In 1994 Oxford University Press published Lincoln's Generals. Edited by Gabor Boritt, it presented assessments of Lincoln's relationship with five army commanders. Several essays echoed themes first sounded by T. Harry Williams more than four decades earlier in his 1952 study, Lincoln and His Generals. Appearing alongside Joseph T. Glatthaar's description of command relationships, Partners in Command, Boritt's volume helped establish a benchmark in studies of the Union's high command, pointing out (sometimes inadvertently) that much remained to be done, including reassessing judgments rendered by Williams and those who labor in his shadow.[1]

Catchy as Boritt's title might be, especially in a consumer atmosphere where invoking the name of the sixteenth president is sure to promote sales, it is misleading, for the generals under discussion were never truly Lincoln's generals, but generals who worked with (and sometimes against) him. The term might better describe the men who owed their stars to their prewar political prominence—men who had far more in common with Lincoln than did Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Historians usually refer derisively to such people as "political generals." That term carries with it the misleading implication that there exists a rather stark demarcation between the worlds of the cool, disciplined military professional and the eager if bumbling amateur, the man of merit versus the man with connections. One need only look at the five generals covered in the Boritt volume for evidence that military professionals were far from oblivious to the necessities of practical politics. George B. McClellan frequently corresponded with Democratic politicians, and eventually became an active politician; Page  [End Page 63] Joseph Hooker was no stranger to political intrigue; Sherman's brother and in-laws were active in Republican politics; Grant cultivated a relationship with Congressman Elihu Washburne, who was responsible for securing his protege's promotion to brigadier general; and even George G. Meade was not above chatting with politicians or flattering Mary Lincoln to advance his interests.

Nevertheless, each of these generals was trained at West Point. They came to Lincoln's attention because of their reputations as military men or for their records on the battlefield. In contrast, "political generals," as defined in this essay, had been professional politicians before the war and possessed little if any military training or experience. Chief among them were Benjamin F. Butler, Nathaniel P. Banks, and John A. McClernand. A fourth general, John C. Frémont, possessed some military experience, but his status as the first presidential nominee of the Republican party proved far more important in the decision to make him a general. A fifth, Franz Sigel, possessed even more military experience, but owed his advancement to his identity as a German American and his political reputation.

On the whole historians have not been kind to this quintet, although in the field of Civil War military leadership there is always the potential for someone to take up the cause of a maligned figure and argue that he was simply misunderstood. Butler has his advocates, and there are murmurs that history has been unfair to McClernand and Sigel. However, the prevailing consensus is that each of these men, whatever his other virtues, was an unmitigated disaster as a general. Vivid images circulate of the frog-faced Butler, that foe of southern womanhood, his pockets bulging with spoons, bottled up on Bermuda Hundred or botching the initial assault on Fort Fisher—so repulsive a character that he does not appear alongside Banks, Frémont, and McClernand on the cover of the paperback edition of Lincoln and His Generals, doubtless a concession to aesthetic considerations. Poor Franz Sigel has become a caricature of the misbegotten immigrant officer whose failures were so embarrassing that even Henry W. Halleck ridiculed him. Frémont, Banks, and McClernand are usually simply dismissed with a knowing nod—indeed, McClernand lacks a decent biography. Of course, not all political generals proved military disasters. Several demonstrated military skill, notably John A. Logan; others, from Frank Blair to Carl Schurz and James Wadsworth, had uneven records. However, these generals never exercised independent command, making it more difficult to assess their performance Page  [End Page 64] or to determine its effect on the war effort. Such is not the case with Butler, Banks, Frémont, McClernand, and Sigel.

President Lincoln usually escapes censure for making these appointments. Perhaps, as some scholars argue, it was a regrettable necessity, a price Lincoln had to pay to maintain political harmony. James M. McPherson admits that several political generals "proved to be incompetent; some battlefield disasters resulted from their presence in command." Nevertheless, by making such men generals, the president satisfied political constituencies whose support was critical to a successful prosecution of the Union war effort; McPherson added that a West Point education was no guarantee of military capability. Other historians minimize the impact of the political generals' battlefield performance. Archer Jones argues that "Lincoln never pushed generals with primarily political appeal for command of the major armies," adding that in his selections the president displayed "an informed and sophisticated grasp of the political and military import of each." In some cases Lincoln scholars come close to denying the problem altogether. "Lincoln would go to extremes as President to avoid partisanship in selecting battlefield commanders," Mark Neely insists, adding that "Lincoln's clear-sighted unwillingness to allow partisan concerns to interfere with decisions critical to the army was an admirable trait crucial to winning a major war in a democracy."[2]

These latter arguments come close to obliterating the historical record altogether. Of the quintet under examination, Banks, Butler, and Sigel commanded field armies in ill-fated campaigns; Frémont headed a department at a most critical time and took actions that greatly embarrassed Lincoln; McClernand's efforts to exercise the independent command Lincoln had intended for him was short-circuited by Halleck and Grant. In each case partisan concerns interfered with decisions critical to the conduct of military operations. None of these generals led an army to victory; in several cases their defeats proved major setbacks both militarily and politically, especially in 1864.

Nor does the cost-benefit analysis offered by McPherson and others always hold up. Take the case of John C. Frémont. At a time when Page  [End Page 65] even Ambrose Burnside and John Pope have their defenders, no one is pressing for a revisionist assessment of Frémont the Civil War general. Yet Lincoln tendered him a commission as a major general in May 1861 due to his political reputation and influence. Whatever benefits the president hoped to derive from the appointment nearly disappeared altogether that August when Frémont imposed martial law in Missouri and declared free slaves who belonged to secessionist masters. Coming at a time when Lincoln was anxious about Kentucky's allegiance, the proclamation portended disaster on both the military and political fronts. After Frémont refused Lincoln's request to modify the proclamation, the president ordered that the section in question be struck—although by that time Kentucky's government had sided with the Union cause. Nearly two months later Lincoln removed Frémont; however, the Pathfinder soon made his way to Virginia, only to become one of Stonewall Jackson's victims in the Shenandoah Valley. Refusing to serve under John Pope, he requested to be relieved of command, and Lincoln complied. Frémont never saw active service again, in large part because his seniority in rank required Lincoln to displace other generals; eventually he launched an abortive run for the presidency against Lincoln in 1864 as the front man for disgruntled Republicans. One is hard pressed to conclude that Lincoln derived any benefit from his association with Frémont, whose actions damaged the Union cause politically and militarily.[3]

Nor can one find much that is worthy of praise in Lincoln's dealings with John A. McClernand. A "veteran" of two months of service as a private in the militia during the Black Hawk War, McClernand served in the state legislature and Congress as a Democrat. He proved at best a mediocre battlefield commander at Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh: however, he told tales of his brilliance to Lincoln and others, annoying Grant and other generals with his unsubstantiated claims. Lincoln, prone to accept McClernand's self-estimate of his accomplishments, listened when the general came to Washington in September 1862 to press his case for raising an army in the Midwest with which he proposed to capture Vicksburg. Lincoln thought this was a good idea: he endorsed orders that said that once McClernand had raised a force that Grant did not require for his own command, McClernand could lead it against Vicksburg—if the general-in-chief, Halleck, so ordered. The president and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton failed to inform Page  [End Page 66] either Halleck or Grant of the plan. The result presaged disaster and dissention; even T. Harry Williams admits that perhaps the president's "powers of human evaluation were not as sharp as usual."[4]

McClernand's visit to Washington had unintended consequences. Halleck, who had heretofore been rather critical of Grant, decided that, whatever his shortcomings, Grant was superior to McClernand. David D. Porter, in charge of the flotilla along the upper Mississippi, soon reached the same conclusion and shifted his allegiances accordingly. William T. Sherman, who had always despised McClernand, overcame his own reservations about Grant's generalship and made common cause with his superior against the interloper.[5]

Grant got wind of McClernand's plan and asked Halleck for instructions. Back came word to use his army as he saw fit. Together Grant, Sherman, and Porter conspired to launch a drive against Vicksburg before McClernand arrived to take charge of his new command. The resulting thrust, premature as it was, quickly unraveled, leaving McClernand to take charge of an expedition planned by Sherman against Arkansas Post. When McClernand, peeved that Grant had commandeered his recruits, angrily demanded that Halleck be punished for sustaining Grant in command, Lincoln weakly responded that he could not afford to take sides in another "family controversy"; at the end of January, Grant clarified McClernand's status as a corps commander in Grant's army in compliance with previous orders from the War Department.[6]

McClernand understandably thought he was being played for a fool; Bruce Catton reflected that he "had been given the works." The loophole in his orders that allowed Grant to be the judge of whether he could spare enough regiments for McClernand to form an independent strike force would never be closed. By hiding behind Stanton and Halleck, Lincoln was shirking responsibility for the whole affair. Unable to displace Halleck, McClernand returned to assailing Grant, forwarding reports of his superior's drinking as evidence of his incompetence. Such behavior promoted distrust and friction at a time when cooperation was essential—and led Grant to use Charles A. Dana, a representative from the War De- Page  [End Page 67] partment sent to spy on Grant, to discredit McClernand in report after report to counter the corps commander's criticisms of Grant. In so doing Grant, understandably acting in self-defense, was simply playing by Lincoln's rules. That McClernand was wrong in behaving as he did does not relieve Lincoln of responsibility for creating the situation or for failing to reprimand McClernand's subversive behavior. It was not the sixteenth president's finest hour as commander-in-chief. [7]

Historians have not been kind to McClernand the battlefield commander, although some students of the Vicksburg campaign claim that the resulting critical picture is overdrawn, obscuring the shortcomings of Sherman and fellow corps commander James B. McPherson. Nevertheless, McClernand did not exceed the requirements of competence in the campaign against Vicksburg, especially at Port Gibson and Champion Hill, where his lethargy and lack of initiative may have cost Union forces a decisive victory that would have rendered the ensuing siege perfunctory. Once he had secured the perimeter around Vicksburg, Grant waited for the opportunity to remove McClernand; the Illinois politico obliged when he failed to observe regulations concerning the publication of orders in the press. When McClernand protested what he believed to be his unjust removal, the president waffled again, first asserting that "it is a case ... in which I could do nothing without doing harm," then declining to grant McClernand's request for a court of inquiry until it could be convened "without prejudice to the service"—as if such circumstances would ever arise during the duration of the war. Incredibly, just before elevating Grant to general-in-chief, Lincoln allowed McClernand to resume command of his old corps. Ill health forced the reinstated corps commander to withdraw from service in the field that spring; later that year he resigned, thus closing a chapter that does Lincoln little credit. [8]

The episodes involving Frémont and McClernand serve to call into question the willingness of many scholars to excuse or even defend Lincoln's employment of political generals in independent commands, for whatever initial benefit the president derived from these appointments was more than negated by what followed. But the true test of the consequences of making such appointments Page  [End Page 68] became painfully obvious in 1864, when what happened on the battlefield would determine what happened at the ballot box. Three political generals—Butler, Banks, and Sigel—held independent commands at the onset of this critical period. All had been appointed by Lincoln; all were in place as Grant assumed overall command. What happened over the next eight months can help us determine whether the political benefits of making such appointments outweighed their military costs and whether partisan concerns hampered the progress of military operations.

At first glance Benjamin F. Butler seemed an unlikely candidate for a commission in the Union army. Less than a year before the war started, this prewar Democrat voted fifty-seven times to nominate Jefferson Davis as the party's candidate at the Charleston Convention. However, once war broke out, Butler, taking advantage of an appointment as brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia, marched a regiment down to Washington at a time when Lincoln was anxious for troops from any quarter. The president rewarded the enterprising officer by appointing him as the war's first volunteer major general, a decision with significant consequences down the road, for Butler would forever outrank most of the officers he encountered. During the next two years Butler's reputation rested largely upon his decision to justify the taking of slaves on the grounds that they were "contraband of war" and his controversial performance in managing the occupation of New Orleans; his actual participation in combat operations was minimal.[9]

At the end of 1862 Lincoln decided to replace Butler with Nathaniel P. Banks. For several months he struggled with the problem of what to do with the general. Among his less inspired solutions was a proposal to put Butler in command of operations along the Mississippi Valley "as soon as the navigation of the Mississippi is opened," in effect superseding Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually he decided to place Butler in charge of the Department of the James, with headquarters at Fort Monroe. In that post Butler could do little harm, or so it seemed, and in any case the general had never been given a chance to demonstrate whether he possessed any military skill. All that changed in 1864, when Grant decided to reinforce Butler's department and form a field army, the Army of the James, with plans to use it in the forthcoming campaign.[10] Page  [End Page 69]

In light of what was to follow, it is worth recalling that Grant came away from his initial encounter with Butler on April 1, 1864, with a favorable impression of his new subordinate—one of the cruelest April Fools to befall anyone, for Butler understood that the best way to employ his force offensively would be to have it drive up the James River to sever Richmond's connections southward and perhaps capture the city itself. This was exactly what Grant had in mind, and to see Butler anticipating the move was doubtless gratifying and a bit flattering. If Butler succeeded even in threatening Richmond or its rail links, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee would find himself compelled to dash south to protect the Confederate capital, allowing Grant to fall upon his retreating forces; otherwise, Lee would be forced to launch a desperate attack on Grant's numerically superior force. As one of Butler's staff officers put it, "We will fasten our teeth on Lee's line of supplies & he must leave his positions to come and beat us off." Nevertheless, Grant wondered whether Butler possessed the prerequisite military knowledge to implement the plan, and so he assigned William F. Smith to command the Eighteenth Corps to provide Butler with the assistance of what Grant believed to be a first-rate military talent. [11]

Those historians who praise Grant's judgment of subordinates often ignore these two erroneous assessments, for Smith was a far better staff officer than he was a corps commander, and neither he nor Butler was willing to allow the other to take charge. When Grant added Quincy Adams Gillmore to the mix as a second corps commander, he completed a recipe for confusion and eventual failure. Several times the general offered written clarifications for the spring campaign, but ultimately he relied on Butler's common sense: thus the written orders never explicitly declared that Butler could achieve his objectives by striking directly at Petersburg, due south of Richmond and a prime rail junction. Together, Butler, Smith, and Gillmore botched their assignment, leaving Lee to face Grant unimpeded. Eventually Grant forced Lee back to Richmond's outer defenses; after he failed to crack the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, he decided that the best move was to threaten Petersburg itself by shifting most of his army south of the James River, only to be thwarted again, in part due to Smith's procrastination.[12] Page  [End Page 70]

Thus, while Lincoln may have placed Butler in command of the Department of the James, Grant did not initially object to working with the Massachusetts politician. Butler's previous record contained little evidence of what was to come; moreover, Smith, Grant's man and a West Pointer, contributed to the result. Realizing that Butler lacked the ability to direct an army in the field, Grant first proposed that Butler be sent to Missouri or Kentucky, where he could employ his skills overseeing an occupied area; when Halleck suggested that this would not do, the two men tried to devise a solution that would leave Butler in nominal command at department headquarters at Fort Monroe while placing Smith in charge of combat operations. However, Halleck butchered the wording of the resulting order, creating an untenable chain-of-command. Grant suspended the order and suggested that William B. Franklin, not Smith, be put in charge at the front, an idea the administration found unacceptable. Grant decided to relieve Smith after learning that Smith was criticizing everyone's handling of operations, rendering him unable to work with anyone. Smith circulated rumors that Butler had blackmailed Grant by threatening to reveal stories of Grant's intoxication; actually, Butler proved unwilling to accept the role Grant had outlined for him.[13]

Doubtless Lincoln could have helped Grant by accepting the general's original proposal to transfer Butler to another command behind the lines. That he did not do so may have been in part because at a moment when his reelection prospects were not encouraging, he needed no new enemies—especially in the aftermath of his acceptance of Salmon P. Chase's resignation and his veto of the Wade-Davis Bill. Butler, enjoying the moment, declared that he had the Democratic nomination in his back pocket; Republicans unhappy with Lincoln whispered that Butler would make a fine president. The incident revealed both the costs of appeasing a powerful political personage and its failure to secure loyalty. Butler's incompetence contributed to the collapse of Grant's 1864 spring offensive. Had the Army of the James fulfilled its assignment, the Confederates would have found themselves in serious trouble, and as the Union military situation brightened the president's political prospects would have improved. Now, with Lincoln in trouble, Butler, ever the opportunist, looked to profit. Thus, an appointment made for partisan reasons damaged military operations without securing a commensurate political payoff. If anything, the appointment badly backfired, for Butler, dangerous as ever, looked to exploit a situa- Page  [End Page 71] tion that he had helped create by failing to execute his assignment. For the rest of the summer Grant was reluctant to leave his headquarters at City Point to oversee operations elsewhere because in his absence Butler, by prerogative of his seniority in rank, would be in charge. It would not be until after the November election, when Butler fumbled the initial effort to take Fort Fisher, that Grant could finally get rid of the general.

It was not the first time Grant had found his hands tied by political considerations. In the spring of 1864 he had attempted to secure the removal of Nathaniel P. Banks from command of the Army of the Gulf. Lincoln's support of the "Bobbin Boy of Massachusetts" is one of the more curious actions of his presidency. A former speaker of the House of Representatives, one-time governor of Massachusetts, and participant in an extensive intrigue concerning the merger of Northern Know Nothings and Republicans in the presidential contest of 1856, Banks, like Butler, won his stars as a major general in 1861. Whether he deserved them came into question the following year, when he fell victim to Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and at Cedar Mountain. That fall Lincoln appointed him to replace Butler at New Orleans; the following spring Banks failed to cooperate with Grant during the Vicksburg campaign, disappointing Lincoln, who hoped that the two commanders would join forces (which would have left Banks in command over Grant). However, Banks claimed victory at Port Hudson, mitigating any questions about his military competence. After Vicksburg, Grant (whose elevation to major general in the regular army raised him above Banks) looked to cooperate with the Massachusetts general in an operation against Mobile, but the Confederate counteroffensive at Chickamauga and the Lincoln administration's desire for Banks to move westward through Louisiana toward Texas, in part as a show of force against the growing French presence in Mexico, derailed those plans. [14]

Grant came away from his meetings with Banks skeptical of that general's military abilities. Lincoln, however, trusted Banks with overseeing the establishment of a loyal state government in Louisiana, giving no thought to the idea that perhaps he was placing too much on Banks's shoulders in expecting him to make his way Page  [End Page 72] through the tangled morass of Louisiana politics while driving toward Texas. When in January 1864, Grant, at Halleck's request, outlined a plan of operations in the West that included an offensive by Banks against Mobile, Halleck replied that the president preferred that Banks first complete his operations to secure Texas. Historians observe that when Grant took over as general-in-chief in March 1864, he implemented an approach that Lincoln had long advocated, that of simultaneous advances against a common center; but when Grant offered that vision nearly two months earlier, Lincoln rejected using Banks's army to cooperate in a coordinated offensive.[15]

Even after Grant took over as general-in-chief, Lincoln continued to back Banks, despite signs that the general was floundering in Louisiana. On April 22 Grant wired Washington that it was time to make a change: "I have been satisfied for the last nine months that to keep General Banks in command was to neutralize a large force and to support it most expensively." Although "I do not insist on it," he thought that "the best interests of [the] service" demanded Banks's removal. Lincoln hesitated, claiming that he wanted more information; Grant repeated his request, adding that Banks's own report and other information "clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency." Over the next week Grant continued to call for Banks's removal; still the president wavered. "I think the President will consent to the order," Halleck explained, "if you insist upon Genl Banks removal as a military necessity, but he will do so very reluctantly, as it would give offense to many of his friends, & would probably be opposed by a portion of his cabinet."[16]

Thus warned, Grant attempted to devise a solution, not unlike the one he later approved in Butler's case, where Banks would retain nominal command but remain at New Orleans. But even that idea fell on deaf ears. As Halleck explained, "Genl Banks is a personal friend of the President, and has very strong political supporters in and out of Congress. There will undoubtedly be a very strong opposition to his being removed or superceded, and I think the President will hesitate to act, unless he has a definitive request from Page  [End Page 73] you to do so, as a military necessity, you designating his successor or superior in command. On receiving such a formal request (not a mere suggestion) I believe, as I wrote you some days ago, he would act immediately." What Lincoln wanted was Grant to make his request painfully explicit so that the president could use it to shield himself from his critics by claiming that his hands were tied: "he must have something, in a definite shape, to fall back upon, as his justification," as Halleck put it. Instead of complaining, Grant, after gathering additional evidence, renewed his request. At last Lincoln complied. It had taken nearly four weeks for Grant to gain his point. [17]

It is one of the curiosities of the scholarship about Lincoln's relations with his generals that both T. Harry Williams and John Y. Simon hold Grant responsible for the delay in removing Banks. Williams reminded readers that Lincoln "could not and would not hastily relieve a general who was so important a political figure as Banks"; he understood that Grant was "dodging the responsibility of asking specifically for his removal." Simon did little more than reiterate the same argument forty years later, although its origin was obscured by incomplete annotation. However, Grant was fairly explicit about the military costs of retaining Banks in command; even the fault-finding Simon grudgingly admits that Grant's initial request was "unequivocal." It was Lincoln who was anxious to dodge responsibility, for only he (and not Grant) had the authority to remove Banks from department command. That the president used the general's wishes to shield himself from criticism became apparent after the fall election, for when Banks sought reinstatement, Lincoln declined, observing that whatever his personal friendship for the Massachusetts politician, in the matter of reinstatement "he whom I must hold responsible for military results, is not agreed."[18]

Partisan considerations clearly outweighed military ones in this dispute. The president, not the general-in-chief, appointed department commanders; Lincoln held on to the authority while ducking the responsibility. And it had been the president, not Grant, who was enamored with the idea of Banks's move westward, away from the heart of the Confederacy. Had Grant been able to employ Page  [End Page 74] Banks's force in an earlier thrust against Mobile, the result would have aided Sherman's operations against Atlanta. Perhaps Grant's behavior in attempting to handle Butler the following July was influenced in large part by the president's reluctance to cooperate in the Banks matter. Both times the general made clear the military costs of retaining a political general in command in an important area; both times the president procrastinated on political grounds; both times the result hampered the successful prosecution of military operations in a year when military success was essential to achieving political victory.

Only in the case of Franz Sigel did Grant get his way with a political general, and only after the German-born general had suffered ignominious defeat. Sigel's record was not an inspiring one when Lincoln decided to put him in charge of the Department of West Virginia in March 1864. He may have helped rally Missouri Germans to the Union cause in 1861, but whatever military promise he had was not evident at Wilson's Creek or Pea Ridge; his performance in Virginia during 1862 raised serious questions about his competence. Eventually Grant hit upon the idea of having Sigel move up the Shenandoah Valley, destroying enemy resources, pinning down enemy forces, and depriving Lee of both. Lincoln, grasping the idea, remarked, "Those not skinning can hold a leg."[19]

But it was Sigel who was skinned in May at New Market. His defeat there allowed Lee to call upon Confederate forces in the Valley to reinforce his army as it struggled to fend off Grant's attacks. Halleck, who had previously warned Grant that Lincoln would be hard-pressed to remove Sigel, snapped, "If you ever expected anything from him you will be mistaken. He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." In marked contrast to his behavior concerning Banks and Butler, Lincoln volunteered that he would approve Sigel's replacement by David Hunter; Grant assented, wiring "By all means ... appoint Genl Hunter or anyone else." Sigel remained in the field for several more months, only to be removed for good when he failed to resist Jubal Early that July. [20]

The impact of these military failures upon Grant's overall plan of campaign was devastating. Instead of advancing on Mobile, which would have forced the small Confederate Army of Missis- Page  [End Page 75] sippi, commanded by Leonidas Polk, to defend Alabama, Banks's ill-fated expedition up the Red River left Polk free to reinforce Joe Johnston's Army of Tennessee in its efforts to defend Atlanta from William T. Sherman. Without those reinforcements, Johnston might have found himself in dire straits that spring. That the Red River campaign was an abysmal disaster only made things worse. Sigel failed to deny Lee the resources of the Shenandoah Valley or to pin down Confederate forces. Butler, who had a golden chance to sever Richmond's links to the Confederate heartland, proved little more than a distraction to Lee as he fended off Grant's repeated attacks at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. What began as a campaign designed to threaten the supply lines of the Army of Northern Virginia thus became a bloody contest between Lee and Grant. The contest of attrition that resulted came about, not by choice or design, but as a consequence of defeat elsewhere. There need not have been a siege of Petersburg; Cold Harbor would have remained an insignificant wayside.

Butler, Banks, and Sigel: three political generals, appointed by Lincoln, whose performance during the 1864 campaign impaired military operations critical to the president's prospects for reelection. Whatever the merits of awarding these men commissions at the beginning of the war to rally support for the cause from diverse groups, their retention proved costly. "It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel and Lew Wallace," Halleck remarked in the spring of 1864, "and yet it seems impossible to prevent it." Only in the case of Butler was there any cause to believe that he might rise to the challenge of command, primarily because he had yet to sustain a major reverse; even Grant thought he might prove satisfactory. Scholars who are eager to remind readers that the president did not give Grant a free hand in military matters forget to add that the presence of these three political generals handcuffed the Union commander. [21]

The costly military mistakes these men made outweighed whatever political benefit their retention may have realized. Retaining incompetent generals in order to appease political constituencies thwarted the chance for a victory in 1864 and increased the human toll on the battlefield. Appointments justified on the grounds of Page  [End Page 76] political necessity ultimately incurred political costs, for the bungling of Butler, Banks, and Sigel contributed to a military situation in the summer of 1864 where the Northern public, anticipating decisive victory with Grant in command, began to wonder whether it was worth it to continue the struggle—something on voters' minds as they pondered whether to give Honest Abe another four years in office. Perhaps Lincoln would have been wiser to dismiss these three men and risk whatever short-term damage his actions might have caused. Awarding their vacant commands to successful successors might well have led to a decisive victory achieved in timely fashion. Victory may have come in spite of the decision to retain these men in command, not because of it. That is something for students of Lincoln the president to ponder. Page  [End Page 77]


  1. Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln's Generals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Knopf, 1952); Joseph T. Glatthaar, Partners in Command: The Relationship between Leaders in the Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1994). return to text
  2. James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 70–71; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 328–29; Archer Jones, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (New York: Free Press, 1992), 111; Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 61–62, 90. return to text
  3. See Lincoln to Isaac N. Arnold, May 26, 1863, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 6:230 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). return to text
  4. Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, 194. return to text
  5. On Porter's original preference for McClernand, see Howard K. Beale, ed., The Dairy of Gideon Welles (New York: Norton, 1960), 1:167 (Oct. 10, 1862), 1:220 (Jan. 12, 1863); Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), 329–30. return to text
  6. McClernand to Lincoln, Jan. 7, 1863, and Lincoln to McClernand, Jan. 22, 1863, in Basler, Collected Works, 6:70–71; Catton, Grant Moves South, 337–40. return to text
  7. Grant Moves South, 340. return to text
  8. Lincoln to McClernand, Aug. 12, 1863, and Edwin M. Stanton to McClernand, Sept. 14, 1863, in Collected Works, 6:383–84; on McClernand and the Vicksburg campaign, see Terrence J. Winschel, Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign (Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing, 1999). return to text
  9. The best biography of Butler remains Hans L. Trefousse, Ben Butler: The South Called Him BEAST! (New York: Twayne, 1957). return to text
  10. Lincoln to Stanton, Jan. 23, 1864, in Collected Works, 6:76–77; draft of order, Feb. 17, 1863, ibid., 6:100. return to text
  11. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds., Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), 190. return to text
  12. See Brooks D. Simpson, "Ulysses S. Grant and the Problems of Command in 1864," in Steven E. Woodworth, ed., The Art of Command in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 144–46. return to text
  13. Ibid., 147–48. return to text
  14. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., Pretense of Glory: The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), is the most recent biography; still, see Fred Harvey Harrington, Fighting Politician: Major General N. P. Banks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948). return to text
  15. Simpson, "Grant and the Problems of Command," 139–40. return to text
  16. Grant to Halleck, Apr. 22, 1864, John Y. Simon, et al., eds, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967–), 10:340 (hereafter cited as Grant Papers); Halleck to Grant, Apr. 26, 1864, ibid.; Grant to Halleck, Apr. 25, 29, 1864, ibid., 10:351, 368; Halleck to Grant, Apr. 29, 1864, ibid., 369n. return to text
  17. Grant to Halleck, Apr. 29, 1864, ibid., 10:369–70; Halleck to Grant, May 3, 1864, ibid., 10:375n; Grant to Halleck, May 16, 1864, ibid., 10:452. return to text
  18. Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, 309–10; John Y. Simon, "Grant, Lincoln, and Unconditional Surrender," in Boritt, Lincoln's Generals, 181–83; Lincoln to Banks, Dec. 2, 1864, in Basler, Collected Works, 8:131. return to text
  19. Burlingame and Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln's White House, 194. For Sigel, see Stephen D. Engle, Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993). return to text
  20. Halleck to Grant, May 17, 1864, Simon, Grant Papers, 10:460n; Grant to Halleck, May 19, 1864, ibid., 10:470. return to text
  21. Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), 147. For the view that Lincoln "held the reins and taught Grant what was permitted and what was forbidden," see Simon, "Grant, Lincoln, and Unconditional Surrender," 198. return to text