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Poseur Ranks the World: Civil War Generals

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150 years later, we hand out the final grades

This week marks the 150th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, thus ending the Civil War. Surprisingly, it has met with little notice or fanfare, which is odd, considering the Civil War is its own cottage industry.

But the big 150 slipped by, largely unnoticed. But not here at Poseur HQ, where we have endeavored to dig through history, or at least a few episodes of Ken Burns' miniseries, to rank the greatest Civil War generals.

I ended up with five Union and five Confederate generals, almost entirely by accident. There was no requirement of a balanced list, it just shook out that way, but we'll see if our commentariat agrees.

10 Patrick Cleburne (Confederacy)

An Irishmen who enlisted as a private soldier in a local militia company, Cleburne rapidly moved up the ranks of the Confederate Army due to his ability to use the Tennessee terrain to his own advantage, and routinely foil much larger armies. Lee described him as a "meteor shining from a clouded sky," which is the sort of poetry I wish modern generals, or heck, modern politicians, were capable. He also had the bright idea of arming the slaves to fight for the Confederacy, an idea that met with icy silence and a quick legislative death. But it did demonstrate his ability to think outside of the box.

9 George H Thomas (Union)

Arguably the single most underrated general of the war, mainly because he didn't spend the postwar period writing memoirs and puffing up his reputation. He was a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, which probably robbed him of any constituency to lobby on his behalf, but the Rock of Chickamauga didn't really need anyone to boost his accomplishments. He was the author of the Union victory on the Western front, crushing Hood's forces at Nashville in 1864, one of the key factors in the Union's eventual victory.

8 George Meade (Union)

He won Gettysburg and without that victory, the Union loses the war. Apparently, he was a rather difficult personality, and had difficulties getting along with anyone else which probably hampered his ability to lead the Army of the Potomac. He distinguished himself in the defeat at Fredericksburg, and he was one of the key figures at Antietam. After early successes based upon brilliant breakthroughs and forward charges, he seemed to lose his taste for death and slaughter, and was replaced by Grant mainly because he couldn't quite execute the war of attrition needed to bleed the Confederacy dry. I find it hard to fault a man for that.

7 James Longstreet (Confederacy)

I find Longstreet to be one of the most fascinating figures of the war, and he's probably more famous for an argument he lost: to entrench at Gettysburg and not charge into the Union lines. He was overruled, but his theory of defensive warfare was largely vindicated: a defending soldier is worth three to four times as much as an attacking one. There's a reason it's called Pickett's Charge even though Longstreet was the commander. He knew it was a bad idea, which led to him being a bit of a scapegoat for a century a so, only recently being re-evaluated as the corps commander whose talents contributed to victories at Fredericksburg, Bull Run, and Chickamauga (and the stalemate at Antietam). His flanking maneuver during the Battle of Wilderness at least temporarily delayed the inevitable of Grant's march to Richmond. He eventually became a Reconstruction Republican (the only former Confederate general to do so), but before then, he was supposedly told by President Andrew Johnson that only three men would never receive amnesty: Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and himself.

6 Nathan Bedford Forrest (Confederacy)

Yes, he was the first Grand Wizard of the Klan. Let's just leave that out of it: the man was a tactical genius. In fact, his use of cavalry is a clear influence on the German's innovative use of tank warfare. The Confederacy had a major edge in quality of cavalry for the war, but no one pressed the advantage more than Forrest. He took 2,000 green recruits, executed a frontal assault on Grant's forces, and then managed to evade capture for a full month, leading Grant's forces on a chase throughout the southern wilderness. By the time he returned to base in Mississippi, he had more soldiers than he started with. This was a man who knew how to use the terrain and he used blitzkrieg tactics before we even had a word for it. He also killed over thirty men on his own during the war, a record among American generals. He was a man born to fight.

5 Philip Sheridan (Union)

The South had a natural pool of cavalry officers, as many planters lived their lives in the saddle. Not so in the more industrial North. Sheridan's men were outclassed, the one area in which the South had a decisive advantage. And Sheridan still beat them. He presaged Sherman's march to the sea by employing scorched earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley, eventually finding and destroying JEB Stuart's forces (Stuart is probably the most overrated general of the war, his failure of reconnaissance at Gettysburg led directly to defeat and his superior forces were routed by Sheridan yet he's normally held in high regard). After winning the West, Sheridan joined up with Grant and it was a cavalry that probed and tormented Lee, forcing him to surrender at Appomattox.

4 Stonewall Jackson (Confederacy)

Over the course of 48 days in 1862, his army travelled 46 miles, won five battles, and eventually his force of 17,000 defeated a combined force of 60,000. I mean, the guy was a great commander. Lee used his two great commanders to great effect, essentially using Longstreet as an anvil and Stonewall as a hammer. Being the hammer is the harder job. In 1863, Lee uttered the famed phrase: "General Jackson has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right." Without Stonewall, Lee would lose at Gettysburg in a failed attempt to turn Longstreet into a hammer. Gettysburg is the turning point of the war, unless it is the death of Stonewall a few months prior. The only thing keeping Jackson out of the top spot is that he only fought in the first half of the war.

3 William T Sherman (Union)

Sherman's name is still a curse word in most of the South. He was the first president of LSU and not a picture of him is anywhere on campus. He was a proponent of total war, believing that the Civil War only continued because of its popularity among the civilian population. So, he must bring war to them in order to destroy the will of the people to fight. No one said he was a nice guy. Sherman suffered a breakdown early in the war, but rehabilitated his reputation at Shiloh, in which he and Grant authored a counterattack to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. He captured Vicksburg, fended off a larger attacking force at Chattanooga, sacked Atlanta, and engaged in the infamous March to the Sea in South Carolina. His army lived off the land, freed slaves, ravaged the plantations, and left economic devastation in its wake. He wanted to break people's will, and then did so.

2 Ulysses S Grant (Union)

It's the rare man who can kill thousands of men in a day and then sleep peacefully that night. That was Grant's greatest skill. He knew that he could replace his dead soldiers while Lee could not. So instead of fighting for decisive victories, Grant tried to engage his enemy wherever he could to win the war of attrition. That's a truly horrifying strategy, but it was an effective one. He was the "fighting general" than Lincoln searched for in vain for the first half of the war. Grant won the war not by tactical acumen, but by simply be willing to engage. Over and over. Not regardless of the human cost, but because of it. I think we might have stumbled in to why he was such a drinker.

1 Robert E Lee (Confederacy)

When the Civil War began, general consensus was that it would be a short war. The Union had literally every advantage imaginable: more men, more money, more industry, more international allies. It defies logic that the South was able to hold out for a year, much less nearly defeat the Union. The reason for this is almost entirely because Robert E Lee is one of the finest military minds in American history. Lee's audacious aggression got his forces 20 miles from Washington before stalling. He twice successfully led invasions into the North, until finally losing at Gettysburg. Even after that defeat, he managed to hold off final surrender for another two years. The amazing thing is that his greatest contribution was entrenching Richmond early in the war, earning him the sardonic nickname of the King of Spades. Even at the outbreak of the supposedly short war, he was thinking longterm. Lee privately detested the idea of secession, writing "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union." But he was a Virginian first and he resigned from the US Army two days after being offered the general command. If he makes the opposite decision, the Civil War maybe is the short war everyone predicted. He almost won an unwinnable war.