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Worst Generals of the Civil War

Worst Generals of the Civil War

  1. Gideon Pillow [CS]
    Gideon Pillow's friendship with James Polk won him a generalship in the United States Army under Winfield Scott during the Mexican War. He almost lost the battle of Cerro Gordo singlehandedly, so Scott assigned Joseph Hooker to be his chief-of-staff to help him. At Fort Donelson he led an attack that breached Union lines, then failed to consolidate his gains. Rather than surrender, Pillow fled. In 1864 he returned to active duty during the Atlanta Campaign, losing, most notably, the battle of Lafayette Court House, where he outnumbered his opponent 4-to-1.

  2. Benjamin Butler [US]
    Powerful politician who became a Union General after successfully relieving Washington D. C. following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Butler was ordered to assume command of the "Department of the West", Union gains around New Orleans. His dictator-style military government of New Orleans showed no respect for non-combatants. Relieved of duty by Lincoln, he was eventually given command of the Army of the James. Landing his 40,000 men at Bermuda Hundred and City Point, Butler was turned back by P. G. T. Beauregard and an army never exceeding 13,000 men (a good deal of whom were irregulars). In January, 1865, Lincoln finally removed him from command

  3. John A. McClernand

    Although a lifelong Democrat, this "friend" of Abraham Lincoln rushed to Fort Donelson and attacked without orders. He failed to anchor his line allowing Gideon Pillow (see above) to nearly break out of the besieged fort. At Shiloh he supported Sherman and Prentiss with an early attack, then pulled back to Grant's Last Line.

  4. George McClellan
    McClellan repeatedly froze during close tactical command. At Rich Mountain he refused to support William Rosecrans, who had run into Rebels near the top of the mountain. At Ball's Bluff he did not support the advance of Edward Baker. He claimed he could not start the Peninsula Campaign until Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell had taken Kentucky. By the time he finally started Grant and Buell were just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee border. At Yorktown a force of 13,000 Confederates held off between 60,000 and 80,000 Yankees for a month. Within sight of Richmond, Virginia, he retreated in spite of commanding a superior force. His successes at South Mountain and Antietam were tempered by his refusal to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia

  5. Braxton Bragg
    Bragg's problems are legendary. He showed little ability in communicating with his generals, refused to give them even modest decision-making capabilities, made weak strategic decisions and poor tactical decisions. His march to Kentucky, touted by some as a strategic masterpiece was little more than an attempt to protect Kirby Smith's flank from Don Carlos Buell. He simply assumed William S. Rosecrans would not attack once his force had been routed at Stone's River. It took him two days to find out the enemy was advancing on his position at Tullahoma, then chose to obey a 6-month-old order, retreating to Chattanooga. A brigade of men fooled him into retreating from that city. After Chickamauga he refused to destroy the Army of the Cumberland in spite of the advice of Nathan Bedford Forrest and James Longstreet. On Missionary Ridge, Tennessee he misplaced his line, then blamed his men for the loss.

  6. Ambrose Burnside [US]
    He pointlessly lost nearly 1,000 men at Antietam. Abraham Lincoln asked him twice to take command of the Army of the Potomac and Burnside refused. In all fairness, Burnside knew he would not be a good overall commander. The third time Lincoln ordered him to take command. The result was the massive Union loss at Fredericksburg. Although uninspiring, Burnside held Knoxville when attacked by James Longstreet. He returned east to participate in the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. Although he commanded the incredible Union travesty at the Crater, he was not solely responsible for the massive loss of life. His name gave rise to the term "sideburns."

  7. John Bell Hood
    A good brigade and division commander John Bell Hood is is probably the best example of the Peter Principle in the Civil War. Appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee in July, 1864, Hood lost all the major battles he fought. Following the surrender of Atlanta he lost the battle of Allatoona Pass, and lost the battles of Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville.

  8. Don Carlos Buell [US]
    At the Battle of Shiloh, Buell's men arrive after the first day of battle, more than a week after he was ordered to be there. From Corinth he moved to secure the city of Chattanooga for the Union. Braxton Bragg, moving from Tupelo, Mississippi, beat him there. Buell spread his troops along a 400-mile front that was easily pierced by Kirby Smith and Bragg in multiple places. During the Battle of Perryville he ordered Phil Sheridan to quit wasting ammunition, not realizing that a battle was taking place and that the Union commander was all that stood between Bragg and success. Buell was so bad that 20 of his senior officers petitioned President Lincoln to have their commanding general removed.

  9. William Rosecrans [US]
    Early successes in Western Virginia, where George B. McClellan considered him "a silly fussy goose," did not predict Rosecrans future as a commanding officer. Appointed commander of the Army of the Cumberland in October, 1862, he almost lost the battle of Stone's River, then waited nearly 6 months to engage an enemy roughly 1/2 his size. His flawed strategy during the Tullahoma Campaign only succeeded because Rosecran's opposition was Braxton Bragg (see above). Rather than consolidate his position in Chattanooga, he opted to move through the passes in Lookout Mountain. When he came out, with the mountain to his back, he fought the battle of Chickamauga, the worst Union loss in the Civil War. Trapped in Chattanooga he did little to relieve the suffering of his men. When Ulysses S. Grant relieved him of duty, there were fewer than 5 days of rations remaining (and his men were on half-rations). Had it not been for such able commanders as Phil Sheridan and George Thomas, Rosecrans undoubtedly would have ranked higher.

  10. Once you get past William Rosecrans, the number of candidates for worst Civil War general increase dramatically. John C. Fremont and Nathanael Banks are solid Union contenders while John Pemberton stands out among Confederate poor performers. A case can be made that Jefferson Davis was among the worst generals, although he was President and not a technically a general.

    Links appearing on this page:

    Abraham Lincoln
    Ambrose Burnside
    Army of Northern Virginia
    Army of Tennessee
    Army of the Cumberland
    Ball's Bluff
    Battle of Shiloh
    Benjamin Butler
    Braxton Bragg
    Don Carlos Buell
    Fort Donelson
    George B. McClellan
    George McClellan
    Gideon Pillow
    James Longstreet
    James Polk
    Jefferson Davis
    John Bell Hood
    Joseph Hooker
    Kirby Smith
    Nathan Bedford Forrest
    Overland Campaign
    P. G. T. Beauregard
    Phil Sheridan
    Rich Mountain
    Siege of Petersburg
    Stone's River
    Ulysses S. Grant
    William Rosecrans
    William S. Rosecrans

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