The Great Debate of 2023

Who was the best political general of the Civil War?

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

According to available information, fewer than half of all the generals in the Union army during the Civil War were graduates of West Point. Because of a shortage of men to serve as generals, a number of men who lacked military training were given the rank of general. These generals are referred to as political generals, because they often received their rank due to political connections. Quite a few of these political generals, not surprisingly, proved to be inadequate – or worse. However, some of the political generals were effective and did well for the army in which they served.

The 2023 Dick Crews Memorial Debate posed the question: “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” Four debaters presented arguments in favor of a political general whom each debater considered the best. The four political generals for whom arguments were presented are Edward Ferrero, John A. Logan, John C. Breckinridge, and Benjamin F. Butler. Below are the texts of those four arguments, along with moderator William Vodrey’s opening remarks.

Debaters Bob Pence, Charles Patton, Paul Burkholder, and Kent Fonner and debate moderator William Vodrey (left to right)

Opening Remarks

By William F.B. Vodrey – debate moderator

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.

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Edward Ferrero, the best political general of the Civil War

By Charles Patton

I was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the Lincoln Forum, and we went over to tour the cemetery and the battlefield. I saw some USCT reenactors in uniform with a regimental flag showing their colors with the name of the commanding officer, General Edward Ferrero, proudly displayed. I had a conversation with one of the reenactors, who gave me a brief history of what action the 51st New York saw during the Civil War. When I saw the topic for this evening’s discussion, I recalled my visit to Gettysburg and the conversation with some of the reenactors.

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John A. Logan, the best political general of the Civil War

By Bob Pence

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.

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John C. Breckinridge, the best political general of the Civil War

By Kent Fonner

John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) in 15 years (1850-1865) served as a Kentucky legislator, congressmen, U.S. senator, vice president of the United States under President James Buchanan, presidential candidate in 1860, brigadier general and then major general CSA, and secretary of war CSA, all before he was 45 years old. Well educated with a degree from Center College, a semester of graduate work at Princeton, law study under Governor Owsley of Kentucky, and an LL.D. from Transylvania University, he had no formal military education. But as a major in the 3rd KY Volunteers in 1847 in Mexico, he did have some military experience before the Civil War.

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Benjamin Butler, the best political general of the Civil War

By Paul Burkholder

Who was the greatest political general of the Civil War? If measured by their contribution to ultimate victory, there’s just one, indisputable answer to that question: Benjamin Butler.

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Epilogue: At the conclusion of the debate, the Roundtable members chose Bob Pence’s argument as the most persuasive that John A. Logan was the best political general of the Civil War.