The 4 Commanding Generals of the Union Army in the Civil War

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A Brief History

On July 23, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln finally found a replacement for General George B. McClellan as General-in-Chief of the Union Army when he appointed General Henry W. Halleck.  Lincoln had spent the previous 4 months as de facto head of the Army himself until he found another commander.

Digging Deeper

During the Civil War the US Army (or Union Army if you prefer) had a total of 4 men assigned as General-in-Chief, more or less akin to today’s designation as Chief of Staff of the Army as the top soldier.  The Union started the War with General Winfield Scott in charge, the 3rd Commanding General of the US Army, serving from 1841 to 1861, longer than any other Army boss.

Scott in 1862

Scott, with a rank of (Brevet) Lieutenant General, had been a general longer than any other US Army officer in the history of the United States, and first entered the military in 1807 as a militiaman.  Scott joined the regular Army in 1808 and served for 53 years, ranking as a Brigadier General from 1814 and remaining a General Officer until his retirement in 1861 at the age of 75.  Scott was a veteran of the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and several Indian Wars, and was already an elderly man when the Civil War started.  Too old and infirm to lead in the field, Scott’s main contribution to the Union cause was to espouse the “Anaconda Plan,” a scheme of blockading Southern ports to cut off the Confederacy from arms and trade with other countries.  Although this plan was ridiculed at the time because of the scarcity of ships in the US Navy to enforce such an ambitious idea, eventually the Anaconda Plan would become a giant constrictor around the throat of the Confederacy and would greatly assist the Union Victory.  Scott died in 1866 at the age of 79.  George B. McClellan was the next in line to command the Union Army, having already been promoted to Major General (at the time the highest rank any US general held) and having raised the Army of the Potomac.

1861 photograph by Mathew Brady

The failure of the Union Army to make any noticeable progress against the Confederates made Union politicians and newsmen anxious and frustrated, so President Lincoln felt compelled to finally replace the elderly Scott on November 1, 1861.  McClellan seemed competent and meticulous, but in practice this attention to detail did not translate into effectiveness in battle as McClellan seemed unable to make rapid and fluid changes as the situation evolved.  His cautiousness frustrated Lincoln who was under heavy political pressure to get quick results against the Rebels, and by March of 1862 Lincoln’s patience was spent.  McClellan was fired and replaced by Henry Halleck after only 4 months with McClellan as the top general.

General Henry Halleck

Nicknamed “Old Brains,” Halleck had some success in the Western theater of the Civil War, although it was his subordinate commanders that actually led the men to victory in those battles.  Halleck was another overly cautious type, and like McClellan was meticulous in planning and preparation, even when taking quick action would have been more prudent.  After a year and a half of frustration at Halleck’s deliberateness and caution, an exasperated Lincoln (who referred to Halleck as “little more than a first rate clerk”) had had enough, and promoted Ulysses S. Grant to the top job as General-in-Chief in March of 1864, while Halleck stayed on active duty as Chief of Staff, and in that administrative role he served well in seeing to it that the Army was well supplied and equipped.  (Note: The nickname, “Old Brains,” was used as a snide comment about Halleck and not as a compliment!)

Grant during the mid-1870s

Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, the future President of the United States changed his name when he went to West Point so as not to have HUG as his initials.  Grant has been criticized for his tactics that led to carnage on the battlefield, but he was a practical commander that apparently knew what it took to achieve victory.  Like Lincoln said, “He fights.”  As Commanding General of the US Army Grant finished the Civil War as the winning general, and was given the unprecedented rank of General of the Army.  Grant served in this capacity until 1869 when he became the 18th US President and was succeeded by WT Sherman.  Grant served 2 terms as President and died in 1885 at the age of 63.  (He was only 46 years old when he was inaugurated as President.)  After his Presidency, Grant and his wife toured the world, meeting the leaders of countries including Kings and Queens and even the Pope.  In 1880, Grant ran again for the Republican nomination for President, but James Garfield was nominated instead.  Grant died of throat cancer, perhaps caused by his ever-present cigar.

President Lincoln had to fire 2 top generals and get another to retire before he found the 1 that could deliver victory to the Union.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about these military men?  Was Lincoln right to fire Halleck and McClellan?  Was Grant the right man for the job, or was he a “butcher” after all?  Please feel free to share your thoughts on these Union Commanding Generals of the US Civil War in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Marszalek, John F.  Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies : A Life of General Henry W. Halleck.  Belknap Press, 2004.

Sears, Stephen W.  George B. Mcclellan: The Young Napoleon.  Da Capo Press, 1999.

The featured image in this article, an 1861 print by Currier & Ives of a group portrait of Union Army generals and Navy commanders, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pga.04749This media file is in the public domain in the United States, which applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal.  See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.