Many talented commanders served the Union during the Civil War. There were also a few prominent failures, as well as several who fell into both categories. The following are the most important Civil War generals who served on the Union side.
Ulysses S. Grant. As the only general to exercise overall command of all Union forces, he is clearly the most important Federal military officer of the war. His fame, however, owes itself more to the fact that he defeated Robert E Lee, and then graciously accepted his opponent’s surrender, than to any other fact, including his subsequent service as President of the United States.
Grant rose to these heights from an inauspicious beginning to his career due to his successes in the western theatre of war. Much of this can be attributed to his fortitude, which not only helped him to press on in the face of difficulty until the battle was won, but also assisted him in accepting his orders and making the best use of the assets entrusted to him. His unambiguous victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, contrasted with Meade’s unexploited victory at Gettysburg the day before, did much to endear him with Lincoln and the War Department. At the same time, his detailed reports to his superiors went far in motivating them to grant him unprecedented freedom of action.
They would not have cause to regret that choice. Grant had his share of errors, as the Battle of Cold Harbor attests. His determination never flagged, however, enabling him to find victory where anyone else might see an impasse. A characteristic moment in his career would be his resolution to the Battle of the Wilderness in May, 1864: having fought to a stalemate against Lee in the same thick woods that vexed Union forces the year before at Chancellorsville, Grant withdrew his forces in a novel way. Rather than truly retreating to a secured location, he disengaged his troops and then ordered them south, toward Richmond. Transforming a retreat into an advance, he forced Lee to work doubly hard to stop his march at Spotsylvania.
George B. McClellan. Twice serving as commander of the Army of the Potomac, “Little Mac” is better known for his slow progress and for his tumultuous relationship with Lincoln. A rising star in the Army even during the Mexican War, it is perhaps significant that he served as an American military observer in the Crimean War, bearing witness to suicidal Russian frontal assaults. As a Union commander in the Civil War, he exhibited the opposite extreme, being slow to commit forces into battle. This characteristic had grave consequences both in the Peninsular Campaign, which was ultimately abandoned, and at the Battle of Antietam. Twice relieved of command, McClellan engaged in a final fight with his former boss when he ran for President as a Democrat in 1864. Here too, he failed.
Ambrose Burnside. Now best known as the inspiration for the word “sideburns,” Burnside made an unsuccessful bid as a munitions manufacturer before the war. By the Battle of Antietam, Burnside had arisen to corps command, and when McClellan was again relieved of duty, Burnside accepted the post with some misgiving. His strategic planning in the Fredericksburg Campaign was good, but he proved unwilling to take a chance when the opportunity arose for a more rapid resolution, and the result was a devastating failure. Removed from his post, he served for a time in the western theatre, and was eventually returned to the IX Corps. He was again sacked after the initially promising Battle of the Crater turned sour.
Joseph Hooker. Known as “Fighting Joe Hooker,” he was actually more capable as an administrator than as a battlefield commander. Given command of the Army of the Potomac when Burnside was removed, he reorganized the army into the seven corps structure that proved so effective in the Gettysburg Campaign. He also did much raise the spirits of his army in the wake of the debacle at Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, much of that effort was undone by his own defeat at Chancellorsville. His plan had been reasonably sound, but he was outmaneuvered by better generals taking advantage of superior knowledge of the terrain. He was soon replaced by Meade, and spent some time in the west under Sherman.
George Meade. The commander of V Corps under Hooker, Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac after Reynolds refused it. Meade was given more latitude than his predecessors in the delegation of authority, a fact that he used to great advantage in the Gettysburg Campaign (Buford, Reynolds and Hancock all enjoyed the success they did because they were permitted to operate under their own initiative to a heretofore unprecedented degree). Meade’s inability to capitalize on Gettysburg stymied his chances of further advancement, but he remained at his post for the remainder of the war: Grant did not replace him as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, but rather, was promoted over him.
William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman began the war in the east, commanding a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run, but he was soon sent to the west, where he proved himself an able commander at Shiloh and Vicksburg. After Grant was given overall command of the Army, Sherman succeeded him as commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Sherman is best known for his infamous “March to the Sea” through Tennessee and Georgia. More ruthless than most in the prosecution of war, especially in the latter campaign, he was also inclined to be more generous than most in the conclusion of peace; his favorable offer to Confederate General Joe Johnston was refused by Washington, and he was compelled to demand the same terms as Grant had demanded at Appomattox. Sherman remained in the Army after the war, soon serving as its head.
George Thomas. A Virginian by birth, Thomas sided with the Union at the outbreak of war. He is credited with the first Union victory when he won at Mill Springs in January, 1862. Known as a stubborn defender, his efforts evaded what otherwise might have been a Union disaster at Chickamauga. Shortly thereafter, he was given command of the Army of the Cumberland and won notable victories at Missionary Ridge, Atlanta and Nashville.
There are many other significant commanders who might populate a longer list. The aforementioned generals John Buford, John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock were in no small measure the architects of victory at Gettysburg. Cavalry general Phil Sheridan served effectively in both theatres of war. William S Rosecrans fought well in the west until his defeat at Chickamauga. And finally, junior-grade generals as different from each other as Joshua L Chamberlain and George A Custer earned great reputations from their accomplishments.
Katcher, Philip. The Complete Civil War. Cassell, 1992.
Macdonald, John. Great Battles of the Civil War. Macmillan, 1988.
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