Top 10 Worst American Civil War Generals

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In determining the worse Generals of the American Civil War, this list will take us from battlefield blunders to portraits on urinals.   No doubt, I will likely have a great deal of criticism regarding my choices, as this is certainly a passionate and controversial subject for most individuals who love American Civil War history.

10.  Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (USA)

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General Kilpatrick was known for his reckless disregard for the lives of those soldiers under his command and his performance at Gettysburg bordered on criminal behavior with Elon Farnsworth paying the price.  His “raid” on Richmond under the pretext of freeing Union prisoners was a joke that cost the life of COL Ulric Dahlgren.  When General Kilpatrick commanded his cavalry in parades or battle and they looked quite professional. However, his camp was another story. Kilpatrick’s lack of proper discipline resulted in his camps being unkempt, disorderly, and embedded with prostitutes.

In July of 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Kilpatrick, in command of his cavalry, was later accused of using poor judgment when he ordered a devastating charge on July 3.  In an effort to repair the damage to his reputation caused this day, and in anticipation of post war political aspirations, he planned a raid on Richmond, Virginia in 1864. His plan was to attack the Confederate capital, cause as much devastation as possible, and free the Union soldiers held prisoner there. On March 1, while en route to implement this plan, he lost his nerve at the gates of Richmond, and retreated.

9.  William S.  Rosecrans (USA)

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Appointed commander of the Army of the Cumberland in October 1862, General Rosecrans almost lost the battle of Stone’s River and then waited almost six months to engage an enemy of a much smaller force.  Referred to by General McClellan as “a silly fussy goose,” it did seem to accurately predict General Rosecrans military future as a commanding officer.

His flawed strategy during the Tullahoma Campaign only succeeded due to the drastic mistakes of his opponent.  Rather than consolidate his position in Chattanooga, he opted to move through the passes in Lookout Mountain.  When he came out, with the mountain to his back, he fought the battle of Chickamauga, the worst Union loss in the Civil War.  Trapped in Chattanooga he did little to relieve the suffering of his men.  When General Grant relieved him of duty, he had fewer than five days of rations remaining with his troops already being on half-rations.

Also problematic was his propensity to micro-manage the movements of units instead of relying on his chain of command.  Finally, he was accused of disgracefully leaving the battlefield at Chickamauga and he was relieved of duty.

8.  Don Carlos Buell (USA)

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General Buell led four divisions along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad towards Chattanooga while repairing the line.  With his supply line destroyed by Confederate cavalry, his movement came to a halt.  With Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, General Buell was forced to fall back north to protect the line of the Ohio River.  Dissatisfied with his progress, the authorities ordered him to turn over command to George H. Thomas on September 30, 1862, but the next day this order was revoked.  On October 8 he fought the indecisive battle of Perryville, which halted a Confederate invasion that was already faltering.  He failed, however, to pursue the retreating enemy and for this was relieved of his command on October 24, 1862.

7.  Gideon Pillow (CSA)

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Suspended from command by order of Jefferson Davis for “grave errors in judgment in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army” at Fort Donelson.  Despite his advantages at Fort Donelson , General Pillow’s  inexplicable decisions led him to an embarrassing defeat. In his memoirs regarding the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862, General Grant wrote of his Confederate foe, “I had known General Pillow in Mexico, and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any entrenchments he was given to hold.”  His decision to flee the fort, leaving the onerous task of capitulation to General Buckner would tarnish is reputation beyond repair and for the rest of his life he would carry the taint of a failure made worse by the abandonment of his own men.

6.  Nathaniel Prentiss Banks (USA)

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In the Shenandoah Valley, General Banks lost 30 percent of his troops when he was routed by Stonewall Jackson and due to his tremendous loss of supplies was dubbed “Commissary Banks” by the Confederates.  As part of Pope’s army, he was defeated at Cedar Mountain again by Jackson in the disastrous Red River Campaign as well as the Second Battle Bull Run.  After a brief stint in the capital’s defenses he went to New Orleans to replace Benjamin F. Butler.  His operations against Port Hudson were met with several bloody repulses eventually falling only after the surrender of Vicksburg made it untenable.

5.  Franz Sigel (USA)

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General Sigel opened the Valley Campaigns of 1864, launching an invasion of the Shenandoah Valley in which he was severely defeated by General Breckenridge at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.  This battle was particularly embarrassing due to the prominent role young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute played and was his relieved of his command for “lack of aggression” and replaced by General David Hunter.  He was unable to shake the reality that he was defeated by a charge of young Virginia Military Institute cadets and his military aspirations ended abruptly serving the rest of the war without any active commands.

4.  Braxton Bragg (CSA)

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General Bragg’s problems were legendary on the battlefield.  He lacked the ability to communicate with his generals.  This problem was magnified by his chronic indecisiveness.  His march to Kentucky, touted by some as a strategic masterpiece was little more than a pathetic attempt to protect General Smith’s flank from General Buell.   He simply assumed William S. Rosecrans would not attack once his force had been routed at Stone’s River.   It took him two days to discover the enemy was advancing on his position at Tullahoma, then chose to obey an order over six months old, retreating to Chattanooga.  There it only took a brigade of men to fool him into a full retreat from that city.  After Chickamauga, he refused to destroy the Army of the Cumberland in spite of the sound advice of Generals Forrest and Longstreet. At Missionary Ridge, he grossly misplaced his line then blamed his men for the loss.

3.  Ambrose Everett Burnside (USA)

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General Burnside’s leadership fiasco at Antietam allowed General A. P. Hill’s Confederate division to come up from Harpers Ferry and contain the Union breakthrough.  He is also the chief architect of the futile, murderous assaults at Fredericksburg; leader of the ill-fated Mud March; and his obvious failure at Petersburg where he bungled the follow-up to the explosion of the mine. In reaction to this failure he was sent on leave and never recalled.  He finally resigned on April 15, 1865.  He also fought at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania where his poor leadership continued to be exemplified, appearing reluctant to commit his troops after the Fredericksburg experience.

2.  George Brinton McClellan (USA)

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The master of over-estimation and slow movement, he constantly proclaimed himself the Savior of the Union, yet seemed unwilling to fight.  At Antietam, he had his opponent’s battle plans and still could not win.  Tommy Franks [speaking to U.S. soldiers], “I will avoid the McClellan strategy of sit and wait here and will employ those tactics of Cleburne repulsing the enemy from the heart of Iraq [Baghdad].  Safely entrenched at Harrison’s Landing General McClellan began condemning the War Department, Lincoln, and Stanton, blaming them for the defeat. Finally it was decided in Washington to abandon the campaign and transfer most of his men to John Pope’s army in northern Virginia. There were charges that McClellan-now called by the press “Mac the Unready” and “The Little Corporal of Unsought Fields” was especially slow in cooperating.

1.  Benjamin Franklin Butler (USA)

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The nickname “Beast of New Orleans” was bestowed on the general, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared him to be an outlaw to be executed when caught.  General Butler was so detested in the South that long after the war, chamber pots with Butler’s portrait in the bottom were found in many Southern homes.

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In the conduct of tactical operations in Virginia, Butler was almost uniformly unsuccessful. His first action at Battle of Big Bethel was a humiliating defeat.  Furthermore, at Petersburg rather than immediately striking as ordered, General Butler’s offensive bogged down east of Richmond in the area called the Bermuda Hundred, immobilized by the greatly inferior force of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and he was unable to accomplish any of his assigned objectives. But it was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher in North Carolina that finally led to his recall by General Grant in December.

He resigned his commission on November 30, 1865. The man’s face found a home at the bottom of urinals in New Orleans; he was failure at Big Bethel; a fascist, a militaristic governor in New Orleans who made the Nazi Gestapo look like a Catholic school girl’s choir.  Laughable at Bermuda Hundred; a failure as both a politician and general officer; and considered by many as the ugliest general officer on both sides, General Butler tops the list as the worse general officer of the American Civil War.

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David Hurlbert, Ph.D.


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52 Comments

    • What is more amazing is FT Lee, NJ is named after the Great American Traitor GEN Charles Lee of Battle of Monmouth infamy. When GEN Lee was captured by a British patrol he(he went drinking and whoring at a small road house and got caught), he was about to be shot for treason Apparently, he never got around to selling back his Royal Commission as a MAJ in His Majesty’s Army before joining the American Rebels. He cut a deal whereas he detailed the entire defense plans of GEN Washington (his mentor) which lead to athe catastrophies in the Southern Campaigne. His map was found in the mid 1800’s in GEN Burgoyne’s personal effects. Too bad, there aren’t cities named after the Hero of Saratoga (Arnold) or my personal favourite, GEN Wilkenson of War of 1812 fame

  1. Good list, I usually only hear about the dominate Generals of the Civil War. It is really amazing how important war leaders really are.

  2. I am surprised that neither Dan Sickles USA or Hezekiah Burch CSA made this infamous registery of fools.

    Burch almost singlehandedly lost the day at Chilliwack Falls. Not to mention his complete failure to keep the Federals from moving on Charlotte in May 1962.

    Sickles stupidity at Gettysburg could have easily turned the tide against the Federals and subsequently broken the line at the Mason Dixon.

    In retrospect you should compile a list of the stupidest Generals like the fellow who upon being warned of Confederate snipers quipped " At this distance I doubt they could hit an elephant!"

    Within a minute he was shot through the left eye and fell dead.

    • That was John Sedgwick who made the elephant quote, and unfortunately timed remark not withstanding, he was a very capable general.

  3. I too, have long wondered why a U.S. for would be named after Bragg. Especially with Bragg’s reputation for executing AWOL solders who voluntarily returned after putting out the family crops.

  4. To list William Rosecrans here is a travesty and what's more, a betrayal of ignorance. Many (including the Confederates) considered him the most brilliant Union general of the war. The distorted charges you list here were those claimed by his political enemies. I suggest anyone interested could start with reading "The Edge of Glory" by Lamars.

    • I like rosecrans but he was a mediocre general and was indecisive. Similar to McClellan who I also think shouldn’t be on this list. Lee himself called McClellan the most capable general he faced.

  5. Being English, I don’t know much about the American civil war, but I do seem to recall that the USA won. So how come nearly all of these generals are from the USA, and only a few from the CSA?

    • The Union had a lot more Generals than the South and many (including, from this list, Butler, Banks and Sigel) were politicians appointed to appease some interest group for the sake of national unity.

    • EGR,s you have to understand the times of 1860. The American Regular Army in 1860 fielded less than 16,000, hadn’t fought a real war since 1848 and primarily consisted of border posts protecting citizens from the Indians. SEC of War Jefferson Davis was a Mexican War Hero (COL) and was well qualified for CSA President. SEN Abe Lincoln never served in the military, was a failour in everything he put his hand to, was opposed to the Mexican War and was hospitalized in a Mental Institution from 1832-1833.

      The talented generally had to change sides, the stupid or lame just had to stay put. Look what Lincoln had to put up with as his top commander(s) His best Commander, GEN Winfield Scott twas too fat and infirm to lead the war effort and was forced to retire in 1861. Lincoln Fired MG McDowell and replaced him with MG McClellan. Lincoln had to then pinch his eyes and fire ‘Lil Mac for slowness and gross incompetence. Who does Lincoln replace him with? GEN ‘Fredricksberg-MudMarch-The Cretor’ Burnside!!! Lincoln fired and replaced him with GEN Hooker who Lincoln did not get a chance to fire because idiot got all pissy with Lincoln and resigned in protest (before the Battle of Gettysberg no leses) which Lincoln immediately accepted. Lincoln appointed the ‘victor’ of Gettysburg MG Meade as Army Commander but he proved to be almost as incompetent as McClellan—only with the appointment of the H.U.G. Grant did America ‘get its act together’ and win the war.

      FYI, I am upset America’s ‘Clown Prince’ MG James Pope wasn’t on the list, let alone number #01?!!! Who is my FAVOURITE CIVIL WAR GENERAL? MG Jefferson Davis. Quick—name the two US Generals arrested and facing the death penalty? BG Hull (surrendered his command without a shot when woefully outgunned (8,000 US troops vrs 600 British troops) GEN Brock captured Detroit and graciously offered him terms of surrender?!!! The second was MG Jefferson Davis who, upon being slappmed in the face by the glove of his superior officer, whipped out his pistol and shot him dead!!! MG Davis was escorted to his tent, placed under armed guard and then given a new command?!!! [Damn AGRs—can’t touch ’em; different funding code!!!].

    • Adding to the above, it was a tradition for well-off Virginia families to send their sons to military school, as a result of which Virginia produced a lot of good commanders, most notably Lee and Jackson. Had Virginia stayed in the Union, they would have been prominent in the US Army (Lee and Jackson were both offered high level commissions there), and the war might not have lasted one year, let alone four.

  6. Agreed about Rosecrans. He beat Lee in West Virginia, won at Corinth, held on at Stones River – winning Lincoln’s deep gratitude, and delayed in part due to gross deficiencies in Union cavalry in TN. Take him off the list and put on Hood from the South or Pope or Hooker from the Union

  7. I would add John Bell Hood- for the same reasons as Judson “KillCavalry” Kilpatrick –
    also gotta toss in Sickles- for many reasons -including some off the battlefeld shenanigans involving other people’s wives

  8. Coleman Spinks on

    I like this list. One general i would take out would be Don Carlos Buell. He did screw up a few times but he was a decent general. I would add J.E.B. Stuart. I would put him at 10. He was a great general before gettysburg. It was one of his only battles he didnt perform great. If it werent for his faults at gettysburg, the war would of probably turned out different. The rebels would of had control of western PA and Maryland. They also would of controlled West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and Delaware. They would of expanded their control north and could of takin control of all of Ohio, PA, New Jersey and would of forced the USA to surrender and give them freedom.

  9. How can any list of the worst generals not include Dan Sickles who should have been court marshaled for his disobeying orders at Gettysburg and having so many of his men butchered? What is truly amazing is that years later he used his political connections to have himself awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Truly the most undeserving to have ever received the honor.

  10. Buell was known as one of the best discipliners of the whole army, so his placement is unfair. Rosecrans is there mostly because of his one disastrous defeat at Chattanooga, which really isn’t his fault. Sickles definitely deserves a spot on the list. Burnside can’t be blamed for the disaster at the Crater, as Grant forced him to change his original plan due to demographical issues. How Leonidas Polk is not on the list is beyond me.

  11. Comparing anything done by Butler with fascism and the Gestapo is mind-numbingly ignorant or insensitive (take your pick). Fascism claimed millions of lives, thousands of which were tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Butler insinuated that certain secession-minded “ladies” be regarded as whores. As for the rest, Burnside was hit or miss, as was Rosecrans, but neither was in any way amongst the worst of Civil War generals.

    • I don’t really think Burnside qualifies as “hit-or-miss.” His two notable victories (New Bern and Knoxville) were relatively minor engagements with small commands. Whenever put in charge of a good-sized body of troops Burnside perpetuated a disaster.

  12. I’ve been a Civil War reenactor for 6 years and a CW buff for much longer. The idea of a first person impression of George McClellan was recently thrown out to me and I’ve been pursuing it with a great deal of energy. It’s pretty much all true… the egotism, the slowness to react, the overestimation of his enemies’ strength and the insubordination towards the administration. There is much to dislike about the man, but in actuality, much to love and admire if you learn what a great and brave soldier he was. At this point, I firmly believe cowardice was not an issue with Little Mac. True, being as he was, it is doubtful whether or not he belonged on the battlefield during the Civil war and in command of an army. But his skill and intelligence twice took discouraged beaten rabble crawling back from battle with their tails between their legs, and made them believe in themselves as soldiers.

    In short, I’m not defending the man, but merely suggesting that he deserves more than what credit has been given him.

    Ken

    • They had a 5-2 advantage in population, and a far greater one in ready cash and manufacturing capability. The only reason the war lasted as long as it did was that the Rebels had higher-quality military leadership, at least until Grant and Sherman came to the fore for the Union.

  13. Don Micklon on

    Strange I have always had McClellan as the Best Civil War general that the South had. In all consideration, I would put McClellan as # one (i.e. the worst) when one takes into account the power he had, his longevity as top man and his influence. His one saving grace was that he did indeed build the Army of the Potomac into a truly great army. he was a ledgend in his own mind!

    Sickles a lot to advance his own glory, particularly at Gettysburg; almost changed the outcome single handedly.

    • No, there were just a lot of bad Union generals – many were political appointees with little military training or savvy – while most of the major Confederate generals were grads of West Point and other military schools.

  14. Dennis St. Andrew on

    Say what you want about Kilpatrick, he was a proactive cavalry leader who wasn’t
    afraid to fight the Confederates. In other words, just what the Union desparately needed.
    Sherman knew this and picked Kilpatrick to command the cavalry on the march to the sea.
    Was Kilpatrick perfect? No. Was he effective? Yes. There is no way Judaon Kilpatrick
    should be on this 10 worst generals list.

    Dennis St. Andrew
    Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War

  15. Coming from the fact that I was barn/raised and still live in the same home town as Gen. Rosecrans, it seem rather biase that 80% of the Generals on this list are from the north. Correct my history if I am wrong, but didn’t the north win. Yes I am sure that each of these men made thier mistakes. But It might be good to look at all aspects of the Generals that are listed. For much of what the local historical society has unearthed about the success of Gen. Rosecrans was credited to his commanding Generals.

    • The Union had a lot of bad generals, especially in the first two years of the war. That said, Rosecrans probably shouldn’t be on this list.

  16. Almost all Army posts in the South are named after Confederate Generals. Fort Polk was named for Leonidis Polk, maybe it was just to rub the souths noses in their defeat.
    Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Pillow, he and his men escaped. He told either Pillow or Bragg, I forget which that if he ever saw him again, he would kill him.

  17. My nomination for the most infamous Confederate general is the Bishop Leonidas Polk. His conduct was mutinous and he routinely disobeyed orders. He should have been tied to a stake and shot, however a federal bullet eliminated the need for a firing squad. Many of the Confederate failures in the west can be laid at his feet.

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  19. Somewhere on this list there should have been Union General “Devil Dan” Sickles, a political general, who disobeyed orders and created a dangerous, costly salient in the Union fish hook formation at the Battle of Gettysburg. And what about Union General Jefferson C. Davis, who, in a fit of rage, assassinated his commanding officer, General Nelson?

  20. I’m sorry. Where the hell was John Bell Hood? He effectively massacred the entire western rebel army at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. He should not only be on the list, but should be number 1.

  21. I agree that Butler stands near the bottom of the list, at least on the level of Pope , Burnside, and for the unforced errors most likely to have changed the outcome of the war, Bragg. However, let’s be honest. Butler wasn’t the Nazis. That’s not even funny. That’s especially not funny given the fact that when Union armies left the South in 1877, black folks were treated a lot more like what the author is thinking about. General Order 28 didn’t lead to widespread rape and murder, and I suspect the white women in New Orleans were treated better than black women in unoccupied parts of the South, who in turn were treated better than Jews, or even Poles, under the Nazis.

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