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.

In the United States, this concept was most prominent during the American Civil War.


American Civil War

Most of the top generals on the Union and Confederate sides came from West Point and, besides military training, many of them had a battlefield experience gained during the Mexican–American War. Due to necessity of raising large-scale citizen armies, both presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, for various reasons appointed a number of the so-called political generals. Some of them, as John A. Logan on the Union side, or Richard Taylor on the Confederate, developed into competent and respected by their troops commanders, some others turned out to be "disastrously incompetent."[1]

Appeasement of political groups

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. U.S. President Abraham 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 Lincoln appointed, (John Adams Dix, Nathaniel Prentice Banks and Benjamin F. Butler) were all Democrats, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were also appointed including Richard James Oglesby of Illinois.


Other promotions were used to gain the support of the specific group they represented, especially in cases of foreign immigrants. One of the largest ethnic groups in the U.S. at the time was German immigrants. Prominent German civilian leaders such as Franz Sigel and Carl Schurz, both of whose last military experience prior to the Civil War was fighting on the losing side of the 1848 upheavals in Germany, were appointed to high rank for their usefulness in rallying fellow immigrants to the cause. Two prominent Irish immigrants were given promotions: Thomas F. Meagher and Michael Corcoran, who prior to the war had been a captain and a colonel, respectively, in the New York State Militia. Meagher attempted to resign in December 1863. Corcoran died and Meagher's resignation was revoked to keep at least one Irishman in command.

Other officers were highly successful in their attempts to rally large numbers of troops, whether they were native born or foreign born, as was the case with Daniel Sickles, who raised large numbers of New York troops.

Border states

The Confederacy also used a large number of political generals, for largely the same reasons, although many such appointments were used to influence the Confederate sympathizers in the border states.

Former Vice President John C. Breckinridge was used largely because of hopes that he would inspire the citizens of Kentucky to join the Confederate Army. Former Governor Sterling Price served a similar function with regards to Missouri.


Another reason for the rise of political generals during the American Civil War was the large number of volunteer soldiers in each army. Men who were prominent civilian leaders such as businessmen, lawyers and politicians became easy choices to place in command of a volunteer regiment.


Ezra J. Warner noted that during the American Civil War, a large number of political generals, including Sigel and Banks for the Union and Breckinridge for the Confederacy, were undoubtedly popular with their men, largely because of their ties to the specific groups they represented.[2] However, the vast majority were considered incompetent due to their being essentially amateur soldiers with no prior training or knowledge. This was a particularly large problem for the Union, where such generals were typically given fairly important commands.[2]

Brooks D. Simpson claimed that misdeeds of three particular political general on the Union side, Butler, Banks, and Sigel, "contributed to a military situation in the summer of 1864 where the Northern public, anticipating decisive victory with Grant in command, began to wonder whether it was worth it to continue the struggle—something on voters' minds as they pondered whether to give Honest Abe another four years in office. Perhaps Lincoln would have been wiser to dismiss these three men and risk whatever short-term damage his actions might have caused."[3]

Addressing the phenomenon of the Union political generals, Thomas Joseph Goss wrote that, "Though much contemporary and historical attention has been placed upon these amateur commanders in the field and highlights their numerous tactical shortcomings, their assignment patterns demonstrate that political factors outweighed any military criteria in the administration's judgment of their success. For the Lincoln administration, the risk of these tactical setbacks were exceeded by the political support amassed every day these popular figures were in uniform, revealing how political generals and their West Point peers were judged using different standards based on distinct calculations of political gain and military effectiveness." [4]

David Work made a cross-section selection of Union political generals appointed by Lincoln, eight Republicans and eight Democrats, including Francis Preston Blair, Jr., John Adams Dix, John A. Logan, and James S. Wadsworth, among others, and scrutinized their performances during the war. He came to a conclusion that Lincoln's appointments were mostly successful as they cemented the Union and did not result in critical or unrecoverable battlefield failures. In addition, all Lincoln's appointees, even including such controversial figures as Nathaniel P. Banks, Franz Sigel, and Benjamin F. Butler, demonstrated good results as logistical, recruitment and political managers in the war tumultuous times.[5]

Benton R. Patterson emphasized that Union political generals who understood their shortcomings regarding military education and experience, i.e., former congressman John A. Logan, who rose through the war from a regiment commander to the commanding general of the Army of the Tennessee, did rather well; some, who thought that common sense, practicality and life experience are enough to wage a war, i.e., Major General Nathaniel Banks, wrought havoc on the battlefield causing unnecessary loss of lives. Patterson cited Major General Henry Halleck, a West-Pointer, who wrote in April 1864 to General William Tecumseh Sherman commenting on Banks exploits in Louisiana, "It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such a man as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it."[6] To all political generals Patterson attributed a tendency of insubordination, as they frequently used their political connections to overwrite particular orders from their superiors. In addition, several generals, including Logan and Blair, left their commands to take part in the 1864 presidential campaign on behalf of Lincoln to the displeasure of professional soldiers.[6]

Lincoln as commander-in-chief experienced problems not only with political generals, but with professional West-Pointers as well, as they all were unable to realize on the battlefield the decisive Union's advantage regarding manpower and military resources until Ulysses S. Grant became the general-in-chief in March 1864. Despite all of that, Lincoln, who possessed a limited military background as a captain of a militia during the Black Hawk War,[7] did not succumb to a temptation to become involved in a war on a tactical level, instead, as James M. McPherson put it, he chose to persist "through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments".[8] On the other side, President Jefferson Davis, who was a West Point graduate, served competently as a regimental commander during the Mexican War, and was an able United States Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce in 1853-1857, intervened frequently into the conduct of war below strategic level and made appointments based on political necessity and personal attachments; these war-making approaches did not serve him well.[9]

North Korea

United States

List of prominent political generals

The following is a partial list of some of the more prominent political generals on both sides, and a brief sketch of their war service.

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

War of 1812

Mexican–American War

American Civil War


Spanish–American War


  1. James M. McPherson. Generals in Politics, The New York Times Review of Books, March 28, 1991.
  2. 1 2 Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7. pp. xvxvi
  3. Simpson, Brooks D. Lincoln and his political generals. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 21, Issue 1, Winter 2000, pp. 63-77. ISSN 0898-4212
  4. Goss, Thomas J. The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
  5. Work, David. Lincoln's Political Generals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. ISBN 9780252078613
  6. 1 2 Patterson, Benton R. Lincoln's Political Generals: The Battlefield Performance of Seven Controversial Appointees. Jefferson, North Carolina, Mcfarland Publishers, 2014.
  7. Lincoln as Commander in Chief: A self-taught strategist with no combat experience, Abraham Lincoln saw the path to victory more clearly than his generals, The Smithsonian, January 2009.
  8. McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander in Chief. New York: Penguin Press, 2008, p. 8.
  9. Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.
  10. McPherson, James M., Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-19-507606-0. p. 71
  11. Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. p. 440
  12. Post War Lives: Joseph Wheeler (1836-1906), The Civil War Trust

Further reading

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/4/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.