Civil War Friday: A Bit More on Generals
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Civil War Friday: A Bit More on Generals

A couple of weeks ago, I re-published a satirical blog debunking the myth that "the Civil War was known for its brilliant generals and strategy." If you missed it, you can find it here. This week, however, over on other Civil War sites, there has been more discussion about the nature of generals.  I cannot resist putting in a few more comments about two generals who keep appearing in my books: David Hunter and Henry Benham.  Here's what I had to say about them in my book, A Scratch with the Rebels.

General Hunter, at age sixty, was desirous of victory and a staunch abolitionist at heart, but he was past the point in his career when he could afford to take chances. He preferred conciliation to controversy and hesitated to take any action on which not all could agree. His second in command, General Benham, was vastly different. Young and eager to the point of brashness, he already had a reputation for acting upon his own initiative without stopping to consider the consequences. 

My opinions rest, in part, upon first-hand observations from those who dealt with them. To appreciate several facets of General Henry W. Benham's personality, listen to what a navy man had to say:


 Alfred G. Gray, captain of the Union transport McClellan, needed only a few moments to size him up, calling him "the most headstrong and foolish General that I met with during the war."  Perhaps fittingly, on 1 April 1862, Gray's task was to deliver the newly arrived general to Beaufort. He described an April Fool's Day of strong winds and high seas. Nevertheless, Benham ordered him to go alongside the Atlantic. The captain was sure there was some mistake in the order, but Benham insisted. The result was that the waves washed the two ships together, and the McClellan suffered damage to "paddle box, rails around the quarterdeck, etc."

As the transport neared Beaufort, Benham complained that the boat would have to pull right into shore so that its passengers would not get their feet wet as they disembarked. One of the ship's officers asked Benham "if he thought the ship would float where shore birds could walk. Eventually the ship's crew managed to get "General Benham and his lady friends" to land at Beaufort, but Captain Gray observed that the effort had cost the government "several thousand dollars." He also reported that even as they landed, Gen. Benham "had to find fault with the officers of the boat . . . which General Benham knew nothing about." (Scratch with the Rebels, pp. 77-78)

Now here what Miss Laura Towne had to say about General David Hunter in June, 1862:

He is a generous but too impulsive man, kind to a fault to his soldiers, and more anti-slavery than I expected.  He wore a loose undress coat made of white cassimir and a straw hat, when walking on the piazza.  His manner is very quick and decided, and to his wife attentive and as if he were much attached to her.  He told me how she went with him on all his campaigns and how impossible it was for him to do without her.

Then she described this incident, which she observed on the same day:

"There's that guard asleep  again," he said once.
"Let him sleep, David," urged his wife. "How would you like to stand and walk about so long uselessly with a heavy gun on your shoulder in the hot sun? Let him sleep, David."
"Oh, you would keep pretty order in my camp," he said laughingly, and let the man sleep. (See Laura Towne's Letters and Diary and my upcoming book, The Road to Frogmore.)

These were the generals in charge of the Union forces at Secessionville. Their personalities surfaced almost immediately.  On June 15th, Hunter returned to Hilton Head to take his wife to dinner aboard Admiral DuPont's flagship. He left General Benham in charge, with specific orders:

". . . you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.  You will however provide for a secure intrenched encampment . . . ." (Scratch with the Rebels, pp. 106-107)

Benham immediately disregarded the order. Stressing the portion of it that instructed him to  "provide for a  secure intrenched encampment," he decided the earthworks at Secessionville had to be removed. He immediately ordered an attack, sending his men into a direct line of fire that resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Union forces. It was an act for which he would be court-marshaled, though not convicted.

Two generals: one old, one young; one totally devoted to his wife , one a womanizer; one overly cautious, the other a risk-taker and glory-seeker; one more comfortable out of uniform; one worried about the crease in his pants; one too sympathetic towards his men, the other unnecessary harsh and critical.

Was either a good general? I wouldn't have wanted to serve under either of them.