Generals McClellan and Bragg: Civil War Washouts

Bad generals are dangerous. When they make poor decisions, people get killed. Every war has its successful and unsuccessful generals, but Confederate General Bragg and Union General McClellan were the worst during the Civil War.

Braxton Bragg (1817–1876)

Bragg just could not play well with others. He was a competent enough professional soldier, but his personality was a disaster. He was rude, abrupt, and humorless. He was such a tyrannical disciplinarian that, early in his career, his men tried to kill him. During the Civil War, Bragg was one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy, so he had a lot of responsibility. As commander of the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Tennessee, he controlled large numbers of Rebel soldiers in the key battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. He didn't perform well in any of these fights.

To a man, his subordinate commanders hated him with a passion. After the Battle of Chickamauga, they revolted in an effort to get him relieved. Nathan Bedford Forrest, perhaps the South's greatest tactician, refused to serve under him again, and even threatened to kill him. But Bragg had one powerful friend in President Jefferson Davis, who rebuked Bragg's commanders and left his buddy in charge, with predictably poor results. In November 1863, Bragg came up short again in the Battle of Chattanooga, opening the way for Union forces to advance on Atlanta. Davis finally removed Bragg from command, but the southern cause never recovered from the damage he did.

George McClellan (1826–1885)

Some officers are good at preparing troops for battle. Others excel at leading them into combat. McClellan was definitely in the first category. When Lincoln appointed the 34-year-old general to command of the Union's Army of the Potomac in 1861, the "Young Napoleon" turned it into a first-class fighting army. For the most part, his soldiers loved him. McClellan had an enormous ego, though, speaking of himself as the savior of the country, and harboring ill-concealed presidential ambitions.

McClellan's worst problem was that he was a complete washout as a battlefield commander. He was cautious and timid on the battlefield. To justify his inaction, he overestimated enemy numbers, even though the Union Army had twice as many soldiers as the Confederate Army. In the bloody battles that were so common to the Civil War, he couldn't stand to see his soldiers suffering and dying. His tentativeness dearly cost the Union and extended the war he so hated.

He blamed everyone but himself for his failures. In voluminous letters, telegrams, and reports, he raged against everyone from the president to his fellow generals. Blinded by ego, he never understood that he failed because of his own shortcomings. In the wake of the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln fired him.

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