Glimpses of MG John McAuley Palmer, USV

In his capstone work, America in Arms, BG John McAuley Palmer, USA, reflects on his Civil War namesake, the MG, USV (pictured).

He uses the subterfuge of anonymous references to "my friend." I chose the passage below as both poignant and concise in its case for the "political general." It represents a psychological "arc" in the development of the political general that we need to reflect on as readers of ACW history. You'll notice this remembrance is wrapped in a critique of Winfield Scott and the Northern war policy that we will take up later. (Footnote in the original.)

PRESIDENT LINCOLN has been criticized because he appointed so many "politician generals.* He did commission many inexperienced popular leaders as general officers, not because he was a politician but because he had no alternative under the policy imposed upon him by his official military advisers.

In my early youth it was my good fortune to know one of these so-called "politician generals." After the fall of Sumter he raised a regiment of infantry in his Congressional district and, as a leading citizen, he became its colonel. He felt his lack of experience keenly and expressed the hope that he and his regiment would soon have a West Point graduate or other trained officer from the old army as their brigade commander. But the War Department, under General Scott, could not spare any officers to serve as brigadier generals of volunteers because they were needed as lieutenants and captains in the new regular regiments.

When it became apparent that the brigade commanders must be selected from among the new colonels, my old friend decided that, ignorant as he was, he was as fit as any of the others, and so he accepted a commission as brigadier general. Without the immediate leadership of a trained senior and without the assistance of trained subordinates, he soon found himself in command of a division. With this division he entered the Battle of Stone River, and there by the test of successful leadership in battle he won his second star as a major general.

A little later he commanded one of the four divisions that held their ground under Thomas at Chickamauga. When Thomas became commander of the Army of the Cumberland he selected this "politician general" to lead his old command, the Fourteenth Army Corps.

By the time he became a major general and had won his position by hard knocks and without the guidance he had sought in the beginning, the War Department loosened up and began to send more of its trained officers to the volunteers. One of these became a brigade commander under my old friend and did not disguise his superior pretensions as an educated officer. These would have been conceded frankly a short time before. But even a tyro who had finally won his two stars on the battlefield might feel disposed to assert their validity.

Situations such as this produced friction and misunderstanding throughout the Union Army. Many of the regulars decried the citizen army leaders as mere politicians and many of the latter had good reason to believe that the professionals were intriguing to displace them.


*Under an act passed March 6, 1861, the Confederate Congress authorized the formation of a regular army. But it was intended primarily to establish a national status for the general officers, the staff departments and certain special auxiliary services. The combatant troops were not included in this establishment. The soldiers of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, like Washington's Continentals, were citizen soldiers.