Political general

Political general

A political general is a general without significant military experience who is given a high position in command due to political connections or to appease certain political blocs. This concept was most prominent during the American Civil War. Although the Union Army was more notorious for its use of such generals, the Confederate States Army was far from free of them.

Reasons for promotions

Appeasement of political groups

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Abraham Lincoln largely used such generals as a way to get the support of more moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration. The first three volunteer generals Lincoln appointed were all Democrats: John A. Dix, Benjamin F. Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were not forgotten: Richard J. Oglesby and John A. Logan were both Illinois Republicans who achieved high command during the war.


Other promotions were used to gain the support of the specific group they represented especially in cases of foreign immigrants. One of the largest ethnic groups in the U.S. at the time were German immigrants. Prominent German civilian leaders such as Franz Sigel and Carl Schurz were promoted for their usefulness in rallying fellow immigrants to the cause. Two prominent Irish immigrants were given promotions: Thomas F. Meagher and Michael Corcoran. Meagher attempted to resign in December 1863, however at that time Corcoran died and Meagher's resignation was revoked to keep at least one Irishman in command.

Other officers were highly successful in their attempts to rally large numbers of troops, whether they were native born or foreign born, as was the case with Daniel E. Sickles who raised large numbers of New York troops.

Border states

The Confederacy also used a large number of political generals, for largely the same reasons, although many were also heavily used to influence the Confederate sympathizers in the border states. John C. Breckinridge, for instance, the former Vice President, was used largely because of hopes that he would inspire the citizens of Kentucky to join the Confederate army. Sterling Price served a similar function with regards to Missouri.


Another reason for the rise of political generals during the Civil War was the large number of volunteer soldiers that served both armies. Men who were prominent civilian leaders such as businessmen, lawyers and politicians became easy choices to place in command of a volunteer regiment.


A large number of political generals, namely Sigel and Nathaniel P. Banks for the North and Breckinridge for the South, were undoubtedly popular with their men, largely because of their ties to the specific groups they represented. However, the vast majority were considered incompetent due to their being essentially amateur soldiers with no prior training or knowledge. This was a particularly large problem in the North, where such generals were typically given fairly important commands.

List of prominent political generals

The following is a partial list of some of the more prominent political generals on both sides, and a brief sketch of their war service. Expand list|date=August 2008

Mexican War

*J. Pinckney Henderson, was the incumbent governor of Texas who was granted permission from the state legislature to personally lead Texas troops in the field with the rank of major general. Henderson led the so called "Texas Division" at Monterrey.

*Joseph Lane, an Indiana Democrat gained a reputation as "Rough and Ready No. 2", reminiscent of Zachary Taylor's nickname.

*Franklin Pierce, a political appointee who had some notable military skills. He sustained a battle wound and, due to the loss of blood, fainted on the field. This incident was used against him by his political rivals as cowardice but was not enough to keep him from attaining the Presidency.

*Zachary Taylor, later elected President.

Civil War


*Nathaniel P. Banks, former Congressman from Massachusetts, held numerous commands during the war. He commanded the original V Corps (later XII Corps) at First Winchester, and also fought without distinction at Cedar Mountain and Second Bull Run as part of the Army of Virginia. He was transferred to the Department of the Gulf, and took part in the capture of Port Hudson, as well as the Red River Campaign. After that disastrous campaign, he was relieved of command.

*Francis P. Blair, Jr., a Congressman from Missouri who aided Union efforts early in the war to save his state for the Union. He became a major general in the Union Army and eventually rose to become a corps commander. He enjoyed the confidence of Sherman, who was generally skeptical of political generals. While most politicians either resigned their seat in Congress or resigned their military commission, Blair retained his seat in Congress while still serving in the field. His brother was Montgomery Blair, one of Lincoln's Cabinet members.

*Benjamin Butler, Congressman from New Hampshire, was one of the most loathed Northern generals. He lost the war's first land battle at Big Bethel on July 1, 1861, and was later put in charge of the Department of the Gulf, governing the captured New Orleans with strict discipline (and earning the derogatory nickname "Spoons" for his alleged habit of pilfering from Southern homes). He led the Army of the James during the failed Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and at Fort Fisher. After the latter, he was relieved of his command. He was later elected Governor of Massachusetts.

*Thomas Leonidas Crittenden was a member of the politically powerful Crittenden family of Kentucky. A lawyer by profession, his only military experience was as a civilian aide to Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War. His appointment as a brigadier general in 1861 was motivated by the sensitive political status of Kentucky. He served in the Army of the Cumberland as a corps commander and was replaced following the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. [Cozzens, Peter, "This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga", University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN 0-252-02236-X, p. 10.]

*John C. Frémont, explorer and military hero who had helped capture California during the Mexican-American War and had been the Republican Party's first presidential candidate in 1856. He poorly handled the Department of Missouri during the first year of the war, however, nearly losing that state to the Confederacy, and later led the Mountain Department, one of the units opposing Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign. He was relieved of command after a political dispute with Lincoln regarding the emancipation of slaves, and his command was merged into the Army of Virginia, downgrading his department to a corps.

*John A. Logan, an Illinois Democrat who served in the Illinois state legislature and U.S. House of Representatives. During the war he was he served in the Western Theater under Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Upon the death of James B. McPherson at Atlanta, Logan rose to command of the famed Army of the Tennessee. Although Logan was generally a successful leader, Sherman elected not to keep a non-West Pointer in command of the army and replaced him with O.O. Howard. After the war, Logan returned to politics as a Republican.

*John A. McClernand, congressman from Illinois, served in the Western Theater, taking part in the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, and led the Army of the Mississippi against Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post) in 1863 (as part of the Vicksburg Campaign), as well as leading XIII Corps during the Siege of Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign. He was poorly regarded by his peers and frequently quarreled with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.

*Daniel E. Sickles, the infamous New York Congressman who had been tried (and acquitted) for the murder of Philip Barton Key, served as a brigade and division commander for the first two years of the war, assuming command of the III Corps, Army of the Potomac in early 1863, leading it at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At the latter, his unauthorized maneuver of his corps into the Peach Orchard nearly caused the destruction of the Union Army. Sickles lost his leg at this battle and, although he was never officially censured for his action, never again held a field command. After the war, he played a key role in establishing national battlefield parks, including at Gettysburg.

*Franz Sigel, a German émigré from the Revolution of 1848 who led, at various times, a division in the Department of Missouri, XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and the Department of West Virginia. Many other German "Forty-Eighters" also served in the war, including Carl Schurz, Louis Blenker, and Adolph von Steinwehr. Sigel was almost universally regarded as an incompetent, and was alleged to have fled from the Battle of New Market, where he was overall commander.Fact|date=February 2007 He was, however, extremely popular with his German recruits, who shouted the slogan, "I fights mit Sigel!" He provided important recruiting services for the Union.

*Lew Wallace, formerly of the Indiana State Legislature, fought most famously at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and the Monocacy, the "Battle That Saved Washington," in July 1864. After the war Wallace became Governor of New Mexico Territory, wrote the novel "", and served as a U.S. diplomat.


*William Barksdale, a "Fire-Eater" and pre-war Congressman from Mississippi, led a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the first two years of the war, until his death at Gettysburg.

*John C. Breckinridge, the Kentuckian and former Vice President under James Buchanan, led various division and brigade commands in the Western Theater. He quarreled often with Braxton Bragg. He served ably at Shiloh and Stones River, and also defeated Franz Sigel (see above) at the Battle of New Market in May 1864. He later became the Confederate Secretary of War.

*Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, a Confederate Congressman from Georgia and brother of former governor Howell Cobb, who also served with the Confederacy. Cobb commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, and became most famous for his defense of Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was killed in action.

*John B. Floyd, former Governor of Virginia and Secretary of War under James Buchanan. He led state militia forces opposing Union operations in western Virginia in 1861, and played a major part in the Fort Donelson fiasco (see Gideon Pillow, above). After that battle, he was relegated to command of Virginia State Guard troops; he died in early 1863.

*Gideon Pillow, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and prominent power in the pre-war Democratic Party. Although he opposed secession, he ultimately went south and accepted a commission. He is most widely known for fleeing (along with John B. Floyd) from Fort Donelson in February 1862, leaving the hapless third-in-command, Simon Bolivar Buckner, and the fort's 15,000-man garrison to surrender to Union forces under U.S. Grant while they saved themselves. Commanding a brigade at Stones River, he was allegedly found by division commander Breckinridge to have been cowering behind a tree as his men went into action. After that, he never held another field command.

*Sterling Price, a Missourian who was initially opposed to secession but ultimately sided with the Confederacy, led the Missouri State Guard in the 1861 Confederate invasion of the state. He was the Confederate commander at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, and served without distinction at Pea Ridge. He led an unsuccessful invasion of Missouri in 1864, which effectively but inadvertently secured Missouri and Arkansas for the Union.

*Robert A. Toombs, former Congressman from Georgia and an ardent secessionist. Politically ambitious, he was made Secretary of State of the Confederacy but resigned for a field command, while simultaneously holding a seat in the Confederate Congress. He led a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. His most famous action was the defense of Burnside's Bridge at Antietam, where he was wounded. After that battle, he resigned and served in the Confederate Senate.

Spanish-American War

*Joseph Wheeler, a famous Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War and postwar Congressman from Alabama. The U.S. government, wary about placing staging points for the Cuba expedition in southern states, awarded Wheeler a commission as major general to win favor from Southern states. An oft-told story has the elderly Wheeler, forgetting just who he was fighting, shouting to his men about the fleeing Spanish soldiers, "Come on boys, we've got those Yankees on the run!"


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