Roads To Glory For The Political General

In reading a couple of books about Nathaniel Banks, and having previously read books about other Civil War political generals like Benjamin Butler, I was struck by the thought of how it was that political generals ended up receiving a great deal of fame, as there were a lot of political generals in the Civil War, some of whom have achieved lasting fame for a wide variety of reasons. While it is popular to mock political generals, there is a certain degree of importance in obtaining civilian support for war, and if that requires indulging the desire for military glory on the part of political leaders who can help to obtain that necessary political support, then one can at least hope that the desire for military glory can lead to a certain degree of study in military affairs on the part of those leaders who are now responsible for the lives of others. It must be remembered that most political generals were not particularly successful as generals, but a surprisingly large amount have been remembered fondly.

Some generals were so successful as generals that it can be forgotten that they were in fact political generals. Let us consider the example of Samuel Ryan Curtis, the adopted Iowan who is best remembered as the hero of Pea Ridge, where he led an outnumbered army deep in enemy territory to victory through attention to logistics even though his opponent with superior numbers had turned both of his flanks and attacked him behind his prepared lines. Later on he was victorious at Westport, turning away yet another major attack against Missouri and leading Union troops to victory. Indeed, Curtis is so notable as a general in the Civil War–and lamentably, he died soon after the end of the war [1], that it is not remembered that he was in fact a notable Iowa politician in the period before the Civil War and was as much a political general as many other people.

Most political generals, alas, were not as well known as generals. Still, some political generals with a modest degree of success as generals have still endured as important historical figures for various reasons. For example, James Shields was not a very successful Union General, best known for being one of several generals who were defeated by Stonewall Jackson in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign. If his military glory had been the ticket being remembered, he would have fared no better in that than he did for being a U.S. Senator in both Illinois and Missouri (where he went after the war). Lew Wallace did two interesting things in the Civil War, getting lost thanks to ambiguous directions from Grant, which prompted him to make appeals for years to try to avoid being blamed for the issue, and his delaying action at Monocacy in 1864 to delay Early’s raid on Washington, DC, which helped prompt the victorious 1864-1865 campaign by Sheridan to eventually destroy Early’s army. Shields is remembered mostly for his abortive duel with Abraham Lincoln over some particularly fierce political satire and Lew Wallace is remembered mostly as the author of Ben Hur. Still, it is good to be remembered at all.

It is worthwhile to consider a third way in which political generals can be easily remembered. One of these ways is for a victorious general to turn the glory into political success, something that has repeatedly happened in American history. Not only have leading generals sought to turn military victories into political campaigns, including both successful (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower) and unsuccessful (Winfield Scott) campaigns, but military service has been an important aspect of numerous campaigns. Unsurprisingly, quite a few successful Civil War generals and even lesser officers parlayed their service into political office. This is going about being a political general in a backwards way, but it makes sense that someone could use their success in leading men in war as a means of gaining political power in peace, since successful leadership and heroism are viewed as qualities that carry over from one field to another. Whether or not this has always been the case, it is certainly something that has happened throughout American history.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History, Military History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s