Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Sean Chick
Butler, Banks, Sigel, McClernand. These are just the most infamous of the “political generals” of the American Civil War. The four named here are usually considered military incompetents, their victories aberrations in an otherwise consistent record of failure. To be fair, some of these men fit the mold well, in particular Nathaniel Banks. Yet, like most of what I was raised on, the truth is far more murky and fascinating, particularly in regards to John McClernand.
While reading William McFeely’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant I ran into McClernand not as Grant’s enemy, but as his friend in 1861. This flew in the face of the old story of Grant and McClernand as bitter rivals. Sadly, McFeely did not touch more on this relationship; his book is ultimately more invested in Grant’s controversial presidency. The possible answer to why this relationship came apart I found instead in Joseph Rose’s Grant Under Fire. Rose’s book is severely anti-Grant, but supported by excellent research. What he has to say about McClernand is interesting.
Grant was a Democrat before the war. Not a very active one, but he voted for Douglas and probably did not align with the Republicans until 1864. McClernand was a powerful Democrat, and in Grant’s Memoirs he recalls that he allowed McClernand to address Illinois state troops who were considering not enlisting in the national army. At Cairo McClernand was Grant’s chief subordinate. It is possible that Grant favored McClernand because of his political connections. Such a man could bring Grant far.
At first all was well. McClernand took his job seriously. He trained his men well and was personally brave. The friendship seemed to be cemented at Belmont. McClernand was at the front, directing troops under fire and leading the retreat. After it was over Grant gushed that McClernnd showed “great coolness and courage” and had “proved that he was a soldier as well as a statesman.”
Their falling out, according to Rose, began after Belmont. Whatever his personal morals, Grant was susceptible to cronyism. At Cairo Grant allowed an acquaintance, George Graham of Galena, Illinois, to manage water transport for the growing army. Graham was shamelessly corrupt. Making matters worse was quartermaster Reuben Hatch, whose brother was Lincoln’s secretary. Hatch was not only corrupt, but according to one investigation lazy and duplicitous. Grant used his influence to shield Hatch, and enlisted the aid of Congressman Elihu Washburne and Governor Richard Yates. Hatch managed to stay in Federal service throughout the war.
In contrast to his support for Graham and Hatch, Grant disliked Captain William Kountz, who oversaw river transportation once Graham proved inadequate. Kountz reported first to McClernand and not Grant, which drew Grant’s ire. McClernand liked Kountz though and supported his reforms and attempts to weed out corruption. Kountz appears to have been given to vindictiveness; the boatmen did not like him and soon newspapers were printing negative stories. In January 1862 Grant had Kountz arrested, but pressed no charges, preferring to merely transfer him. This was likely because Kountz had a powerful ally in George McClellan. At any rate, Kountz ended up accusing Grant of drunkenness.
McClernand still supported Kountz, and Grant personally explained to him the reasons for the arrest. At this point the relationship began to strain. McClernand wrote John Logan, a friend, fellow politician, and colonel, “I think I see a professional, military jealousy of Citizen Generals.” He was not being paranoid; this favoritism was quite real and pronounced in the theater commander, Henry Halleck. Regardless, Grant still relied on McClernand. It was McClernand’s division that led the way to Fort Henry.
Fort Donelson ruined what might have been a fruitful partnership. Grant blamed McClernand for being driven from the field; McClernand blamed Grant for not properly supporting him. Both men had a good case against each other. After the battle, McClernand bragged about his role personally to Lincoln. Grant had no idea what McClernand might be writing to Lincoln, and, given the way the Fort Donelson fighting played out, Grant’s fears were reasonable. McClernand was ambitious, at times prickly, and had shown an independent streak in backing Kountz. Grant for his part offered only scant praise of McClernand after the battle.
Yet, McClernand would try again to gain Grant’s trust. After Fort Donelson Grant was censured by Halleck and temporarily kept from leading an expedition up the Tennessee River. McClernand wrote Grant a letter of tribute and publicly supported him. Whether this was a genuine attempt at friendship is unknown. It might have been a political calculation, as Grant was the hero of the hour. McClernand might have also surmised that in the feud between Halleck and Grant, the latter was preferable all around.
Sadly, this attempt at a renewed friendship failed. Grant ignored McClernand at Shiloh, treating William Tecumseh Sherman, whom McClernand out-ranked, as the de facto camp commander. McClernand’s warnings of a possible Rebel attack were ignored. The fact that his division fell apart several times in the fighting did McClernand no favors, although he was conspicuous in his bravery and led some counterattacks. After Shiloh the two were enemies. Occasionally McClernand would try to patch things between them; he openly supported the plan to strike south of Vicksburg, but the campaign ended with McClernand out of command and out of favor. In the end, McClernand was out-maneuvered by Grant in the high-stakes political games fought in the army and in Washington.
There is a sadness to the feud between McClernand and Grant. Both men were brave, devoted, and capable commanders. McClernand showed no great tactical gifts but he was a hard marcher, and good at administration and discipline. After Belmont Grant and McClernand were compatriots. They had fought their first battle together and come out of it alive. Yet, as Grant was writing his memoirs at death’s door, he never even mentioned McClernand’s role at Belmont.