The Best Political General of the Civil War: John A. Logan – Through the Merits of his Performance

Who was the best political general of the Civil War?
John Alexander Logan

By Bob Pence
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate at the February 2023 Roundtable meeting was: “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations.

What is a political general?

A political general is a general officer or other military leader without significant military experience who is given a high position in command for political reasons, through political connections, or to appease certain political blocs and factions.

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Lincoln used such appointments as a way to get the support of moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration (“War Democrats”). The first three volunteer generals whom Lincoln appointed, John Adams Dix, Nathaniel Prentice Banks, and Benjamin F. Butler, were all Democrats.

Other promotions were used to gain the support of the specific group they represented, especially in the case of foreign immigrants such as Franz Sigel for the Germans and Thomas F. Meagher for the Irish. Daniel Sickles also recruited large numbers of troops from New York.

The Confederacy also appointed numerous political generals, for largely the same reasons. They also used many such appointments to influence the Confederate sympathizers in the border states, which had not seceded from the Union. Former Vice President John C. Breckenridge was appointed as a general in the hopes that he would inspire the citizens of Kentucky to join the Confederate army.

Another reason for the appointment of political generals during the American Civil War was the great expansion of the number of men in each army and the large number of volunteer soldiers. Men who were prominent civilian leaders, such as businessmen, lawyers, and politicians, were chosen to continue their leadership in command of a volunteer regiment.

John A. Logan

John Alexander Logan was one of those leaders that would command a volunteer regiment, the 31st Illinois Infantry. He was a U.S. Congressman from southern Illinois, the region also known as Little Egypt. Although part of a Midwestern state, this region is aligned in culture more with that of the Upland South than the Midwest. At the beginning of the Civil War, this region was pro-slavery, and many residents wanted to secede from the Union.

Bob Pence

In an 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate in northern Illinois, Douglas had threatened Lincoln by asserting that he would “trot him down to Egypt” and there challenge him to repeat his anti-slavery views before a hostile crowd.

Logan was a Douglas Democrat at the beginning of the war who supported popular sovereignty. Even though he was pro-slavery, he could not support secession and strongly advocated Union, and he wanted both sides to seek some kind of compromise. His desire for compromise brought accusations of treason from Union supporters.

In July 1861, as a sitting congressman, Logan traveled down to Centerville to witness the First Battle of Bull Run. In his civilian suit and silk top hat, he ended up joining the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a private, picking up a rifle from a wounded soldier.

A depiction of Logan joining into the First Battle of Bull Run

After this experience, he requested that President Lincoln allow him to raise a regiment from his home state. He traveled back to Illinois, and in an August 1861 speech in Marion, Illinois, a town with divided loyalty in the heart of Little Egypt, Logan announced that he had joined the Union army and invited his fellow Egyptians to join him in saving the Union. He climbed on a wagon in the town square and expressed his support for Lincoln with inspiring rhetoric, an action that revealed his value to the administration.

“The time has come when a man must be for or against his country. I, for one, shall stand or fall with the Union and shall this day enroll for war. I want as many of you as will come with me.”

Several immediately stepped forward, and Logan repeated his announcements until he had gathered enough men to muster into service the 31st Illinois. His political appeal was reflected by the fact that eight of the ten companies of the regiment were recruited in his congressional seat, and, by some accounts, all but twelve men of his regiment were Democrats.

Ulysses Grant credited him with saving southern Illinois for the Union. In Grant’s memoirs he states:

“Logan went to his part of the State and gave his attention to raising troops. The very men who at first made it necessary to guard the roads in southern Illinois became the defenders of the Union. Logan entered the service himself as colonel of a regiment and rapidly rose to the rank of major-general. His district, which had promised at first to give much trouble to the government, filled every call made upon it for troops, without resorting to the draft. There was no call made when there were not more volunteers than were asked for. That congressional district stands credited at the War-Department today with furnishing more men for the army than it was called on to supply.”

Logan’s military ascent.

The best general can be evaluated by his actions in the field and how he led his troops. I will provide some brief examples of General Logan’s success in the field.

Grant’s memoirs state that Logan rapidly rose from colonel to major general. Unlike many political generals who were appointed directly to the position of general, Logan moved up the ranks through the merits of his performance.

As mentioned, he raised the 31st Illinois Infantry, which he was to command as their colonel (serving in the brigade of General John A. McClernand). After just two months of training, the 31st’s first battle was at Belmont, Missouri in November 1861, where Logan had his horse shot out from underneath him. Grant complimented both the regiment and its commander for their performance. In February 1862 Logan and his regiment distinguished themselves again at the Battle of Ft. Donelson, Tennessee. Logan was wounded three times in this battle leading his troops and spent three weeks in a field hospital before returning home to recuperate. General Grant recommended him for promotion to brigadier general for his actions during this campaign.

Logan returned to his unit after recuperating from his wounds too late to participate in the Battle of Shiloh. However, during the siege of Corinth, Mississippi in April and May 1862, he was placed in command of the First Brigade, First Division of the Reserves of the Army of the Tennessee under John A. McClernand. Logan remained a division commander in 1862 and early 1863 during Grant’s campaigns prior to Vicksburg.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, which Logan accepted as necessary. His attitudes toward slavery and African Americans had changed. He urged Union soldiers to accept the recruitment of African American volunteers.

In Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, Logan commanded the 3rd Division of James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps, which was created in December 1862 as part of the Army of the Tennessee. At Champion Hill, on May 16, 1863, Logan’s division played a pivotal role in a successful flank attack on Confederate troops under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. Logan’s skills as a commander during the Battle of Champion Hill resulted in his promotion to major general, with rank from November 29, 1862, again at Grant’s request.

Logan at Vicksburg

Logan continued to lead the division through the siege of Vicksburg, and his division was the first to enter the city of Vicksburg in July 1863 after its capture. Logan then served as the city’s military governor. With General William T. Sherman’s promotion to command the Army of the Tennessee in October 1863, Logan was given the command of its XVth Corps.

In March 1864, Sherman took over as the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and McPherson took over as the commander of the Army of the Tennessee. On July 22, 1864, John Bell Hood launched a strong assault against McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee in the Battle of Atlanta, and McPherson was killed in the early stages of the battle. Logan, his senior corps commander, now commanding the XVth Corps, took temporary command of the Army of the Tennessee.

The July 22 battle, writes one historian, was “the climax of the Army of the Tennessee’s wartime career,” as 27,000 men “defeated the attacks of nearly 40,000 Confederates who had the advantages of surprise and position.” The XVth Corps launched a successful five-brigade counterattack, led by Logan himself, driving out the Confederates and pushing the XVth Corps to its original line.

A map showing the Confederate attack on Logan’s position during the Battle of Atlanta

Logan was the only political general to command an army in the field. Even though Logan turned a Union rout into victory, Sherman replaced him with General O. O. Howard, who was a West Pointer.

After Lincoln’s reelection, Logan, who was in Illinois campaigning for the president, returned to command the XVth Corps in the Carolina Campaign. At war’s end he was in Raleigh, North Carolina. Logan became the last commander of the Army of the Tennessee. On May 24, 1865 he rode at its head in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., which celebrated the Union’s victory.

Based on Logan’s performance and record in the field, he is considered to be the best political general of the Civil War by many historians as well as by his superiors during the war.


In 1866 John A. Logan returned to Congress, but as a Republican. This was a very different Logan. It was a Logan who voted for constitutional amendments to abolish slavery and to grant citizenship and voting rights to African Americans.

Logan served a second term in the U.S. House before moving on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate. Throughout this time Logan continued to fight for civil rights for America’s former slaves and supported women’s suffrage.

Logan was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1884 and was looking forward to being that party’s presidential candidate in 1888. Logan died in 1886 and did not get a chance to attain his final goal. Among those who mourned Logan’s death was Frederick Douglass, the leading African American leader at the time. Douglass called him “a brave man [who] spread around the Negro the network of the law.”

Memorial Day

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), issued General Order No. 11 designating May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Logan’s General Order, his Memorial Day Order, established Memorial Day as a national holiday.

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