In Defense of Political Generals

Patrick Young, a lawyer and historian who keeps a vigorous presence online, has a nice review of Elizabeth Leonard’s new book on the life of General and Congressman Benjamin Butler that I found interesting.

Young points out that Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike are quick to denounce President Lincoln for appointing politicians with no prior military experience to generalships when the war first broke out. After all, why would Lincoln risk the well-being of his armies by placing inexperienced men into such powerful positions?

The standard reasoning behind Lincoln’s decision is that he sought to curry favor with respected politicians, especially those from the Democrat party, who may have been on the fence about Lincoln’s policies and approach to the war. In other words, the “political generals” were appointed because of . . . politics.

Young does a nice job of asking readings to re-examine the situation on the ground in April 1861 and to also look for international examples of politicians commanding soldiers.

Young points out that there simply weren’t enough qualified military officials who were prepared to take command of large forces when the Civil War began. Not least of which was because many regular U.S. army officers joined the Confederacy. “If there were mature, experienced, West Pointers in 1861 to fill all of the top posts in the Union army, I am guessing Lincoln would have appointed them,” Young argues. Seen in this light, it is logical to presume that politicians with experience in leadership and public service could be relied upon to offer their services to the military, not simply from a practical standpoint but a moral one as well. If a politician supports a war, they ought to be willing to fight it too.

Continuing, Young argues that “part of the problem in these discussions is the ignorance of many Americans of revolutions, civil wars, secessions, and other internal conflicts in countries other than the United States. Looking at the Chinese or Russian revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnamese armed decolonization struggle against France, or the various 19th Century Latin American independence movements, we see that many non-professional soldiers wound up in command of large numbers of troops. Even a quick look at the American Revolution tells us that the revolutionary movement had to promote non-professionals to command. America’s Civil War was no exception to this rule.”

These two explanations do much to help me understand the situation Lincoln faced in April 1861. A deficit of good military leadership in a rapidly growing volunteer army forced him to look outside of the regular pre-Civil War army for leadership, a precedent set by many previous military conflicts at home and abroad.

I thought Young’s review was very good and I look forward to eventually getting around to reading Leonard’s new book on Benjamin Butler.