Monday, June 06, 2011

150 Years Ago: Political Generals

Henry A. Wise.Image via Wikipedia

On Thursday, June 6, 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Wise was assigned to command in western Virginia.

Wise, formerly the governor of Virginia, was a textbook example of a political general.  It was a common practice during the Civil War for politicians and other leading citizens to be promoted to high rank.  It was almost always done for some political gain, but it was also thought that these men had leadership skills that would offset their lack of military training.

It seems odd today, but in the huge volunteer armies that were taking shape in 1861 it was common practice for the enlisted men to choose the officers who would lead them.  Often it was the local authority figure, who most likely had recruited and formed the unit.

This intermingling of military and politics was common North and South.  Results were mixed.  Some of the civilian leaders turned out to be natural-born military geniuses who put the West Pointers to shame.  Some of the civilians, like Wise, were not up to the task at hand and were shunted aside, quietly retired or sent off to some backwater post.  Wise spent most of his time in western Virginia feuding with another political general, former U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd..

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