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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 WarEdit

Most of the top generals on the Union and Confederate sides came from West Point and, besides military training, many of them had battlefield experience gained during the Mexican–American War or American Indian wars such as the Third Seminole 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 military leaders and were respected by their subordinates and superiors alike, while others turned out to be "disastrously incompetent."[1]

Appeasement of political groupsEdit

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 Corcoran died and Meagher's resignation was revoked to keep at least one Irishman in command.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 statesEdit

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 KoreaEdit

United StatesEdit

List of prominent political generalsEdit

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.

War of 1812Edit

Mexican–American WarEdit

  • James Pinckney Henderson was the incumbent governor of Texas who was granted permission from the state legislature to personally lead Texas troops in the field with the rank of major general. Henderson led the so-called "Texas Division" at the Battle of Monterrey.
  • Joseph Lane, an Indiana Democrat, gained a reputation as "Rough and Ready No. 2", reminiscent of Zachary Taylor's nickname.
  • Franklin Pierce was a politician from New Hampshire who had some notable military skills. He sustained a wound at the Battle of Churubusco and, due to the loss of blood, fainted on the field. This incident was described by his political rivals as cowardice, but was not enough to keep him from attaining the Presidency.
  • John A. Quitman was a judge and former governor of Mississippi who served as a brigade commander under Zachary Taylor and as a division commander under Winfield Scott. Later in the war, he also served as the military governor of Mexico City.

American Civil WarEdit

  • Nathaniel Prentice Banks, former Governor of Massachusetts, held numerous commands during the war. He commanded the original V Corps (later XII Corps) at First Winchester, and also fought without distinction at Cedar Mountain and Second Bull Run as part of the Army of Virginia. He was transferred to the Department of the Gulf, and took part in the capture of Port Hudson, as well as the Red River Campaign. After that disastrous campaign, he was relieved of command.
  • Francis P. Blair, Jr., Congressman from Missouri who aided Union efforts early in the war to save his state for the Union. He became a major general in the Union Army and eventually rose to become a corps commander. He enjoyed the confidence of Sherman, who was generally skeptical of political generals. While most politicians either resigned their seat in Congress or resigned their military commission, Blair retained his seat in Congress while still serving in the field. His brother was Montgomery Blair, who was Postmaster General in Lincoln's Cabinet.
  • Benjamin Franklin Butler, State Senator from Massachusetts and Brigadier General in the Massachusetts militia. He lost the war's first land battle at Big Bethel on July 1, 1861, and was later put in charge of the Department of the Gulf, governing the captured New Orleans with strict discipline (and earning the derogatory nickname "Spoons" for his alleged habit of pilfering from Confederate homes). He led the Army of the James during the failed Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and at Fort Fisher. After the latter, he was relieved of his command. He was later elected Governor of Massachusetts.
  • James A. Garfield, an Ohio State Senator, rose to the rank of major general of volunteers. He served as a brigade commander in the Western Theater and was also chief of staff to William Rosecrans, before being elected to congress in the middle of the war, eventually becoming President of the United States in 1881.
  • Joseph Holt, former Postmaster General under James Buchanan. He was appointed as Judge Advocate General of the Army by Lincoln, and later served as chief prosecutor during his assassination trial.
  • John A. Logan, Congressman from Illinois, served as a brigade and division commander in the Western Theater under Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Upon the death of James B. McPherson at Atlanta, Logan briefly rose to command of the famed Army of the Tennessee. Although Logan was generally a successful leader, Sherman elected not to keep a non-West Pointer in command of the army and replaced him with Oliver O. Howard, instead placing Logan in command of a corps. After the war, Logan returned to politics as a Republican.
  • John Alexander McClernand, Congressman from Illinois, served in the Western Theater, taking part in the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, and led the Army of the Mississippi against Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post) in 1863 (as part of the Vicksburg Campaign), as well as leading XIII Corps during the Siege of Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign. He was poorly regarded by his peers and frequently quarreled with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.
  • John McAuley Palmer, Illinois state legislator, Republican party organizer, and Congressional candidate (he was defeated by McClernand), served in the Western Theater in command of a Division in the XIV Corps and later the XIV Corps itself. In these capacities, he fought in the battles of Stones River, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Late in the war, he had a controversial stint as military governor of Kentucky. In postbellum life, he served as Illinois governor and Senator.
  • Alexander Schimmelfennig, a Prussian veteran who helped co-ordinate the unsuccessful defence of the Rhineland during the Revolution of 1848. Wounded twice at the Battle of Rinnthal, he escaped to Switzerland before the Prussian authorities could capture him but was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. He fled to Paris, London, and finally to the United States, joining many other German "Forty-Eighters" who were later to fight with the Union such as Louis Blenker, Adolph von Steinwehr, and Carl Schurz. When, in 1862, Lincoln proposed to appoint Schimmelfennig to the command of a brigade, Secretary of War Stanton protested that there were better qualified officers available. 'His name,' Lincoln replied, '"will make up for any difference there may be", and he walked away repeating Schimmelfennig's name with a chuckle.'[10] Schimmelfennig's brigade suffered high losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, where hundreds of men were taken prisoner by the Confederates after becoming confused in the narrow streets of the town: Schimmelfennig himself was forced to hide in a culvert and in a shed to avoid capture. He rejoined his troops several days after the battle, to the surprise of many who assumed he had been killed. He subsequently contracted both malaria and tuberculosis during Sherman's March to the Sea, the latter of which led to his death shortly after the end of the war.
  • Daniel Sickles, the infamous New York Congressman who had been tried (and acquitted) for the murder of Philip Barton Key II, served as a brigade and division commander for the first two years of the war. He assumed command of the III Corps, Army of the Potomac in early 1863, leading it at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At the latter, his unauthorized maneuver of his corps into the Peach Orchard nearly caused the destruction of the Union Army. Sickles lost his leg at this battle and, although he was never officially censured for his action, never again held a field command. After the war, he served as a diplomat and played a key role in establishing national battlefield parks, including at Gettysburg.
  • Franz Sigel, a German émigré who led, at various times, a division in the Department of Missouri, XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and the Department of West Virginia. Though a military academy graduate and former officer in both Baden's army and, later, its revolutionary forces, significant military success evaded him in Europe. As a revolutionary colonel, he had seen his command annihilated by the Prussians at Freiburg in 1848. In 1849, he was briefly Secretary of War and commander-in-chief of the doomed revolutionary republican government of Baden, but then needed to resign the post after being wounded in a skirmish. As an American general, Sigel was almost universally regarded as an incompetent, and was alleged to have fled from the Battle of New Market, where he was overall commander.[citation needed] He was, however, extremely popular with his German recruits, who shouted the slogan, "I fights mit Sigel!" He provided important recruiting services for the Union.
  • Lew Wallace, formerly of the Indiana State Legislature, fought most famously at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and the Monocacy, the "Battle That Saved Washington", in July 1864. After the war Wallace became Governor of New Mexico Territory, wrote the novel Ben-Hur, and served as a U.S. diplomat. His previous military experience had been serving as a volunteer lieutenant during the Mexican–American War.

Spanish–American WarEdit

  • Matthew Butler, a former Confederate major general and postwar senator from South Carolina, was appointed major general of volunteers at the beginning of the military expedition to Cuba. After the American victory, he supervised the evacuation of Spanish troops.
  • Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of Robert E. Lee), a former Confederate major general and postwar governor of Virginia. He commanded an army corps in the war and served as the military governor of Havana with the rank of major general of volunteers.
  • Joseph Wheeler, a former Confederate major general and postwar congressman from Alabama, who is considered to have been one of the finest cavalry officers of the Civil War. The U.S. government was wary about placing staging points for the Cuba expedition in Southern states, which were still deeply mistrustful of the federal government after suffering the trauma of losing the Civil War and then going through the Reconstruction that followed. It was decided to allow Wheeler to rejoin the US Army—from which he had resigned as a second lieutenant in 1861—at the rank of major general of volunteers. This proved to be an effective public-relations measure, helping to unite the still deeply scarred region with the rest of the country against a common enemy. Wheeler was given command of the cavalry division for the invasion of Cuba, during which he was also nominally second in command of V Corps. An oft-told anecdote has the elderly Wheeler, in the excitement of leading men into battle again, allegedly shouting to his men, "Let's go, boys! We've got the damn Yankees on the run again!"[12] Despite that apparent hiccup of memory, Wheeler proved to still be a highly capable commander throughout the successful campaign, and was a senior member of the peace commission at its end.


  1. ^ James M. McPherson. Generals in Politics, The New York Times Review of Books, March 28, 1991.
  2. ^ a b Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7. pp. xv–xvi
  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. ^ a b 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 readingEdit