“That’s all right; but if a cannon should be fired down Pennsylvania Avenue, it would hit a hundred or more newly created brigadiers.”
A Union Officer, 1861
General & Mrs. Hancock
Let’s put todays quote in proper 1861 context. Captain Winfield S. Hancock of the U.S. Army had returned to Washington D.C. in the summer of our favorite year. He and his family had spent the last several years on the California coast.
Promotions traditionally took a long time in the peacetime military, so Mrs. Hancock was understandably excited when her captain received a promotion to brigadier general. After expressing her surprise and pleasure to another officer, that fellow responded with excitement-dampening reality: there were a lot of new generals wandering around the city and the army.
The new General Hancock would eventually prove his worthiness of promotion and command. The following years of war would find him usually in the forefront of battles in the East: Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness.
(For more information about General Winfield S. Hancock and Mrs. Almira Hancock, here’s a link to the articles I wrote for Emerging Civil War: Part 1, Part 2.)
Too Many Generals?
Were there too many generals? That’s a matter of personal opinion.
Why were there so many generals? And where were these new officers coming from?
Remember George B. McClellan? The fellow who was reorganizing the Union Army of the Potomac in the autumn of 1861 and who considered becoming dictator. Well, as McClellan rebuilt and redesigned the command structure of the army, he assigned regiments to brigades, and brigades to divisions, and divisions to corps. Thus, the lowest rank of general was brigadier general (commander of a brigade). They did need officers in these positions, but that didn’t guarantee that the men who got the positions were qualified.
There wasn’t “officer training school” before they became officers in the Civil War; they learned “on the job” which was sometimes a triumph, but often a disaster. A few of the new generals were army officers who had attended West Point (or one of the other military schools) in their younger days. Others were patriotic civilians with influential friends who helped them get the military post. Others were just political appointees, looking to advance their political career.
To be honest, many colonels, generals, and other officers realized they didn’t know much about the military and promptly started studying the textbooks. But there were some who didn’t care and who became awful commanders.
1861 brings many American volunteers into the military. Bull Run was a first battle testing for some, but for many others 1862 would be the year when they succeeded or failed in combat and leadership.
Fortunately, General Hancock was one leader who providentially got a promotion. He would spend the next months honing his military knowledge and preparing for combat.
While some new brigadiers would struggle, others would become the “rising stars” of the United States Military, playing a major role in the Civil War and beyond. Officers in the U.S. Army discovered that the Civil War brought an opportunity to highlight their skills and many – like Hancock – were ready to serve.
However, in 1861, these brilliant commanders of later years were still just part of the crowd of brigadiers in the city.
P.S. Would the war have ended sooner or continued longer if that mythical cannon had been fired down Pennsylvania Avenue? Your thoughts?