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Confederate & Union Generals of the Civil War

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Civil War was a major conflict, but each army was only as good as its commanders. In this lesson, we'll get to know a few important generals from each side and see how they influenced the Civil War.

Generals of the Civil War

Americans often seem obsessed with the Civil War. There are several valid reasons for this. It was a major turning point in American history, it was well recorded, and it had a huge impact on the development of the United States. However, many people are also obsessed with it simply because there was some really interesting military stuff that went on. Both the Union and Confederate forces found brilliant military strategists and leaders among their ranks, and the Civil War really became a battle of truly gifted generals. Let's get to know a few of the most influential generals on each side, and see how they impacted the Civil War.

Union Generals

We'll start with the Union, because, well…they won. The most famous general by far on the Union side was Ulysses S. Grant, a major general and general-in-chief of the Union Army who would go onto be elected president after the war. While Grant ultimately hunted down and defeated the Confederate forces, forcing their surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, he had not held the title of general-in-chief for most of the war.

Ulysses S. Grant
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Up until 1864, Grant slowly built himself a reputation in some of the fringe areas of the war, halting the Confederate advance into the West. His biggest claim to fame came in 1863 at the Battle of Vicksburg when, after weeks of fighting, Grant captured the South's most important fort on the Mississippi River and claimed this waterway for the Union. In 1864, Lincoln replaced the previous general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, and gave Grant nearly full authority over Union forces.

Of course, Grant was never alone. Another general who had worked closely with Grant since Vicksburg was William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman was one of the firmest advocates of the so-called ''Hard War'' policy, in which the Union destroyed Southern infrastructure to hasten the end of the war. By 1864, Sherman was largely in charge of campaigns in the South, and he put Hard War tactics to use in laying siege to Atlanta, Georgia. From there, Sherman organized his forces into a column that slowly marched to Savannah, destroying nearly everything in their path. Known as ''Sherman's march to the sea'', this destructive event terrified the South so much that the crucial port of Savannah was almost immediately surrendered.

William Tecumseh Sherman
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Finally, we have to talk about Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan's name may not be as famous as Grant's or Sherman's, but he was a very influential figure. Often at odds with Lincoln and other politicians, McClellan was beloved by the troops and renowned for his decisive actions. McClellan was one of the first major generals of the war, being appointed to commander of the general-in-chief in 1861. He helped ensure that Kentucky did not cross into the Confederacy and stopped the Confederate advance in West Virginia. He ultimately lost his position due to his conflict with Washington politicians, and ran as the Democratic candidate for president against Lincoln in 1864.

Confederate Generals

The Union Army was well supplied, well funded, and led by some great strategists. So, why'd it take them so long to win the war? The Confederate army had some gifted generals of its own, starting with Robert E. Lee. Lee was a distinguished commander and when the war broke out he was immediately offered a position in charge of the entire army…by Abraham Lincoln. Lee was the Union's first pick for their general-in-chief, but when Virginia seceded he claimed that he could not fight against his own people and he traded Union blues for Confederate greys.

Robert E. Lee
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In the Confederacy, Lee rose to become commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the largest and most successful of the Confederate forces. Lee's main task was to prevent the Union from gaining access to the South, which he did for years despite consistently having lower numbers. Some of the bloodiest battles were fought under Lee's command, including Antietam and Gettysburg, the place where his advance was finally halted. In 1864, Grant's appointment put new pressure on the South, and Lee was finally forced to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.

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