The Most Effective Political General

By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved

The debate has raged for decades. Was it George H. Thomas, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson? Each of us has his or her favorite. There are good arguments for those mentioned above and maybe a few others. In the end, perhaps there is no one right answer to the question who was the best general of the war. But ask who was the most effective general of the war and different names arise, names that would never be mentioned in response to the earlier question, names, mostly, of political generals. Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, John McClernand, while clearly not the best, were all effective generals. While the current notion is that all political generals were incompetent fools, while military generals won the war, that is not entirely true. Political generals acted in ways the military generals did not, often attaining goals military generals were simply incapable of. When examined in this manner, the most effective general was none other than John A. “Black Jack” Logan.

When determining who was the most effective general, one must look beyond battles or campaigns won or lost. Butler, victorious early in the war, eventually proved to be incompetent as a commanding general. Banks was ineffective the entire war. McClernand and Logan never commanded more than a corps. We must, though, look beyond purely military endeavors to answer this question. After all, this was a civil war, the army was woefully unprepared, as was the country and the government, Northerners were sympathetic to the South, Southerners were sympathetic to the North. The nation was rent at the seams and no one knew what would become of it. The nation needed generals and leaders.

Prior to the Civil War, the United States had a long tradition of amateur military commanders dating back to the colonial militia. George Washington had very little military experience when he was made head of the Continental Army. Before the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s experience was limited to Indian wars. Given this background, it is little wonder that Lincoln relied so heavily on political generals. Some failed, some succeeded. Their success, though, must be measured on a different scale.

Benjamin Butler

Benjamin Butler was one of the first political generals. An early hero of the war and a Democrat, he donated his popularity to the Union cause with every newspaper account containing his name and every speech proclaiming his political support for the administration’s policies. He organized troops throughout New England and arranged a loan to pay to deploy the Massachusetts militia. In the fall of 1861, he recruited six (6) new infantry regiments and an artillery battery, troops that were used in 1862 to capture New Orleans and much of Louisiana. Butler’s early stand against returning runaway slaves, which he first labeled “contrabands of war,” removed a source of labor from the Confederacy and perhaps moved Lincoln towards the Emancipation Proclamation. When calm was needed in the streets of New York following the draft riots, Lincoln turned to Butler.

Nathaniel Banks

As a military commander, Nathaniel Banks was a failure. However, he was not made a general to produce decisive battlefield victories. Like Butler, he used his prominence to garner support for the war effort and Lincoln’s policies. As a moderate Republican, he rallied support from moderates, ex-Democrats, and Know-Nothings. He stumped for Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. Perhaps Banks’s greatest contribution came as commander of the Department of the Gulf. As military commander, he seized Baton Rouge, helped Grant clear the Mississippi by besieging Port Hudson, and established a Union presence in Texas. Employing his political experience as military governor of Louisiana, he almost single handedly reconstructed the state. He established a new labor system to replace slavery in cotton production, cut down on illegal trade with the Confederacy, re-created a political structure for the city of New Orleans, and began the rewriting of Louisiana’s constitution. Lincoln had sufficient faith in Banks’s political skills that the department became the testing ground for the administration’s policies on reconstruction. It is difficult to imagine Grant, Sherman, Lee, or even Thomas having the political skills necessary to accomplish these tasks.

John McClernand

John McClernand was another of Lincoln’s politically appointed generals. His military experience consisted of being a private during the Black Hawk War (Lincoln was a captain). But it was not his military experience that was needed. A Democrat from southern Illinois, Lincoln needed friends in a region of questionable loyalty to the Union. McClernand began his military career by raising a brigade from southern Illinois and rallying support for the Union cause. He succeeded beyond expectations. In the fall of 1862, McClernand was charged with the task of raising troops from Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa for a campaign to open the Mississippi. In just two (2) months, he recruited forty thousand (40,000) new troops, almost an entire army. No military general could say the same. These troops were vital in the capture of Vicksburg. Additionally, many of these were Democrats who opposed Lincoln’s election and would likely not have enlisted but for McClernand’s influence. As a military leader, McClernand was adequate. However, he was unable to get along with Grant, his commanding officer. He incurred Grant’s ire by constantly inflating his role while criticizing others. Eventually, he was relieved of command.

John A. “Black Jack” Logan

The most effective general of the war was John A. “Black Jack” Logan. A southern Illinois Democrat, like McClernand, he was an able political and military general. He had almost no military experience. He served in the Mexican War, but saw no combat. When the Civil War broke out, Logan at first did not reveal his allegiance. After serving as an unattached volunteer with the 2nd Michigan at First Bull Run, he made his decision. Resigning from Congress, Logan returned to home, announced his support for the Union, and raised the 31st Illinois in the heart of divided southern Illinois. Lincoln gave him a commission for one reason – he was seen as a political leader who could rally Democrats to the cause. And rally them he did. With McClernand, Logan stumped all over Illinois and the old Northwest. His speeches were so effective that Lincoln often asked that Logan be granted leave to return to Illinois and rally its citizens to the Union cause. His efforts, along with those of Banks and others, during the election of 1864 should not be underestimated. Without them, Lincoln’s re-election may not have occurred.

In addition to his political efforts, Logan contributed militarily. He developed into one of the finest combat leaders of the war, became an effective field officer, and rose to become one of Sherman’s most experienced corps commanders. He had inherent leadership skills and natural bravery. In some ways, his tactical record was unsurpassed, even among West Pointers, as he never tasted defeat or was tainted with charges of incompetence. In his first action at Belmont, Logan led the 31st Illinois into the enemy camp and kept it together while other units collapsed after the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. He was wounded at Fort Donelson while halting a Confederate attack, for which he was promoted to brigadier general. He commanded a brigade and then a division under Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign. Eventually, he commanded a corps under Sherman during the Atlanta Campaign. Taking over upon the death of James McPherson, Logan shattered Hood’s attack and drove the Confederates back with great loss. Sherman credited him with winning the day. Indeed, Logan was repeatedly credited by Grant and Sherman for his military capabilities.

Perhaps one reason Logan performed well as a tactical commander was that he had the opportunity to learn. Unlike Banks and Butler, he was not made a commanding general immediately. Serving as regimental, brigade, division, and, finally, corps commander, he was given the chance to learn to handle smaller units, see the battle from the front, and observe professionals such as Grant and Sherman perform. As an amateur soldier, though, Logan was never given the opportunity to command an army, save for a brief period during the Battle of Atlanta, when he temporarily took over for McPherson before being replaced by Oliver O. Howard. Whether it was his standing as a non-West Pointer or Grant’s and Sherman’s distaste after dealing with McClernand, Logan ended the war as perhaps Sherman’s best corps commander.

Returning to our topic, the same names are tossed about when debating the best general of the war. Those names are typically West Pointers. History has left us with the notion that the professional generals were the only effective military leaders. This is not the case. Clearly, John A. Logan was an effective military leader, amateur though he was. Several other names can be added to the list, such as Jacob Cox, Lew Wallace, Alpheus Williams, while a number of West Pointers proved incompetent, namely, Ambrose Burnside and Braxton Bragg. Political generals brought other skills to the table, skills not in the repertoire of the professional soldier. They were extremely effective in recruiting troops and rallying support to the cause. They saw the war in terms of a political struggle, while military generals saw it as a military contest only. There is little doubt that a politician was much more adept at handling the reconstruction of Louisiana than a West Pointer would have been. These men kept the Union together and raised the troops that the military generals led to victory. Since we tend to view the “best” general as the one with the greatest influence on the battlefield, let us bypass that question and ask who was the most effective general. Because of his contributions in the political arena as well as the battlefield, that can be none other than John A. “Black Jack” Logan.