Unfit to Lead: the Absolute Worst Generals of the American Civil War

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It can be hard to be famous, especially if your image ends up at the bottom of urinals in New Orleans. The American Civil War produced plenty of ridiculous, incompetent, politically chosen, corrupt, but mostly inexperienced leaders. While the Union may be remembered for having the majority of these, the Confederacy had their fair share, too. Funny nicknames and facial hair will never make up for the chaos these fools caused between 1861 and 1865.

5 Ambrose Everett Burnside (USA)

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What would a list of terrible Civil War general be without Burnside? The man indeed knew how to rock the chops, but facial hair that would make contemporary hipsters jealous didn’t give him any powers in military leadership skills. Burnside lost 1,000 men at Antietam due to his lack of skill, was responsible for the Union getting slaughtered at Fredericksburg and performed the fiasco that ended up being the ‘Mud March’ at the end of his career. There is a sad tale here, though: Burnside knew he wasn’t fit to serve as a general, but he was asked over and over again by both Lincoln and his superiors to serve as a commander. Though Burnside will be remembered as a flub of a commander, at least he also created (so the legend says) the fashion of sideburns.

4 Braxton Bragg (CSA)

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It’s hard to be a complete jerk and act like a king while completely failing at your job, but there are people who have that talent – and Bragg was one of them. From what history tells us, nobody liked him. Aside from being a pompous jerk, he didn’t know how to communicate to his soldiers and in turn got a lot of men killed. His major successes were mostly due to situational luck, but what we fondly remember are his failures (of which there are too many to name on this humble little list). The apex of his career in failing came when he made an assumption that his arch nemesis, William Rosecrans of the Union, wouldn’t attack him at Tullahoma. He then discovered (far too late) that the Union commander had actually been encroaching on him for the last few days. This made him follow a six-month old order to retreat. On Missionary Ridge his men lost, and he went on to angrily blame them for the defeat. Due to his own idiocy, his army career ended and he is often remembered as one of the weakest links in the Confederate Army.

3 Gideon Johnson Pillow (CSA)

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So let me tell you a story – actually, no, I’ll just cut to the chase: On February 16th 1862, Gideon, by the cover of night, fled from the battle of Fort Donelson on a boat rather than surrendering ‘gracefully.’ Did I mention at one point during this battle, GJP had actually broken the Union lines and yet failed to gain victory? The Confederacy could count themselves 12,000 men down after this battle, along with losing plenty of heavy artillery and the loss of control of the Cumberland River which would lead to further trouble in Nashville down the line.

2 George Brinton McClellan (USA)

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“Mac the Unready” – yep, that’s what they called him due to his ‘sit and wait’ tactics. Think of McClellan as a high-school drama prima donna who claims to be the best actor around, but never ever goes on stage due to the fact they both a) suck and b) have stage fright. GBM sat back and watched as other generals ran in, delayed his own campaigns until others succeeded at theirs, and retreated battles in which he had clear advantage and superior force. Hell, this guy had his enemy’s battle plans at Antietam and still failed to achieve victory! And like the same prima donna who never actually goes on stage and criticizes everyone else from safety of the audience, GBM sat around his office, far from the sounds and death of battle, blaming Lincoln and the War Department for his failures.

1 Benjamin Franklin Butler (USA)

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You would think having a nickname with the word ‘beast’ in it would symbolize pure badassery, but Butler also earned the nickname ‘spoons.’ Yes, like a seedy Gamestop manager who lets his employees steal, BFB and his soldiers were appropriating silverware from private homes. A politician without real war experience, Butler was elected as a political general by our good friend Lincoln. After many humiliating and embarrassing moves (like retreating and leaving an entire army worth of supplies behind), Ulysses Grant decided to move Butler to the metaphorical broom closet and assigned him command of the Army of James. Here he was to perform the simple task of cutting off the South’s food supply. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say your brother who plays ‘Call of Duty’ all day could have figured out how to win that battle in five minutes. Butler failed to do so and, probably, in the long run let the war go on for another year due to this failure. He finally found his legacy shortly after the war by having his portrait printed at the bottom of urinals in New Orleans.

Many historians believe the Civil War only lasted as long as it did because of the amount of terrible generals in charge. I suppose that is why we study history – to learn from our past mistakes.

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