Generals of the American Civil War

By Walter Lawler


(Please note language describing race, used in quotations, from contemporaneous accounts, may not be deemed appropriate today, they are used for historical accuracy)

The American Civil War was fought primarily, among other reasons, for the Emancipation of Slavery in the USA.  Emancipation of slavery was part of an enlightened process, continuing to this day, where equality for all was the desired outcome.  From teenage years, especially after seeing the Ken Burns 1990 American Civil War nine-episode documentary, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the subject.  Through ancestry DNA and genealogical study, I got in touch with 3rd cousins in the US in 2017 who’s ancestors, and mine, had emigrated to the US in 1864.  Two brothers left the present home house and it was interesting to hear they joined the Union army straight away, upon arriving in the US, and fought in the last year of the American Civil War.  These two gentlemen, Richard and James Lawler, were brothers of my great grandfather, Patrick Lawler, 1852-1933.  It’s a story common to many Irish families, 150,000 Irish born men fought in the Northern ranks and 20,000 in Confederate grey.  It is estimated that approximately 35,000 died, roughly equivalent to the amount in the First World War.  Many songs like ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’ recount the Irish Experience:

‘Here’s you boys, now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye’s not be comin’
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

Well meself and a hundred more, to America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be made, we were thinkin’
When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands
Saying “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln”.’

In this piece I will look at some of the more prominent generals in the War who the Irish ended up fighting for.  I will briefly look at the personae and careers of six of these generals.  They were some of the most unique men I’ve ever come across in any historical study, full of idiosyncrasies.


Irish Brigade Union Soldiers facing Pickett’s charge, Gettysburg, 1863








Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Confederate)

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson (January 21, 1824 – May 10, 1863) served as a Confederate general (1861–1863) during the American Civil War and became one of the best-known Confederate commanders after General Robert E. Lee.  Jackson played a prominent role in nearly all military engagements in the Eastern Theatre of the war until his death and had a key part in winning many significant battles.  Born in what was then part of Virginia (in present-day West Virginia), Jackson received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated in the class of 1846.  He served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848.  Early in the Civil War he distinguished himself commanding a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, providing crucial reinforcements and beating back a fierce Union assault.  In this context Barnard Elliott Bee Jr. compared him to a “stone wall”, hence his enduring nickname.  Jackson performed exceptionally well in the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862.  Despite an initial defeat due largely to faulty intelligence, through swift and careful manoeuvres Jackson was able to defeat three separate Union armies and prevent any of them from reinforcing General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in its campaign against Richmond.  He again performed with bravery at Second Bull Run, the Maryland campaign and Fredericksburg in 1862.  In May 1862, he was accidentally shot by his own troops on a night raid at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he was shot in the arm, which was amputated.  He died of pneumonia 8 days later in a plantation office building.  On the day he died Jackson, coming in and out of consciousness remarked ‘It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.’  When offered brandy or morphine, he refused, saying he wanted to keep his mind clear.  The last thing Stonewall said, in a clear and distinctive voice was ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’  Robert E. Lee, Confederate Leader, and Leader of the Army of North Virginia always maintained that had Jackson lived, they would have won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  Lee also commented that Jackson had lost his left arm (amputation) but he had lost his right one.

Jackson had a strange combination of religious fanaticism and glory in battle.  His eyes would light up in battle, his soldiers called him ‘Old Blue Light’.  He was totally fearless and would say ‘once you get ‘em running you stay right on top of them’.  He felt that way a small force could defeat a large one most time.  He knew a reputation in battle could grow and add to a general’s mystique.  He was not a strict disciplinarian, he would shoot soldiers for disobedience, but he didn’t care so much for neatness of uniform saluting officers, things he regarded as trivialities.  He was a true eccentric, he believed that if he had pepper in his food it would make his leg ache!  Jackson held a lifelong belief that one of his arms was longer than the other, and thus usually held the ‘longer’ arm up to equalize his circulation.  He was described as a “champion sleeper”, and occasionally even fell asleep with food in his mouth!  He would never put a letter in the mail that would be in transit on a Sunday, as he was a devout Christian who observed the sabbath fully.  Yet he fought many battles on a Sunday, many of his soldiers felt he did so as he felt the Lord would be even more on his side.  He had a peculiar quality of overlooking suffering.  He once had a young currier and Jackson looked around for him and he wasn’t there, he asked staff officers where the said lieutenant was.  He was informed that he was killed, Jackson remarked ‘very commendable, very commendable’ and carried on with what he was doing!  He had no real concern for casualties among his men in battle and would march men until they were exhausted and falling by the wayside.  During a lull in the Battle of Antietam, while eating a peach, he looked out over the field which was covered in union and confederate corpses and remarked “God has been very good to us this day’.


Stonewall Jackson ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’







William Tecumseh Sherman (Union)

Sherman served as a general in the Union Army, receiving recognition for his command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the scorched earth policies he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States.  British military theorist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general’.  In many ways he was the Union’s counterpart to Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in that he was their great lieutenant.  Born in Ohio to a politically prominent family.  His father, Charles Robert Sherman, a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, died unexpectedly in 1829.  He left his widow, Mary Hoyt Sherman, with eleven children and no inheritance.  After his father’s death, the nine-year-old Sherman was raised by a Lancaster neighbour and family friend, attorney Thomas Ewing, Sr.  Sherman graduated in 1840 from West Point.  He interrupted his military career in 1853 to pursue private business ventures, and at the outbreak of the Civil War he was superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (now Louisiana State University).

Sherman distinguished himself at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 before being transferred to the Western Theatre of war.  Sherman was one of the few generals who felt the war would last longer than 6 months.  Later in 1861 he suffered a nervous breakdown; many say due to his pessimism and feeling that the war would be protracted.  He recovered by forging a close partnership with General Ulysses S. Grant.  Sherman served under Grant in 1862 and 1863 during the battles of forts Henry and Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, the campaigns that led to the fall of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, as well as the Chattanooga Campaign that culminated with the routing of the Confederate armies in the state of Tennessee.  In 1864, Sherman succeeded Grant as the Union commander in the West.  Sherman then led the capture of the strategic city of Atlanta, a military success that helped in the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln.  Sherman’s subsequent march through Georgia and the Carolinas (Sherman’s March to the Sea) involved little fighting but large-scale destruction of cotton plantations and other infrastructure, a systematic scorched earth policy intended to undermine the ability and willingness of the Confederacy to continue fighting.  Sherman accepted the surrender of all the Confederate armies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in April 1865.  Throughout the latter years of the war Sherman showed himself to be a superb strategist.  When Ulysses S Grant became president of the United States in March 1869, Sherman succeeded him as Commanding General of the Army.  Sherman served in that capacity from 1869 until 1883 and was responsible for the U.S. Army’s engagement in the Indian Wars during that period.  He was reluctant to be drawn into politics and in 1875 published his Memoirs.  It proved to be one of the best-known first-hand accounts of the Civil War.

Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war and, like others of his time and background, he did not believe in ‘Negro equality’.  Before the war, Sherman at times even expressed some sympathy with the view of Southern whites that the black race was benefiting from slavery, although he opposed breaking up slave families and advocated teaching slaves to read and write.  During the Civil War, Sherman declined to employ black troops in his armies.  When a military colleague pointed out that a black man would stop a bullet as well as a white man Sherman replied that a sandbag would do better than either!  It demonstrates the practical side to the man.  Sherman’s birth family was Presbyterian and he was originally baptized as such.  His foster family, including his future wife Ellen, were devout Catholics, and Sherman was re-baptized and later married in the Catholic rite.  According to his son Thomas, who became a Catholic priest, Sherman attended the Catholic Church until the outbreak of the Civil War, but not thereafter.  In 1888, Sherman wrote publicly that ‘my immediate family are strongly Catholic. I am not and cannot be.’  In his memoirs of the Civil War, Sherman was critical of Jewish merchants in several instances, showing strong hints of anti-Semitism.

Sherman died of pneumonia in February 1891.  On February 19, a funeral service was held at his home, followed by a military procession. General Joseph E. Johnston (now 84 years old) the Confederate officer who had commanded the resistance to Sherman’s troops in Georgia and the Carolinas, served as a pallbearer in New York City.  It was a bitterly cold day and a friend of Johnston, fearing that the general might become ill, asked him to put on his hat.  Johnston replied: ‘If I were in [Sherman’s] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat.’ Johnston did catch a serious cold and died one month later of pneumonia.

William Tecumseh Sherman, 1864









Robert E. Lee (Confederate)

General Robert E. Lee is best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.  He led the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until its surrender in 1865.  He was the outstanding general of the war, indeed one of the most outstanding generals in the annals of war.  He was superb on both the offensive and the defensive.  Son of Revolutionary War officer Henry ‘Light-Horse Harry’ Lee III, Lee sailed through West Point, the United States Military Academy, graduating second in his class.  West Point classmates called Virginia-born Robert E. Lee ‘the Marble Man’.  He was nicknamed such probably for reason of heritage; his statuesque quality, dignity and bravura.  Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula in 1831 when he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step grandson.  They married at Arlington House.  Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).  He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer; he found routes of attack that the Mexicans had not defended because they thought the terrain was impassable.   For the first time, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met and worked with each other during the Mexican–American War.  Close observations of their commanders constituted a learning process for both Lee and Grant.  Lee had a paradoxical stance on the issues of race and slavery.  While Lee protested he had sympathetic feelings for black people, they were subordinate to his own racial identity.  He held slavery to be an evil institution, he also saw some benefit to black people being held in slavery.  He helped assist individual slaves to freedom in Liberia, and provided for their emancipation in his own will, he believed the enslaved should be eventually freed in a general way only at some unspecified future date as a part of God’s purpose.  A letter written to his wife in 1856 is indicative of this rather vague stance.  He felt black slavery was an evil but primarily because of the adverse effect it had on white people.  ‘In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence’.

At the start of the Civil War Lee was offered the post as commander in chief of the Union forces by President Lincoln.  He declined the offer; his loyalty was to the state of Virginia.  Many ask why Lee chose state over country, but for Lee Virginia was his country first and foremost.  His loyalty to Virginia would always take precedence over the Union.  Early in the war he put in place a defence of Savannah that proved successful in blocking Federal advance on Savannah, in fact Savannah would not fall until Sherman’s approach at the end of 1864.  Lee’s first real action came in summer 1862, when he launched a series of bold attacks against Union leader McClellan’s forces, the Seven Days Battles.  Despite superior Union numbers, Lee’s attacks derailed McClellan’s plans and drove back part of his forces.  In August 1862 Lee defeated another Union army under General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run.  Lee now invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania, hoping to collect supplies in Union territory.  The resulting Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of the war, with both sides suffering enormous losses. Lee’s army barely withstood the Union assaults, then retreated to Virginia the next day.  Lee defeated Union General Burnside at Fredricksburg, Virginia, in spring 1863.  After this victory, Lee reportedly said, ‘It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.’  After the bitter Union defeat at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac.  In May 1863, Hooker manoeuvred to attack Lee’s army via Chancellorsville, Virginia.  But Hooker was defeated by Lee’s daring strategy: dividing his army and sending Stonewall Jackson’s corps to attack Hooker’s flank.  Lee won a decisive victory over a larger force, but with heavy casualties, including Jackson, his finest corps commander, who, as mentioned, was accidentally killed by his own troops.  In the summer of 1863, Lee invaded the North again, marching through western Maryland and into south central Pennsylvania.  He encountered Union forces under George G. Meade at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July; the battle would produce the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. After the failure of Pickett’s Charge on the 3rd day of the battle, Lee was forced to retreat.  After Ulysses S. Grant took control of the Union forces in 1864, Lee’s forces were gradually worn down by attrition.  On 9th April 1865 Lee surrendered to the former at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Lee has been immortalised, dehumanised to an extent by the glory and worship bestowed upon him.  In personality he was a warm outgoing man who always had time for any private soldier’s company.  He showed his kindness in many ways, he was a true gentleman.  Once a Union prisoner complained that a confederate soldier had stolen his hat and Lee made the man give it back.  He took long odds chances during the Civil War because he had to.  It was the only way to win and it made him brilliant.  Perhaps Lee’s finest hour came after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on the 3rd day of the Battle of Gettysburg when he walked out into the field met the men retreating met the men retreating and said it is all my fault.  He also wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis apologising for the failure at Gettysburg.  It showed an honesty and humility rarely equalled in a commander.  Lee was a good administrator and a superb intelligence officer, reading Northern newspapers assiduously and questioning prisoners on occasion.  He knew how to put himself in another man’s mind, what move they would likely make.  He knew what Grant was going to do but was worn down eventually by Grant’s weight of numbers.  It was the genius of Robert E. Lee which kept Richmond from falling to Grant’s union army until 2nd April 1865.  Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College, Lexington Virginia, after the war.  He had an annual salary of $1,500 and a house, he spent the rest of his life (1870) there, in what became known as Washington Lee after his death.  Once a young man was brought before him for some infraction of the rules and was very fearful about being brought before General Lee.   Lee saw he was trembling and said to him, you need not be afraid you’ll get justice here’.   And the young man said ‘I know it General, that’s what I’m scared of’!.


General Robert E. Lee









Ulysses S. Grant (Union)

Commanding General, he led the Union Army to victory in the American Civil War in 1865 and thereafter briefly served as Secretary of War.  He went on to serve as the 18th President of the United States from 1869 to 1877.  Raised in Ohio, Grant possessed an exceptional ability with horses, which served him well through his military career. He was admitted to West Point, graduated 21st in the class of 1843 and served with distinction in the Mexican–American War.  In 1848, he married Julia Dent, and together they had four children.  He joined the Union Army after the Civil War broke out in 1861.  After Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, President Lincoln promoted him to Lieutenant General.  After the victory at Fort Donelson in 1862, Grant had won the first major victory for the Union, capturing Confederate General Floyd’s entire rebel army of more than 12,000.  Grant had asked for ‘unconditional and immediate surrender’ from the confederates.  He became a hero of the Northern press who called him ‘Unconditional Surrender Grant.’  Grant led the Vicksburg campaign in 1863, which gained control of the Mississippi River.

Grant was appointed lieutenant general in March 1864 and was entrusted with command of all the U.S. armies.  The Overland Campaign was a series of brutal battles fought in Virginia for seven weeks during May and June 1864 where Grant faced Lee.  On May 5, the Union army attacked Lee in the Wilderness, a three-day battle with estimated casualties of 17,666 Union and 11,125 Confederate.  On May 12, Grant attempted to break through Lee’s Muleshoe salient guarded by Confederate artillery, resulting in one of the bloodiest assaults of the Civil War, known as the Bloody Angle.  Unable to break Lee’s lines, Grant again flanked the rebels to the southeast, meeting at North Anna, where a battle lasted three days.  Grant believed breaking through Lee’s lines at its weakest point, Cold Harbor, a vital road hub that linked to Richmond, would mean the destruction of Lee’s army, the capture of Richmond, and a quick end to the war.  On the morning of June 3rd, the third day of the thirteen-day battle, with a force of more than 100,000 men, against Lee’s 59,000, Grant attacked not realizing that Lee’s army was now well entrenched, much of it obscured by trees and bushes.  Grant’s army suffered 12,000–14,000 casualties, while Lee’s army suffered 3,000–5,000 casualties, but Lee was less able to replace them.  The siege of Petersburg, 1864-65, and Battle of the Crater, 1864, further weakened the Confederates.  The attritional warfare conducted by Grant would eventually lead to unconditional union victory.

As Shelby Foote, writer and renowned US Civil War historian remarked ‘Grant had 4 O’Clock in the morning courage’, meaning if suddenly awoken at 4am he would not be taken aback.  He was cool and steady under attack and could cope with surprises.  When he came from the West Theatre to the Eastern, he grew tired of his men praising Lee.  He remarked ‘all I hear is Bobby Lee, Bobby Lee, do you think he’s going to do a double somersault and land in our rear?? Quit thinking about what he’s going to do to you and think about what you’re going to do to him’.  Grant showed a great doggedness as a general, this, with superior numbers allowed him to beat the more cavalier Lee.  ‘Move by the left flank, move by the left flank’ was an oft repeated motto, making your opponent spread out their depleting defences further and further.  Another great strength of his was his ability to concentrate.  A good example of this is that he could be working at his desk bent over writing and he would need something across the room, a document etc.   He would get up, never getting out of his crouched position, pick up the document and come back and sit at his desk without ever having straightened up!  His focus was that intense.  The first night of the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Grant was seen by many of his men breaking down and crying in his tent, they commented that they seldom saw a man so unstrung.  It was quite unusual for a general.  However, Grant wasn’t crying during the battle that day or the following morning when fighting resumed.  He could control his emotions.  He was also prone to bouts of drinking, these usually coincided with long absences from his wife or when there was no fighting going on and he was bored.  When Grant received Lee’s surrender in April 1865 he did so in a dirty tattered uniform and apologised to the latter.  However, he carried himself with dignity and was every bit the equal of the much more aristocratic Lee on that occasion.

Grant was hailed across the North as the winning general in the American Civil War and overall, his military reputation has held up reasonably well.  Achieving great national fame for his victories at Vicksburg and the surrender at Appomattox, he was widely credited as the General who ‘saved the Union’.  Criticized by the South for using excessive force, his overall military reputation stands intact.  Grant’s drinking was often exaggerated by the press and falsely stereotyped by many of his rivals and critics.  In the 1950s, some historians made a reassessment of Grant’s military career, shifting the analysis of Grant as the victor by brute force to that of successful, skillful, modern strategist and commander.  In the 21st century, Grant’s reputation improved markedly among historians after the publication of Grant (2001), by historian Jean Edward Smith.  Opinions of Grant’s presidency demonstrate a better appreciation of Grant’s personal integrity, Reconstruction efforts, and peace policy towards Indians, even when most fell short.  H.W. Brands’ ‘The Man Who Saved the Union’ (2012), Ronald C. White’s ‘American Ulysses’ (2016) and Ron Chernow’s Grant (2017) continued the elevation of Grant’s historical reputation.  White said Grant, ‘demonstrated a distinctive sense of humility, moral courage, and determination,’ and as president he ‘stood up for African Americans, especially fighting against voter suppression perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.’  Historians still debate how effective Grant was at halting corruption in US governance.


Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War









Nathan Bedford Forrest (Confederate)

Forrest is most infamous for being first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from 1867 to 1869.  However, prior to this he was an outstanding general in the Civil War, noted for harassing larger Union armies.  Before the war, Forrest amassed substantial wealth as a cotton plantation owner, horse and cattle trader, real estate broker, and slave trader.  In June 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and became one of the few soldiers during the war to enlist as a private and be promoted to general without any prior military training.  The only one of the 6 generals I cover not to attend West Point.  An expert cavalry leader, Forrest was given command of a corps and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname ‘The Wizard of the Saddle’.  His methods influenced future generations of military strategists, although the Confederate high command is seen by some historians to have underappreciated his talents.  He has remained a controversial figure in Southern racial history for his main role in the massacre of several hundred Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, a majority of them black, along with his role in the Klan.  Forrest was born near Chapel Hill hamlet, then part of Bedford County, Tennessee in 1821.  Through his aforementioned occupations, by the time the American Civil War started in 1861, he had become one of the richest men in the South, having amassed a ‘personal fortune that he claimed was worth $1.5 million’.  Nathan Bedford Forrest was a tall man for his time who stood six feet two inches (1.88 m) in height and weighed about 180 pounds (13 st; 82 kg).  He was noted as having a ‘striking and commanding presence’ by Union Captain Lewis Hosea, an aide to Gen. James H. Wilson.  Forrest rarely drank and didn’t smoke tobacco; he was often described as generally mild mannered, but according some contemporaries who knew him, his demeanour changed completely when he was provoked or angered.  He was a skilled swordsman who could ride for long periods in the saddle.  In 1845, Forrest married Mary Ann Montgomery (1826–1893), the niece of a Presbyterian minister who was her legal guardian.

Forrest’ first action was at the Battle of Sacramento in Kentucky, December 1861, where he routed a Union force by personally leading a cavalry charge that was later commended by his commander, Brigadier General Charles Clark.  He distinguished himself further at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862.  Forrest continued to lead his men in small-scale operations, including the Battle of Dover and the Battle of Brentwood until April 1863.  He served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 18–20, 1863, in which he pursued the retreating Union army and took hundreds of prisoners.  In December 1863, Forrest was promoted to the rank of major general.  Forrest’s most decisive victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,500 men commanded by Union Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in northeastern Mississippi.  Here, the mobility of the troops under his command, and his superior tactics, led to victory.  It allowed him to continue harassing Union forces in southwestern Tennessee and northern Mississippi for the rest of the war.

A southern writer remarked that Bedford Forrest was ‘born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.’  Forrest’ dictum ‘get there first and bring the most men’ could be translated as take the interior lines and bring the most force to bear.  He was a master of typography, he could look at an area of ground and see how to use it to his advantage, seeing the key to a position and knowing where to hit.  He was also expert at predicting what way an opposing commander would use the terrain.  He was really only surprised in battle once at Parker’s Crossroads, in Henderson County, Tennessee, on 31 December 1862.  He was closing in on an opponent when he was attacked at the rear by a force that he didn’t expect to be within range.  His men began to panic and asked Forrest what should they do.  He replied ‘split in two and charge both ways’, which they did, and got out of the trap!  He had 30 horses shot from under him during the war and killed 31 men in hand to hand combat and he said that he was a horse ahead at the end of the war.  In June 1863, Gould, a disgruntled young lieutenant on his staff, Forrest reprimanded for conduct in battle, tried to shoot him.  Gould shot Forrest in the hip and Forrest mortally stabbed Gould with a penknife after dragging him across his office desk.  Forrest was thought to have been fatally wounded by Gould, but he recovered and was ready to fight in the Chickamauga Campaign.  When Forrest physician told him Gould had died, he said ‘by God no man can kill me and live!’.  Bedford Forrest was noted for swinging a razor-sharp sabre above his head when charging in battle, his men had to be careful not to succumb to this extra hazard and kept at least 5ft from him, as well as his opponents!  He died 12 years after the war in 1877, probably of stomach cancer.  He tried railroad ventures and farming but died broke.

Nathan Bedford Forrest









George B. McClellan (Union)

A graduate of West Point, McClellan served with distinction during the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), and later left the Army to work on railroads until the outbreak of the Civil War.  Early in the conflict, McClellan was appointed to the rank of major general and played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army, which would become the Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theatre; he served a brief period (November 1861 to March 1862) as Commanding General of the United States Army of the Union Army.  McClellan organized and led the Union army in the Peninsula Campaign in south eastern Virginia from March through July 1862.  It was the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theatre.  Making an amphibious clockwise turning movement around the Confederate Army in northern Virginia, McClellan’s forces turned west to move up the Virginia Peninsula, between the James River and York River, landing from Chesapeake Bay, with the Confederate capital, Richmond, as their objective.  Initially, McClellan was somewhat successful against General Joseph E. Johnston, but the emergence of General Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia turned the subsequent Seven Days Battles into a partial Union defeat.  General McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln developed a mutual distrust, and McClellan was privately derisive of his Commander-in-Chief.  He privately referred to Lincoln, whom he had known before the war as a lawyer for the Illinois Central, as ‘nothing more than a well-meaning baboon’, a ‘gorilla’, and ‘ever unworthy of … his high position’.  It was no surprise when McClellan was removed from command in November 1862 in the aftermath of the midterm elections.  A major contributing factor in this decision was McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s Army following the tactically inconclusive but strategic Union victory at the Battle of Antietam outside Sharpsburg, Maryland.   McClellan never received another field command and went on to become the unsuccessful Democratic Party nominee in the 1864 presidential election against the Republican Lincoln.  He served as the 24th Governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881; he eventually became a writer, and vigorously defended his Civil War conduct.

Most historians have judged that McClellan was a poor battlefield general, while excellent at building and organising an army and preparing it for battle.  He was probably the most popular Union general with the troops themselves.  They loved him and were always willing to stop and cheer him at any point they could.  They very seldom cheered Grant, it wasn’t that they didn’t like him and admire him but McClellan aroused enthusiasm.  Whatever the army of the Potomac did in the years after McClellan wasn’t commanding was largely due to the training he did with its soldiers.  However, McClellan himself showed a great reluctance to use the great army he had created and pursue the war with vigour.  He was overly cautious, a fault of his at several times in the War.  He consistently overestimated the number of troops opposing him.  He had a huge ego, and in letters he wrote home to his wife, Mary Ellen Marcy, he makes clear how he feels he’s a second Napoleon.  He viewed himself as being short like Napoleon, though at 5ft 6 or 7in, his height was around average for the time.  After some minor early victories in 1861 and being appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac by Lincoln, he wrote his wife ‘I find myself in a new and strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me—by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. … I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!’  During the peninsula campaign as McClellan worked his way up the York-James peninsula, he came to a stream and he and his staff were looking at it, wondering how deep it was, if they had to march across it.  Custer (later of Custer’s last stand fame at Little Big Horn) who was a captain on his staff who had just graduated from West Point, rode his horse out into midstream turned around and said this is how deep it is general.

George B. McClellan










I have focussed on mostly the main generals, 3 confederate and 3 union, and who I consider to be 6 of the most interesting generals of the Civil War.  I’ve concerned myself with their background, character, performance in battle and added any anecdotes that came to mind.  On the Confederate side other generals of note were J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, George Pickett, ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson, A.P. Hill, John Bell Hood and Joseph Johnston.  Representing the Union, we had Robert Anderson, Nathaniel Banks, Winfield Scott Hancock, Ambrose Burnside, Arthur McArthur, Daniel Sickles, John Pope, Joseph Hooke and Joshua Chamberlain among others.  Leadership is just one facet, of perhaps, the first modern war.

Recommended Further ebook Reading on Borrowbox:

Noah Andre Trudeau: ‘Lincoln’s Greatest Journeys’

Simon Schama: ‘The American Future: A History’

Adrian Wooldridge and Alan Greenspan ‘Capitalism in America’

Howard Zinn: ‘A Young People’s History of the United States’


Note also that our new Emagazine app ‘Libby’ hosts several titles that will be of interest to History students, including HistoryNet’s ‘American History’ magazine.


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