Political general

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Daniel Sickles, a Civil War Union "political general"

A political general is a term used by historians and most often applies to the American Civil War. In this context, it means a General officer who does not have formal military training or experience and who gained his position through political influence.[1] To a lesser degree, it can also mean generals who engaged in politics during or after their time as a general.[2] A "political general" can seem to be a contradiction in terms in a country such as the United States where by law the military is under civilian authority.[3] An example was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in the class of 1915.[4] He was an experienced staff officer who commanded the invasions of North Africa and Western Europe.[3] Eisenhower developed the political skills to deal with his British and American officers as well as political leaders.[3] He later became President of the United States.[3]

Background[change | change source]

In history, many great generals were also political leaders. Julius Caesar was a general who became the dictator of Rome in 44 BC.[5] Genghis Khan was the son of a Mongol chieftain who became a general and then the leader of the Mongol Empire.[6] As a general, Alexander the Great never lost a battle. He was a king who was also a general.[6] In the British Army of the 17th and 18th centuries, the officers were often aristocrats and most obtained their rank by purchase.[7]

In American history up to the Civil war, there had been a long line of amateur military leaders going back to the colonial militias.[8] Before he led the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War, George Washington had little military experience.[8] Andrew Jackson only had experience in the American Indian Wars.[8] But he successfully defeated a larger and more professional British army at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.[9]

During the American Civil War, two great armies were raised that were made up largely of citizen-soldiers.[10] There simply were not enough trained generals to lead all these men. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis appointed political generals, some of whom later proved to be incompetent.[11] Others proved to be good or even great generals. Many of these generals had very little or no military training before being commissioned a general.[10] Confederate general Patrick Cleburne was such a leader.[10] He earned his nickname as the "Stonewall Jackson of the West" by being a great general.[12] One of the worst examples was Union general Daniel Sickles. He was a Tammany Hall politician[a] who used his influence to rise to the rank of major general.[14] Sickles nearly lost the Battle of Gettysburg for the North yet, after 34 years of lobbying, managed to get himself awarded the Medal of Honor.[14]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Tammany Hall was a New York City political machine that became known for its patronage (rewarding supporters with special favors and jobs), acting in its own interests, dishonesty and corruption.[13] It lasted for nearly two centuries but was gone by 1966.[13]

References[change | change source]

  1. Brooks D. Simpson, 'Lincoln and His Political Generals', Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Iss. 1, (Winter 2000), pp. 63-77
  2. Steven Lee Myers (6 April 2008). "Generally Speaking". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Patrick J. Garrity (17 October 2012). "Eisenhower the Political General". The Claremont Institute. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  4. Thomas W. Fleming (7 May 2013). "War List: First in Their Class at West Point". HistoryNet. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  5. "Julius Caesar (100BC - 44BC)". History. BBC. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Top Ten Military Generals of All Time". TheTopTens. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  7. Steven Schwarmenfeld, The Foundation of British Strength: National Identity and the British Common Soldier (Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Florida State University, 2007), p. 8
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Dan Zeiser. "The Most Effective Political General". The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  9. "Jackson, Andrew". War of 1812. The Historica-Dominion Institute, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Parks Canada. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Blake Whitaker. "Changing Generalship and Tactics in the late 19th Century". MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, LLC. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  11. James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 70
  12. John Hugh Reynolds, Makers of Arkansas History (New York; Boston: Silver, Burdett and company, 1905)pp. 244–251
  13. 13.0 13.1 David W. Dunlap (4 July 2016). "Tammany Hall site revisited, renamed". Hurst Corporation. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Daniel Edward Sickles (1819-1914)". North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Retrieved 24 August 2016. 

Other websites[change | change source]