The Falling Out Between John McClernand and Ulysses S. Grant

McClernandToday, we are pleased to welcome guest author Sean Michael 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.

17 Responses to The Falling Out Between John McClernand and Ulysses S. Grant

  1. Sean:
    Great article. As Sean rightly implies, McClernand was probably one of the best of the so-called political generals, and Banks was the worst.

    Not only was Banks an incompetent general, he probably was corrupt. His civil administration of New Orleans was tainted by massive payoffs to Union officers in exchange for allowing underground trade between Northern speculators and Southern cotton growers.

    Although I am a huge fan of Grant’s, Sean also is correct in noting that the Union hero had a penchant for cronyism, a flaw that sadly followed Grant into the White House. And no one was better at holding a grudge than Grant.

    From what I’ve read, one of McClernand’s greatest sins was being a braggart. Grant was outwardly unassuming and humble, and he despised blowhards.

  2. I occasionally get the impression that, in an effort to “re-balance” the historical record regarding Grant, there is a perceived need to lionize some of those with whom Grant had ongoing personal disputes. George Thomas is the obvious example, but McClernand is emerging as another. Among the so-called “political generals” McClernand probably did better than many others on the battlefield but let’s not go overboard. The article doesn’t mention Champion’s Hill, where a good case can be made that McClernand did not press the attack to the extent he could (and should) have. Nor should the context be ignored. Even writers sympathetic to McClernand have noted his persistent back-door lobbying for independent command and his “lack of enthusiasm” at being placed back under Grant’s command in late 1862, exacerbated by his penchant for direct communications with the administration in Washington.

    1. Hi John,
      “McClernand probably did better than many others on the battlefield but let’s not go overboard.”

      I actually fully agree with you on this. There was only so much room so I could not go into all the specifics of McClernand’s generalship. Needless to say, his actions at Champion Hill were certainly the low point of his career. He hesitated. He did pursue well, but he also made mistakes during his second assault at Vicksburg.

      I will be the first to say McClernand is not in need of being “lionized.” Nor is he the poisonous backstabber of mythology. My point here is that if not for some personal misunderstandings he would have remained a Grant favorite and would have a better reputation. It is made dobly sad by the fact that McClernand and Grant fought together at Belmont. Sort of reminds me of Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke.

      1. Minor correction. Grant placed Eugene Carr in charge of the pursuit after Champion Hill, commanding his and Osterhaus’ divisions. Carr was still in command during Big Black River Bridge.

  3. John:
    Unfortunately, efforts to demean Grant’s abilities are not new. Much of the Lost-Cause mythology, which began shortly after the Civil War, was aimed at discrediting Grant, both as a general and a president. Sure Grant had his flaws. But, for my money, he was the greatest general of the war – both tactically and strategically. Without Grant, the Union very well could have lost the war.

    And a growing number of historians are re-evaluating his presidency in a more positive way. Grant’s efforts on behalf of African-Americans during Reconstruction were almost as heroic as anything he accomplished on the battlefield.

    1. Hi Bob,

      I would not demean Grant as general. Although surprised at Shiloh, he held on, did not lose his nerve, sent troops forward, and attacked the next day. Grant was one of the best of the war. But he was surprised at Shiloh. My point is no body is perfect. I find when Grant’s shortcomings are pointed out the person is sometimes painted as being too critical or worse yet a Lost Causer. Grant was no “butcher” regardless of what Mary Todd Lincoln thought. HBut his losses in May and June of 1864 were extremely high and that should not be forgotten either.

      In the case of McClernand Grant had his reasons to mistrust him. I would not say the same about Thomas or even Rosecrans, but that is for another post.

      Grant’s relations with African-Americans is complicated. The case of James Webster Smith shows the limits of Grant’s aid to blacks and should not be forgotten.

      1. Not to go too far off topic, but criticism of Grant concerning JW Smith is usually based on McFeely’s bio of Grant. Brooks Simpson analyzed how McFeely bungled this story, and over-criticized Ulysses and Fred Grant.

  4. I guess I don’t see why there is any mystery here. I’m writing this from work, so I can’t check my library at home very well, but going from memory, McClernand was the officer who was giving speeches at Belmont while the Confederates were crossing troops to land behind Grant’s force. At Donelson he attacked a battery position w/o orders and got some of his troops killed to no purpose. Then, his division was driven back by the Confederate attack the next day. His report on Shiloh, IIRC, was found to be more than a bit pompous on behalf of his division, to the extent that Grant said something about it in his endorsement (and perhaps asked him to re-write it). At some point Grant learns of McClernand’s near-endless self-promotion to their superiors. This looks to me like a commanding officer putting up with and tolerating the flaws and errors of a subordinate, until it simply gets to be too much.

    1. James,

      McClernand might say Grant was off the field at Fort Donelson, surprised at Shiloh, and was too quick to take credit for himself. Grant’s report of Iuka is among the most self-serving and misleading of the war.

      Not to say McClernand was a saint. Except for Belmont, I agree with everything you wrote about McClernand’s errors. Do not forget that Grant was pleased with McClernand’s actions at Belmont and made his division the lead one at Fort Donelson.

  5. John,

    I would agree that “McClernand probably did better than many others on the battlefield,” but that we should not go overboard. The typical pro-Grant narrative, however, has pigeonholed McClernand as a back-stabbing incompetent. We can certainly “re-balance” the record without going too far in the other direction.

    I would also agree that, at Champion Hill, “a good case can be made that McClernand did not press the attack to the extent he could (and should) have.” I wrote in Grant Under Fire that, “To be sure, McClernand could—and probably should—have ignored Grant’s hesitancy and let the sounds of combat guide him to an immediate and vigorous advance.” But again, the pro-Grant account omits the tentative nature of Grant’s instructions and the extent to which Grant distorted the communications sent to McClernand in his writings.

    And, although McClernand certainly acted “politically” throughout the war, so did Grant (something else that Grant biographers minimize or overlook completely). Grant’s connection at the hip to Elihu Washburne was only the most notorious, but he also wrote directly to politicians such as Abraham Lincoln and Senator Henry Wilson.

    Because Grant and his supporters de-lionized such fellow officers as Thomas, McClernand, Rosecrans, and Lew Wallace, it behooves us to re-balance the way we look at them (and the way we look at Grant).

    1. Joe: That, of course, is the trick. I’m not sure the goal is to “re-balance” rather than to “reassess”. It is perfectly legitimate to end up in the same place after “reassessing” in light of information which has just come to light or which may have been ignored. Even assuming that Grant indulged in fabricated criticism of some subordinates, that does not require that we end up with a different view of the likes of McClernand or Rosecrans, for example. McClernand was at bottom a politician. He had an inflated view of his own importance and capacity. Frankly, I wouldn’t understand a competent commanding officer failing to tire of McClernand’s incessant back channel lobbying and self-promotion. It’s not as though he was one the great chieftains of all time. I’ll leave Thomas and his use of McClellan’s calculator at Nashville to another time. Suffice to say that he was confronted by a “host” which had just suffered devastating casualties at Franklin and had a decimated officer corps from the division level on down. Proof that Hood was less than suited for army command wasn’t his conduct outside Atlanta or even at Franklin. It was his reckless decision to continue his invasion with a severely injured and essentially rudderless army. In sum, one can debunk the view that Grant was error-free or that he routinely displayed military brilliance without compensating by elevating mediocre officers to medal status.

  6. (If I may: Mr. Chick, I’m really enjoying your book on Petersburg, but I have a question. If you would shoot me an email to jfepperson (at) gmail (dot) com, we could hash that out amongst ourselves. Thanks.)

  7. I think the major reason for the rift between Grant and McClernand is that Grant was first and foremost a general. McClernand was first and foremost a politician who wanted to be a general. Grant wanted to win the war, while McClernand wanted to win glory for himself which could be later cashed in for political opportunity.

    Although Grant may have first started receiving warnings about McClernand right after Belmont, he didn’t really turn against McClernand until later. Lew Wallace thought the starting point was a pre-Donelson meeting with the division heads where McClernand whipped out a sheet of paper to officiously lecture Grant and the other generals as to the proper course of action.

    I think Grant turned against McClernand when he found out McClernand was intriguing with DC behind his back. And the fact that McClernands fellow division and corps commanders complained about McClernand trying take credit for the actions of other commands… that didn’t help either.

    McClernand had some talent as a general, but his politician side scuttled his military service.

  8. Interesting article! I am listening to an audiobook of Shaara’s novel “Chain of Thunder” which is about the Siege of Vicksburg and McClernand is mentioned in the narrative. It is helpful to read more of the pre-Vicksburg politics/friendship/battlefield experiences. Thanks.

  9. Thank you to Sean Michael Chick for revealing and discussing details of John McClernand’s Civil War service. It is of interest that McClernand and U. S. Grant began 1861 as friends (same political affiliation, and Colonel Grant allowed Congressman McClernand to address his 21st Illinois Infantry in June of that year.) McClernand also earned “street cred” the following month when he volunteered for service during the Bull Run Campaign and acted as courier, delivering General McDowell’s report from Centreville back to Washington (which detailed the actions of 18 July at what became known as Skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford.) Upon return to Illinois, newly minted Brigadier General McClernand was available to assist Brigadier General Grant in his rank dispute with Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss. With Prentiss out of the way, McClernand and Grant rode a wave of success… until McClernand thought Grant had been the cause of the Army’s delayed arrival at Fort Henry (and complained about it.) And McClernand next “offered suggestions” at a War Council chaired by Grant after Fort Henry (those suggestions not appreciated by General Grant.) The breakout attempt by Confederate troops at Fort Donelson on 15 February 1862 was perceived by Grant as “McClernand’s fault, because his right was not anchored properly.” Who was responsible for McArthur’s Brigade being improperly positioned is subject to debate; but it appears Grant read McClernand’s after-action report, and found no acceptance of responsibility for the near disaster… and it was all downhill from there.

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