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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, such as his own connections or to appease certain political blocs. This concept was most prominent during the American Civil War.

Reasons for promotions

Appeasement of political groups

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. 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 Corcoran died and Meagher's resignation was revoked to keep at least one Irishman in command.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 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 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.


A large number of political generals, including Sigel and Banks for the North[1] and Breckinridge for the South, were undoubtedly popular with their men, largely because of their ties to the specific groups they represented. 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 in the North, where such generals were typically given fairly important commands.[1]

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.

War of 1812

  • Lewis Cass, an Ohio Democrat and US Marshal, served as a brigadier general in the US Army. He participated in the Battle of the Thames, and served as military governor of Michigan Territory for the rest of the war. He later had a successful political and diplomatic career.

Mexican War

  • 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.

Civil War


  • 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 Southern 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.
  • Thomas Leonidas Crittenden was a member of the politically powerful Crittenden family of Kentucky, which also included his brother George Bibb Crittenden, a Confederate general with significant military experience. A lawyer by profession, his only military experience was as a civilian aide to Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War. His appointment as a brigadier general in 1861 was motivated by the sensitive political status of Kentucky. He served in the Army of the Cumberland as a corps commander and was replaced following the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.[2]
  • 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.
  • 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 played a key role in establishing national battlefield parks, including at Gettysburg.
  • Franz Sigel, a German émigré from the Revolution of 1848 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. Many other German "Forty-Eighters" also served in the war, including Carl Schurz, Louis Blenker, and Adolph von Steinwehr. 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.


  • John B. Floyd, former Governor of Virginia and Secretary of War under James Buchanan. He led state militia forces opposing Union operations in western Virginia in 1861, and played a major part in the Fort Donelson fiasco (see Gideon Pillow, below). After that battle, he was relegated to command of Virginia State Guard troops; he died in 1863.
  • James L. Kemper, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1853 and became Speaker of that body in 1861. Served as a brigade commander under George Pickett. Was wounded and captured during Pickett's Charge. After the war, was elected as the 37th Governor of Virginia, the first after Reconstruction.
  • Gideon Pillow, a general of the Mexican-American War and prominent power in the pre-war Democratic Party. Although he opposed secession, he ultimately went south and accepted a commission. He is most widely known for fleeing (along with John B. Floyd) from Fort Donelson in February 1862, leaving the hapless third-in-command, Simon Bolivar Buckner, and the fort's 15,000-man garrison to surrender to Union forces under U.S. Grant while they saved themselves. Commanding a brigade at Stones River, he was allegedly found by division commander Breckinridge to have been cowering behind a tree as his men went into action. After that, he never held another field command.
  • Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana and cousin of former president James K. Polk, became the third most senior lieutenant general despite his lack of military experience, primarily due to his close friendship with president Jefferson Davis. In 1861, he led the failed invasion of neutral Kentucky, causing the state to side with the Union. He later commanded a corps in the Army of Tennessee and was killed in the Battle of Marietta.
  • Sterling Price, a former U. S. Congressman (March 4, 1845 – August 12, 1846) and Governor of Missouri (January 3, 1853 – January 5, 1867)[3] who was initially opposed to secession but ultimately sided with the Confederacy, led the Missouri State Guard in the 1861 Confederate invasion of the state. He was the Confederate commander at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, and served without distinction at Pea Ridge. He led an unsuccessful invasion of Missouri in 1864, which inadvertently but effectively secured Missouri and Arkansas for the Union.
  • William "Extra Billy" Smith, former Congressman and Governor from Virginia, who was the oldest Confederate field commander. Despite having no previous military experience, he served as a brigade commander at the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. After again being elected Governor of Virginia in 1863, he occasionally commanded troops defending Richmond. He was an early advocate of arming blacks to provide more manpower.
  • Robert Toombs, former Congressman from Georgia and an ardent secessionist. Politically ambitious, he was made Secretary of State of the Confederacy but resigned for a field command, while simultaneously holding a seat in the Confederate Congress. He led a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. His most famous action was the defense of Burnside's Bridge at Antietam, where he was wounded. After that battle, he resigned and served in the Confederate Senate.

Spanish-American War

  • 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, shouting to his men, "Let's go, boys! We've got the damn Yankees on the run again!" 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. 1.0 1.1 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
  2. Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-252-01703-2, p. 10
  3. Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. p. 440


  • Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0-252-01703-2.
  • Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.

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