Who was the best political general of the Civil War?
By William F.B. Vodrey – debate moderator
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 the opening remarks made by the moderator of the debate.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome!
We’re here tonight for the annual Dick Crews Memorial Cleveland Civil War Roundtable Debate, named after my longtime predecessor as moderator. Dick once told me that the debate got its start as a Roundtable tradition because of the difficulty of finding speakers who were willing to travel to Cleveland in January. In moderating again tonight, I stand on the shoulders of giants, including Dick.
Dick was one of the first people to welcome me to the Roundtable, and I always enjoyed his company. We sometimes disagreed on points of history, but almost always agreed on politics. Not long after I joined the Roundtable, he recruited me for a debate on the most important battle of the Civil War, and I’m still grateful. I chose the 1862 Battle of New Orleans, which I think surprised him. I will certainly miss him. May he rest in peace. (Editor’s note: Dick Crews passed away a couple of weeks before the 2023 rendition of the debate that bears his name. At the meeting at which the 2023 Dick Crews Memorial Debate was held, debate moderator William Vodrey read a memorial resolution honoring Dick. The memorial resolution was adopted unanimously by the members in attendance at the meeting.)
Our topic this year is, “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” It was selected by our president, Lily Korte, a privilege of office as is customary for the Roundtable’s leader in any given year.
“Political generals” are usually considered to be those who did not attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and owed their star, or stars, to political influence rather than military skill. With the massive expansion of the prewar army, many more generals needed to be found to command the legions in blue who took to the field. A similar process played out in the Confederacy. As Clausewitz is often misquoted, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” and even in wartime, politics continue. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis needed to maintain political support for the war effort, and giving generalships to at least barely qualified men of political influence was one way of doing so. Some of the political generals did well; many others did not. Tonight you’re going to hear about four, personally selected by those who will advocate for them.
You will notice that all of our debaters tonight are men. I’m grateful that they agreed to debate and I’m sure they’ll do a fine job, but I think it’s unfortunate that no women members of the Roundtable volunteered to debate, and no one whom I asked agreed to do so. I will say again, as I’ve said in years past, that all are welcome – and encouraged – to participate as debaters, regardless of gender, age, historical expertise, or length of Roundtable membership. We don’t expect anyone to be an absolute expert on the Civil War, and diversity among our debaters is certainly something I always strive for.
These are our debaters tonight, along with the officers each chose. By random draw just a few minutes ago, they will speak in this order:
Charles Patton: Edward Ferrero
Bob Pence: John A. Logan
Kent Fonner: John C. Breckinridge
Paul Burkholder: Benjamin Butler
The nominees will appear on your ballots in alphabetical order by the general’s last name.
Each debater will have five minutes to make a pitch for his particular general. I strongly encouraged each debater to time himself while practicing at home. In past years, some debaters have been surprised and even irritated by how quickly their time passes. I hate to cut anyone off, but I will when I must, to be fair to the other debaters. After each person’s presentation, there will be five minutes for questions from the audience. Then, when each debater has had his turn, there will be a general discussion and rebuttal opportunity for all four.
The debate winner, chosen by vote of the membership, will, as always, receive fabulous prizes.
And now, let us begin!