Lincoln Finds a General
Much has been written to describe Abraham Lincoln’s quest to “find a general”, especially to command the prominent eastern theatre. Unquestionably, by mid-1863 he had found that general in Grant. After Sherman emerged with Grant’s encouragement, from 1864 they had become the team that directed the final decisive operations. Sheridan would not prove himself until late in 1864. Meade and Thomas never acquired the mantle of greatness but were competent and did not waste their opportunities. Lincoln worked his way through many contenders and pretenders from 1861 to 1863 but did finally discover a cast of tested commanders of calibre and experience for the final Acts, albeit each demonstrated their own individual weaknesses. By the end of the war, every Union commander in the key high commands was at least competent; some failed commanders remained in less prominent or active territorial commands but the vital field commands were in many cases in the hands of men who started the conflict in modest positions.
The Union forces always had a General-in-Chief (Scott, McClellan, Halleck, Grant) and despite their individual shortcomings, they did seek to achieve strategic coordination. Lincoln interfered energetically in strategic planning in the early years but once he had identified his high command team he stepped back. Jefferson Davis clung to the role of supreme director of Confederate strategy almost until the end of the war. A General-in-Chief was not appointed until early in 1865 when the prospects for coordinating the remaining forces, let alone of survival or victory, had long since passed.
Davis Keeps his Generals
Whereas Abraham Lincoln tested and discarded or side-lined his unsuccessful generals; for the most part, Davis recycled them. On the Confederate side, battle-attrition aside, the evolution of the high command team was less dynamic. Many Confederate commanders conducted acrimonious disputes with President Jefferson Davis (e.g. Beauregard, J E Johnston), or demonstrated unsuitability for high command (e.g. Bragg), most nevertheless remained in high position throughout the conflict. This reflected a punctilious adherence to the principle of seniority and a failure to adapt to new circumstances. The emergence of energetic and unconventional talents like Forrest and Taylor occurred comparatively late. Despite evidence of learning and change on both sides, a more flexible and dynamic high command structure with a greater turnover in senior officers evolved more materially in the North than in the South
On the Confederate side, the most senior Confederate general Samuel Cooper served only in a staff capacity. Great success was expected of Albert Sidney Johnston, perhaps the most eminent pre-war US Army soldier to join the Confederacy, but his early death in battle meant that his promise was not fulfilled. President Jefferson Davis did discover his premier general and ultimate General-in-Chief by mid-1862 in Robert Edward Lee. After a shaky start, Lee came to be considered by most observers to be the outstanding battlefield commander of the war, although the laurels for strategic direction are often awarded to the Union general-in-chief Ulysses Simpson Grant. Davis’ other early appointments as General were Joseph Eggleston Johnston and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Johnston proved his ability in army command but he was inconsistent, had a poor working relationship with the President and was affected by his wounding early in the war. Beauregard was inconsistent and volatile with occasional flashes of brilliance. Braxton Bragg was appointed General in 1862 and, despite recurring failures in army command, still retained a senior role at the end of the war. Edmund Kirby Smith was not seriously tested as a battlefield commander but showed great ability as an administrator. The late-war appointment of John Bell Hood proved to be a mistake. Only Lee managed to steer an equable path of cooperation with the President throughout the war.
The highest levels of the Confederate command structure exhibited distinct longevity and stability in post. The principles of seniority were was upheld and senior officers, once appointed, were rarely supplanted or removed. Those whose performance was questioned tended to emerge again in senior roles but in a different command or theatre. Despite accusations that his irascible nature tended to antagonise those directly subordinate to him, President Jefferson Davis actually showed great loyalty to his most senior appointees. In contrast, the Union military high command showed a much greater turnover and change in its structure and incumbents.
In my opinion, the flexibility and innovation exhibited by the Union in evolving their high command and high command structures was a real, albeit minor, factor in achieving final victory.