Most Incompetent Union General

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“It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew Wallace, yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”  Henry W. Halleck

There are of course several generals in the running for this title:  Ambrose Burnside, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Henry Halleck, Nathaniel Banks, Franz Siegel and the list could go on for some length.  However, for me the most incompetent Union general clearly is Benjamin Butler.  A political general appointed by Lincoln to rally War Democrats for the war effort, Butler in command was a defeat waiting to happen for any Union force cursed to be under him.  Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.  Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:

He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.

Grant finally obtained approval from Lincoln after the November elections in 1864 to fire Butler after Butler failed to take Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, the last major port of the Confederacy.  Butler defended himself by saying that Fort Fisher was impregnable.  The fort was taken by assault one week after Butler was relieved.

If military malpractice had been a criminal offense, Butler would have been lucky to get off with life imprisonment.  Butler is my choice for most incompetent Union general.  Who do you thinks deserves the title?

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  1. Butler was horrible, but I can’t get past the sheer mind-numbing awfulness of Ambrose Burnside, and at multiple levels of command–division, corps, and army.

  2. If we are talking about incompetence on the field alone, arguments can be made for any number of northern generals. However, if we factor in such things as Butler’s “General Order Number 28”:

    By my reckoning the combination of incompetence and an order such as that would secure the title of most incompetent or worst northern general to Benjamin “Beast” Butler.

  3. No list of incompetent Union generals would be complete without Gen. George McClellan — if not the most incompetent Union general, at least a very strong contender for that title. Why Lincoln put up with his dilatory tactics as long as he did is a mystery to me. Since McClellan actually ran against Lincoln for president in 1864, I’d very strongly suspect that he was actively trying to undermine the Union war effort. But McClellan was a master of the blitzkrieg compared to Butler, I suppose.

    From “Lincoln’s New Salem” by Benjamin Thomas comes this illustrative anecdote: Lincoln once refereed a cockfight between two of his New Salem buddies. One of them, Babb McNabb (yes, that was his name) bragged incessantly about the fighting ability of his rooster, but when the bird was placed in the pit, the bird immediately ran away, mounted a fence, preened his feathers and crowed lustily. McNabb then said to his bird, “You’re great in a dress parade, but not worth a damn in a fight.” Years later, Lincoln compared McClellan to McNabb’s rooster.

  4. McClellan was a superb organizer and trainer of troops Elaine. He also had the essential gift of a top commander of inspiring troops to follow him into a campaign against Hades if he wished to lead them there. He was also not a bad strategist: his peninsula campaign plan was quite good. However, as you noted, he was very dilatory in his movements. Even after he got Lee’s plans during the Antietam campaign, the best he could manage was a drawn battle, and he allowed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to get across the Potomac although they were vastly outnumbered. In battle he had almost no ability to coordinate attacks and he was worse than no commander at all.

  5. I’m basically with Elaine, though as Donald notes, his troops would have followed him to the netherworld and back. But his complete refusal to take on the enemy even though he outnumbered them tremendously is frustrating to read about even 140 years later. As Lincoln once asked of him, if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it?

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