Most Incompetent Union General

There are of course several generals in the running for this title:  Ambrose Burnside, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Henry Halleck, Nathaniel Banks and the list could go on for some length.  However, for me the most incompetent general clearly is Benjamin Butler.  A political general appointed by Lincoln to rally War Democrats for the war effort, Butler in command was a defeat waiting to happen for any Union force cursed to be under him.  Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.  Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:

He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.

Grant finally obtained approval from Lincoln after the November elections in 1864 to fire Butler after Butler failed to take Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, the last major port of the Confederacy.  Butler defended himself by saying that Fort Fisher was impregnable.  The fort was taken by assault one week after Butler was relieved.

If military malpractice had been a criminal offense, Butler would have been lucky to get off with life imprisonment.  Butler is my choice for most incompetent Union General.  Who do you thinks deserves the title? 

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Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
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5 Comments

  1. Butler’s as good a choice as any. Of course the man whose statue I get to see outside of my office window every day – McClellan – is a good choice as well. While technically not as bumbling as several other northern generals, his complete inability to do much of anything while enjoying heavy numerical superiority over his foes was a stunning achievement. My favorite line from the war is related to that timidity – General if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it?

  2. I’m not sure I have a strong choice for weakest general (does that even make sense)? As for Butler, he’s an easily unlikeable figure, but it is VERY important to note that but for his quick action in the early days of the war in securing Baltimore and getting troops quickly to Washington City, the capital might have been lost early. Another possibility often mention is Franz Sigel, but even then I admire him for his successes and forgive his failures. It’s like when you’re team wins an “ugly” football game…take the win!

  3. Burnside!

  4. [...] troops attempting to take offensive action.  The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the [...]

  5. [...] troops attempting to take offensive action.  The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the [...]


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