Politics and Generals

In today's U.S. Army, rank is determined by experience and expertise, but things were a little different during the Civil War. It was an era in which political favors were often repaid with military appointments, and, as the war began to heat up, President Abraham Lincoln found himself under constant pressure to appoint men with little or no military experience. Many of the Union's early military officers were loyal Republicans, influential War Democrats, or everyday people demanding payback for some earlier favor. As might be expected, the majority of officers so appointed had no right to lead men into battle, and during their relatively brief command they only served to embarrass themselves and their respective War Departments. The First Battle of Manassas resulted in a humiliating Union rout when inexperienced officers panicked and ran in the face of the enemy, abandoning their men.

Civil War armies were largely organized as follows: four infantry regiments formed a brigade, commanded by a brigadier general; three brigades composed a division, commanded by a brigadier or major general; two or more divisions formed an army corps, commanded by a major general in the Union and by a major or lieutenant general in the Confederacy.

General Benjamin Franklin Butler is a prime example of wartime incompetence. A prominent Boston attorney and influential Democrat, Butler used his influence to grab a military appointment. He managed some early successes but embarrassed himself mightily when, as military governor of New Orleans, he ordered the confiscation of Confederate property and was accused of stealing silverware from area homes and churches. Butler also succeeded in angering the entire population of New Orleans with his controversial “Woman Order,” which stated that any woman who insulted or berated a Union soldier would be treated like a common prostitute. Butler was recalled by his superiors in Washington in December 1862 after corruption and bribery by Northern speculators became commonplace in the city under his administration. Butler was later given a field command in Virginia, and his embarrassments continued to mount throughout the rest of the war.

Ideally, the full strength of an infantry regiment was 1,000 men, 4,000 men for a brigade, 12,000 men for a division, and 24,000 or more men for a corps. Confederate divisions and corps were typically larger than those in the Union army because a Southern division often contained four brigades and a Southern corps contained four divisions.

Not surprisingly, the incompetence demonstrated by many appointed officers did little to instill pride or confidence in the men who served under them, and morale in such units was often very low. In many cases, the battle experience of common soldiers far exceeded that of their commanders. Personal behavior was also an issue. Many officers drank heavily, frequented prostitutes, and generally behaved quite badly, setting a horrible example for their men.

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