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Best Generals of the Civil War

Best Generals of the Civil War

Who is the best general in the Civil War? has to be one of the most compelling questions whenever two or more Civil War buffs get together. There is normally a wide range of answers and normally fans of each "best" general can trot out a few facts to back up their beliefs. Essentially, though, the debate comes down to Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee, vastly different men with different styles and backgrounds who not only won the admiration of their men but the respect of the opposing force.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant [US]

    It was Grant's understated brilliance that won The Civil War. With the Mississippi River heavily fortified, Grant sidestepped the Rebels by travelling up the Tennessee and Cumberland River, capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the first major Union victory. His stubborn defense at the Battle of Shiloh turned defeat into victory. After freeing the Mississippi River of Confederates at Vicksburg, he rescued the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga before continuing east to assume the role of General-in-Chief, U. S. Army. His orders to his subordinates were simple:pursue the Rebels wherever they went and destroy them. He engaged the Confederates repeatedly, fighting a war of attrition (The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg) with Lee until the end of the war.

  2. Robert E. Lee [CS]

    After the Surrender at Appomattox, General George Meade asked Lee how many men he had at Petersburg. Lee said he had held the entire Petersburg line with 33,000 men. Meade responded "I thought there were that many in front of me alone." It was Lee's innate ability to get the most out of his men that stands the test of history, as well as his understanding of his opponents and willingness to let subordinates make decisions. After replacing a severely injured Joe Johnston at Fair Oaks, Lee forced George McClellan into the Seven Days Retreat. The indecisive battle of Antietam was offset by clear victories at Fredericksburg and Chancelorsville, only to move north to defeat at Gettysburg. Slowly forced south under the pressure of an overwhelming force by Grant, Lee defended a perimeter around Richmond and Petersburg with less than 40,000 men.

  3. Patrick Cleburne [CS]
    Cleburne is probably the most underrated general in either force during the Civil War, but he repeatedly withstood vastly superior forces under some of the best generals to earn his sobriquet "Stonewall Jackson of the West." At Billy Goat Hill during the Battle of Missionary Ridge he repeatedly repulsed Union forces under William Tecumseh Sherman in spite of being outnumbered 10-to-1 forcing Ulysses S. Grant to order a desperate frontal assault on Missionary Ridge. Performing rear guard duties at Ringgold, Georgia, Cleburne positioned his men himself and his division withstood an attack by Joe Hooker's XX Corps. At Pickett's Mill he spread his line east and absorbed an attack by General George Thomas, at Kennesaw Mountain he and Benjamin Cheatham [CS] again repulsed Thomas in an area today known as Cheatham Hill. During the Battle of Atlanta he advanced to Leggett's Hill, where brutal hand-to-hand combat at the top of the hill and a late-day charge by John "Blackjack" Logan [US] turned his men back. At Jonesboro (GA), Cleburne's 5,000 men held a line against 50,000 of Sherman's Yankees

  4. Stonewall Jackson [CS]
    At the scene of the heaviest fighting during First Manassas, Thomas Jackson earned the nickname "Stonewall," most famous sobriquet of the Civil War. Following a stunning campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in early 1862, Jackson made a feint on Washington, depriving George B. McClellan of a much needed corps. During the Seven Days his performance was questionable, but he moved north and nearly destroyed John Pope's Army of Virginia during the Second Battle of Manassas. At Fredericksburg he held off a strong federal assault. Chancellorsville would be his last battle. Jackson rolled up the federal right flank almost to the center of the federal line. That night he was shot in a friendly fire incident.

  5. William Tecumseh Sherman [US]

    Friend and supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman absorbed the initial Confederate assault at Shiloh, led a corps during Vicksburg before assuming command of the Army of the Mississippi and marching it east to relieve the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. During the Atlanta Campaign he repeatedly outflanked opponent Joe Johnston, taking Atlanta before the Election of 1864, which Lincoln considered key. In the "March to the Sea" he led 60,000 men from Kingston, Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean west of Fort McAllister, then began moving north to join Grant's army. When Sherman's advanced forces began crossing the Nottaway River in Virginia, Lee informed Davis that he could no longer hold Richmond, precipitating the Surrender at Appomattox

  6. Nathan Bedford Forrest [CS]

    One of the few men feared by both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, "that devil Forrest" had no military training when the war started. At Fort Donelson he refused to surrender his men, walking out of a council of war and leading them to safety. At Shiloh he searched in vain for P. G. T. Beauregard's headquarters to tell the commanding general Grant was not retreating but being reinforced. Granted an independent army after his well-publicized problems with Braxton Bragg, his cavalry raids caused Sherman to repeatedly advance forces to capture him. The battle of Tishomingo Creek, which he planned and oversaw, is considered to be one of the greatest cavalry battles of all-time

  7. George Henry Thomas [US]

    "The Virginian who never retreated," George Thomas served in the Union Army in spite of his southern heritage. Although Joe Johnston slipped away from him at Winchester to support P. G. T. Beauregard at the Battle of Manassas, Thomas moved west to Kentucky with his friend, William Tecumseh Sherman (in fact, Sherman defended Robert Anderson's choice of Thomas to Abraham Lincoln). In Kentucky under the command of Don Carlos Buell, Thomas led a small force at the Battle of Mill Springs, an early Union victory. At Stone's River, Thomas held the Union center as Phil Sheridan fell back under heavy attack. His stand at Snodgrass cabin during the Battle of Chickamauga derailed a Rebel juggernaut chasing the Army of the Cumberland. His command took Missionary Ridge in a frontal assault at Chattanooga. During the Atlanta Campaign he proposed the attack at Resaca and absorbed the Confederate attack at Peachtree Creek. In the final days of the war he obliterated John Bell Hood's Army of Georgia at the Battle of Nashville.

  8. George Gordon Meade [US]

    Another underrated general whose skill in battle is today overshadowed by subordinates mostly because his "peppery disposition" made him unpopular with reporters. Meade contributed to virtually every battle fought by the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula Campaign to Surrender at Appomattox. During the Battle of Glendale (Frayser's Farm]] his brigade stopped James Longstreet and A. P. Hill from reaching George McClellan's supply train. During Second Bull Run he protected a vital line of retreat for John Pope. On the north end of the Antietam battlefield Meade's division was among the first to be engaged and he took command of Joe Hooker's corps when Hooker was wounded. One of the few successful Union commanders at Fredericksburg, at Chancellorsville he advocated an aggressive move against Lee. He won the battle of Gettysburg shortly after being appointed the commander of the Army of the Potomac. A good deal of Grant's success in the east he owed to Meade although he shared little in the glory, mostly because reporters liked Grant more than Meade and agreed to give Grant credit for victories and blame losses on Meade.

  9. J. E. B. Stuart [CS]
    Lee considered Stuart to be the "eyes and ears of my army." Much of Stuart's work came in a supporting role to the Army of Northern Virginia, but he also contributed much to the morale of the South with two "rides" around McClellan, once during the Peninsula Campaign and again following Antietam. Promoted to temporary command of Jackson's corps after his death at Chancellorsville, Stuart ordered an assault against the Union forces to rejoin with Lee, who had detached Jackson to assault the Union flank. Arriving late at Gettysburg, he came with essential supplies for the Confederate Army operating in Pennsylvania. At the start of the Overland Campaign Stuart moved south to defend Richmond from Phil Sheridan's 13,000 man army. He was mortally wounded at the battle of Yellow Tavern.

  10. Philip Sheridan [US]

    Serving in the west as an infantry commander at the battle of Stone's River, Sheridan absorbed the brunt of Braxton Bragg's attack on December 31, 1862. At Chickamauga he tried to form a line following the breakthrough at Brotherton cabin but failed. He led the assault on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, then came east, freeing the Shenandoah Valley from Confederate control (and destroying the valley in the process). After the Confederate retreat from Petersburg, Sheridan intercepted Lee's orders to the quartermaster and met his supply train at Appomattox Station, ending Lee's last campaign.

Links appearing on this page:

A. P. Hill
Army of Northern Virginia
Army of Virginia
Army of the Cumberland
Army of the Potomac
Atlanta Campaign
Battle of Chickamauga
Battle of Glendale
Battle of Mill Springs
Battle of Missionary Ridge
Battle of Nashville
Battle of Shiloh
Don Carlos Buell
Election of 1864
First Manassas
Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
Fort McAllister
General-in-Chief, U. S. Army
George B. McClellan
George Gordon Meade
George Henry Thomas
George McClellan
George Meade
George Thomas
J. E. B. Stuart
James Longstreet
Joe Hooker
Joe Johnston
John Bell Hood
John Pope
Kennesaw Mountain
March to the Sea
Nathan Bedford Forrest
P. G. T. Beauregard
Peachtree Creek
Peninsula Campaign
Phil Sheridan
Philip Sheridan
Robert E. Lee
Seven Days
Seven Days Retreat
Stone's River
Stonewall Jackson
Surrender at Appomattox
The Civil War
Ulysses S. Grant
William Tecumseh Sherman

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