more biblical institution of the Total War concept, but would never have a chance to see it through and likely wouldn't have been allowed to even if he did. What Jackson understood very well was the importance of quick movements and that concentrating force and fury on key areas can overwhelm a much larger force.

What do you mean by Jackson arguing for a more Biblical version of Total War?
 
Honestly think Hancock should be higher. He just never was given his own separate command (political considerations and all). Without him there's no win at Gettysburg since it was his decision to stand and fight on Cemetery Hill rather than order a withdrawal while he was in temporary operational command with Meade's blessing.
 
What do you mean by Jackson arguing for a more Biblical version of Total War?

In his conversations and letters he would say that a short brutal black flag war which he would reference back to biblical wars was the only kind that he argued would bring about a speedy end to hostilities. I am not sure how far back the concept of a black flag war goes, but from my understanding it meant a war with the absence of rules of reciprocity, chivalry, etc. This would not be anything close to a mainstream position at that time.

General Stonewall Jackson's comments to Captain Barringer: I recall, Captain Barringer, the talk you and I once had at my table in Lexington in the heated party struggle of 1860. Though differing in politics, we happened to agree as to the character of this war, if it once began. We both thought it would be internecine in its results. Neither of us had any special concern for slavery, but both agreed that if the sword was once drawn, the South would have no alternative but to defend her homes and firesides, slavery and all.

I myself see in this war, if the North triumph, a dissolution of the bonds of all society. It is not alone the destruction of our property (which both the nation and the States are bound to protect), but it is the prelude to anarchy, infidelity, and the ultimate loss of free responsible government on this continent. With these convictions, I always thought we ought to meet the Federal invaders on the outer verge of just right and defence, and raise at once the black flag, viz., "No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides!" It would in the end have proved true humanity and mercy. The Bible is full of such wars, and it is the only policy that would bring the North to its senses.

But I see now clearly enough the people of the South were not prepared for such a policy. I have myself cordially accepted the policy of our leaders. They are great and good men. Possibly, too, as things then stood, no other policy was left open to us than the one pursued by President Davis and General Lee. But all this is now suddenly changed by the cruel and utterly barbarous orders of General Pope, who is not only subsisting his army on the people of Culpepper, and levying contributions upon them, but has laid whole communities under the pains and penalties of death or banishment; and in certain cases directed that houses shall be razed to the ground, and citizens shot without waiting civil process. ..

[1] Cited in Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson) (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1892), 309, 310, 312, 313. Comments are according to Barringer.

They up and lifted a fair bit of this conversation and used it in one of his speeches in the film Gods and Generals.
 
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It has always been my view that a General should be judged in relation to other Generals of the same rank, because the higher up the chain of command the more responsibilities a General has and the more difficult his job.

For instance, Patrick Cleburne today is regarded as one of the best Generals of the Confederacy and, arguably, the best Divisional Commander of either side, but there's no way to judge how his qualities as General compare to that of, say, Bragg's because Cleburne never commanded at a level equal to that of Bragg and was never tested at that level.

John Bell Hood is a good case for being careful with rating Divisional or Corps Commander higher than Army Commanders. As a Divisional Commander he was regarded as one of the best in the Confederacy and still today regarded as one of the more effective of the Confederacy's Generals at that level, but he was promoted to Corps and was, at best, mediocre and commanded the Army of Tennessee where he was out of his depth and ruined his reputation forever more - particularly with the twin disasters of Franklin and Nashville.

So when it comes to ranking Generals I feel it's only fair that it must be a tiered system where only like-for-like is compared - Army General against Army General, Corps against Corps, etc, etc - because there is no way or knowing if a great Divisional Commander could have been a great Army Commander.

This beind said, to rate the Confederate Generals - as I am much less familiar with the Federals and could do it fairly - this is my view:

Army Commanders:
  1. Robert E. Lee - unquestionably the best Army Commanding General in the Confederacy. No one else had anywhere near the success he achieved, and while he undoubtedly has his flaws and faults he was able to consistantly deliver victories in a way no other Southern General was.
  2. Joseph E. Johnston - Johnston only had one major victory to his name (1st Manassas), though some might argue Kennesaw Mountain should count too, but he was never decisively defeated in the field, and he was arguably the best army builder of the war. He didn't have a great many highs, but he didn't have too many lows either, and he was consistantly competent, if uninspired and unlucky, in every command.
  3. Braxton Bragg - his natural talent of offending and alienating everyone he worked with meant that he always left a divided and quarrelling command in his wake, which he tended to take personally and tended to get obsessed with settling scores, but he led the Confederacy to their high-water mark out West and was second only to Lee in winning major victories for the South, though often phyrric after he gave up the field. He had some significant highs - the invasion of Kentucky and Perryville where he tactically won but strategically lost, and Chickamagua - but some significant lows too - none more so than Missionary Ridge - and it is this inconsistancy along with his poor man-management skills which lead me to rate him lower than Johnston.
  4. P.G.T. Beauregard - he could be tactically daring and brilliant, as the Bermuda Hundred attests to, but he was prone to grandiose grand strategic ideas which were wildly impractical and logistically impossible. He got himself sent to a military back-water for most of the war after getting on Davis's bad side - first for going to the press to complain about Davis after 1st Manassas and second for going AWOL after 1st Corith. He is often criticized for his part in Shiloh - where he is blamed for changing the plan to it's detriment - and dithered in addressing the Federal attack during 1st Manassas becuase he didn't want to give up his own offensive plans.
  5. Albert Sidney Johnston - he had a command which was vast and unmanagable, under-manned and facing a foe greatly out-numbering him and much better organized. There's little wonder he presided over nothing but failure. I give him the benefit of the doubt because of this, and because he was struck down in his first major battle so he had no chance to show whether he could improve.
  6. John Bell Hood - rash and wreckless in campaigns, showing little regard for the attrition his major offensives would cause to his own side. No one could ever doubt his commitment or willingness to fight, but he was unwise in chosing when, where and how to do it. The Franklin-Nashville Campaign is an utter disaster - from Hood taking an early night at Spring Hill rather than making sure Schofield didn't pass by the AoT with minimal resistance, to the suicidal frontal assault against an entrenched enemy at Franklin, and the inexplicable decision to try to beseige a more numerous enemy in a supply hub during winter - this is an utterly damning period of Hood's career which shows him to be utterly unsuited for Army Command.
  7. John C. Pemberton - he was a good administrator, but he had no confidence in himself or his own ideas. Being torn between conflicting orders from his superiors he abandonned his own judgement and brought his army to ruin. He would have made someone a good Chief of Staff but he had no business commanding an Army
  8. Earl Van Dorn - his complete disregard for the matter of logistics made him wholely unsuited to Army Command. He was personally brave, with an aggressive spirit and very driven and enthusiastic in command, all of which made he a great Cavalryman, but his administrative inadequacies made him a total failure in Army Command.
 
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I don't think Thomas really warrants ranking alongside Grant and Lee; each of them faced the ultimate test the war had for a Union or Confederate general, respectively, while Thomas, in his tenure as an independent commander, never had to pick on someone his own size.
Even if you don't want to count his stand at Chickamauga, during which he was outnumbered but still held the line, withdrew in good fashion, and saved the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas did fight in battles were the forces under his command were evenly matched with those of the enemy, including the Battle of Peachtree Creek. In this battle, Thomas skillfully held the line against repeated Confederate assaults and suffered fewer casualties than them, even though he had had no time to plan a battle or a defense. At the Battle of Mill Springs, he would actually be outnumbered by the enemy forces, and yet he still managed to fully rout them from the field and send them into a panicked withdrawal in which they had to abandon their supplies, wagons, and cannon. Once again, Thomas did this with few casualties than the enemy suffered. Thomas never committed a Pickett's Charge or Cold Harbor during his tenure, but during his tenure as an independent commander during the Franklin-Nashville campaign, I think most could agree he faced this "ultimate test" by having to, in effect, form a new army to face the war-hardened veterans of John Bell Hood. And in this endeavor, not only did he successful defeat Hood, but he did it in a manner unparalleled in the rest of the war. So yes, I do think Thomas deserves a place alongside Grant and Lee in the ranking of Civil War generals.
Honestly think Hancock should be higher. He just never was given his own separate command (political considerations and all). Without him there's no win at Gettysburg since it was his decision to stand and fight on Cemetery Hill rather than order a withdrawal while he was in temporary operational command with Meade's blessing.
Hancock's combat record at Gettysburg is certainly stellar, perhaps in the top 5 corps commander performance in the entire war, but the rest of the tenure in command following his recuperation, especially during the Siege of Petersburg and its corresponding battles, leaves something to be desired.
 
I don't think Thomas really warrants ranking alongside Grant and Lee; each of them faced the ultimate test the war had for a Union or Confederate general, respectively, while Thomas, in his tenure as an independent commander, never had to pick on someone his own size.
Thomas passed the acid test at the Battle of Chickamauga. He isn't called the Rock of Chickamauga for nothing. He saved the Army of the Cumberland, bringing it back to Chattanooga, and took command after Rosecrans was relieved. Thanks to him the army lived to fight another day.

When he was out numbered, and out gunned, he led the retreat to Franklin, and won a great victory there. He then moved on to Nashville, and prepared for his counter attack. He had the moral courage to face all the pressure placed on him by both Grant, and Lincoln to act before he believed he was ready. He had the strength of character to offer his superiors the option of trusting his judgment, and word, or relieving him of command. Those are rare qualities in a person, in or out of the military. Thomas had the moral courage to do what he thought was right shown by his resisting heavy pressure, and fighting against his State of Virginia, and at the cost of being estranged from his extended family.

It's not true that he always had superior forces, he fought at disadvantage several times. He was a good enough tactician, and strategist to deal with both situations. His defensive victory at Franklin ranks with the ANV's at Fredericksburg, and his destruction of the Confederate Army at Nashville was one of the most complete victories of the war.
 
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.
I don't really agree with Calbear's assessment of Napoleon. Napoleon's worst failures were diplomatic in nature, rather than in the field. I think it's fair to say Napoleon was the greatest general of his time, while at the same time being a mediocre diplomat at best whose at times abysmal political judgement led to his eventual defeat. And not all generals had the same political power to influence their situations as Napoleon did. A lot of generals won or lost based on circumstances outside their control, before their flaws could truly play out.
 
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Thomas passed the acid test at the Battle of Chickamauga. He isn't called the Rock of Chickamauga for nothing. He saved the Army of the Cumberland, bringing it back to Chattanooga, and took command after Rosecrans was relieved. Thanks to him the army lived to fight another day.
You don't get to be a great general for things you did as a subordinate commander; you're judged on the campaigns you conducted yourself. As far as I can tell, there's not much to fault him for, but again, if you've never been put to the ultimate test as an independent commander, you have to yield your spot on the rankings to those who have, supposing they emerged with any credit.
His defensive victory at Franklin ranks with the ANV's at Fredericksburg, and his destruction of the Confederate Army at Nashville was one of the most complete victories of the war.
Franklin was Schofield's battle, not Thomas's; comparing it to Fredericksburg, where Burnside had Lee 2-1, is a serious distortion. On Thomas's end, a complete victory is really to be expected when you have someone like Hood 2-1. The whole campaign was a blunder anyway; Sherman is supposed to have said that if Hood would go all the way to the Ohio, he would give him the rations.

Mill Springs was barely more than a skirmish, not remotely comparable with the campaigns of Lee and Grant
Thomas did fight in battles were the forces under his command were evenly matched with those of the enemy, including the Battle of Peachtree Creek. In this battle, Thomas skillfully held the line against repeated Confederate assaults and suffered fewer casualties than them, even though he had had no time to plan a battle or a defense.
Yeah, he won his own battle on even terms, but not his own campaign.

Thomas never committed a Pickett's Charge or Cold Harbor during his tenure, but during his tenure as an independent commander during the Franklin-Nashville campaign, I think most could agree he faced this "ultimate test" by having to, in effect, form a new army to face the war-hardened veterans of John Bell Hood. And in this endeavor, not only did he successful defeat Hood, but he did it in a manner unparalleled in the rest of the war. So yes, I do think Thomas deserves a place alongside Grant and Lee in the ranking of Civil War generals.
Assembling a couple veteran corps well behind friendly lines at the biggest crossroads in the region to kick Hood in the teeth is hardly a test on par with fighting Lee. Also 'war-hardened veterans' is a funny way to spell red-headed stepchildren.
 
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