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Badmouthing the "Big Bugs"

The Civil War produced an unusually large crop of inept generals, on both sides. Naturally, they were often criticized by their colleagues, opponents, troops, contemporaries, and the occasional historian. Forthwith, some seriously negative comments about some of the more senior officers on both sides, known as “Big Bugs” in the Old Army.

You may find some surprises here, not least when one of those criticized as inept turns out to be critical of someone else.

Rude Comments about Some Major Generals in Blue

 

  • Nathaniel Banks,
    • ". . . oppressed somewhat with a position novel and untried, and full of responsibility of a character so different from those he has had heretofore that he feels ill at ease." -- Maj. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, U.S.
    • “a nobody . . . as good a politician as he is a bad soldier” -- Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, U.S.
  • Don Carlos Buell, “ . . . utterly unfit for command of the great army under him . . .” – Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana.
  • Benjamin Butler, “Nobody ever doubted his energy; nearly everybody doubted his character. He was endlessly useful and endlessly troublesome.” – Allan Nevins, historian
  • John C. Frémont, " . . . utterly incompetent." -- Maj. Gen. David Hunter, U.S.
  • Henry “Old Brains” Halleck,
    • “. . . selfish, covetous of renown, unfriendly to and jealous of all naval doings . . . ." -- Rear Adm. Samuel Francis DuPont, USN
    • “ . . . a dull, stolid, inefficient, and incompetent General-in-Chief . . . [who] sits back in his chair doing comparatively nothing.” – Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy
    • “Of all men whom I have encountered in high position, Halleck was the most hopelessly stupid. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea . . . .” -- Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, U.S.
    • “. . . that pedant turned soldier” – Williamson Murray, historian
  • Samuel P. Heintzelman, “ . . . a very commonplace individual of no brains, or whose limited apportionment was long since ossified in the small detail of an infantry garrison.” -- Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, U.S.
  • Joseph Hooker,
    •  “. . . a worthless loafer . . . " and a "braggadocio and drunkard." – Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, U.S.
    • "I know Hooker well and tremble to think of his handling 100,000 men in the presence of Lee." -- Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S.A.
    • "A man may talk very big when he has no responsibility." -- Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
  • George B. McClellan, “Criticizing someone else always made McClellan feel better.” -- Chester G. Hearn, historian
  • Eleazer A. Paine, "He is entirely unfit to command a post." – Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant
  • Franz Sigel, ". . . in point of theoretical education, is far above the average of commanders in this country. He has studied with great care the science of strategy, and seems thoroughly conversant with the campaigns of all the great captains, so far as covers their main strategic features, and also seems familiar with the duties of the staff, but in tactics, great and small logistics, and discipline he is greatly deficient. These defects are so apparent as to make it absolutely impossible for him to gain the confidence of American officers and men, and entirely unfit him for a high command in our Army." -- Brig. Gen. John M. Schofield, Feb. 12, 1862.

 

Rude Comments about Some Generals, Lieutenant Generals, and Major Generals in Gray

  • Pierre G.T. Beauregard, “ He never had much brains . . . He always stops to quarrel with his generals . . . .” – Mary Chesnut, diarist
  • Edmund Kirby Smith, “The trouble with Edmund Kirby Smith . . . was that he believed his own press.” -- Larry J. Daniel, historian.
  • Robert E. Lee,
    •  “ . . . too subservient to those charged with the civil government of his country.” – Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley
    •  “. . . I never could see in his achievements what justifies his reputation.” Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant, U.S.A.
  • Jubal Early, “. . . constitutionally a fault-finder – querulous, dissatisfied & meddling in his dispositions . . . .” – Major John Warwick Daniel, C.S.A.
  • Leonidas Polk, “. . . by education and habit is unfitted for executing the plans of others. He will convince himself that his own are better and follow them without reflecting on the consequences.”– General Braxton Bragg, C.S.A.
  • Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson,
    • “ . . . at times something of a martinet . . . .” -- Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, C.S.A.
    • “ . . . tyrannical & unjust . . . .” – Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg, C.S.A.
  • Gideon Pillow,
    •  “ . . . . [after Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, the Confederacy’s] next most worthless officer . . . . ” – Col. Charles Whittlesey, 20th Ohio
    • " . . . that ass . . . . Human stupidity can go no further than this." – Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, C.S.A.
    •  “ . . . almost any head was wiser than Pillow’s . . . . untrained and unafraid . . . .” – John Y. Simon, historian
  • David E. Twiggs, the only “Old Army” general of the line to join the Confederacy,
    • A "miserable devil." Maj. Gen. William J. Worth, U.S.A.
    • ". . . not qualified to command an army either in the presence or in the absence of the enemy." -- Brevet Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, U.S.A.

Readers may note the lack of comment about the Confederacy’s General Braxton Bragg. There are so many negative comments about Bragg we decided to reserve them another time.

 

The Curious Case of John Paul Jonesís Bosunís Pipe

An odd bit of naval lore about John Paul Jones's boatswain's pipe circulated at the Naval Academy before World War II.

Supposedly, Jones provided a bosun's pipe of sterling silver to the bosun’s mate of the Bonhomme Richard. Years later, the pipe ended up in the possession of the Navy Department, and eventually ended up in what was termed “Main Navy.” This was the Navy and Munitions Building, one of a series of flimsy “temporary” structures erected in 1918 for World War I on the Mall in Washington, which were finally torn down in 1970 and replaced by the Constitution Gardens .

Now, in 1953, George J. Largess (USNA ’39) was assigned to Main Navy as Communications Officer (among his duties were rewiring the joint, which turned out to have walls twice as thick as normal, probably to prevent German sabotage). Recalling the story about Jones’s bosun’s pipe, he decided to look for it. Alas, no one there knew anything about a John Paul Jones artifact. Having apparently exhausted all lines of inquiry, Largess was ready to consign the story to a quaint fiction of the Academy.

Then, one day, Largess was introduced to a retired Chief Petty Officer who happened to be visiting some old shipmates in the building. So he asked the old Chief if he knew anything about the fabled bosun’s pipe. To his surprise, the former CPO replied in the affirmative.

The Chief explained that he had actually seen the bosun's pipe when he been assigned to the Main Navy back in the 1920s. And then he added that it was no longer in the United States.

According to the old Chief, when former Chief-of-Naval Operations Adm. Harold “Betty” Stark was dispatched to Britain in March of 1942 to act as liaison officer to the Royal Navy and help develop working arrangements between the to fleets, he took the pipe with him. Stark presented the pipe to the First Sea Lord, Britain’s CNO, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pound as a token of American friendship and commitment.

Assuming the old Chief’s tale was true, what happened to pipe after that is unknown.

George J. Largess (1917-2009): After graduating from USNA, he had the usual round of peacetime assignments in the Navy. With the coming of war he served on escort duty in the Atlantic aboard the very new USS Wilkes (DD 441) and took part in the landings in North Africa on November 8, 1942. In mid-’42 he was assigned to the new aircraft carrier Yorktown (CV 10), named to honor the ship that had fought at Coral Sea and Midway, where she was lost to enemy action. After the war Largess again held a variety of assignments, including command of the USS Keppler (DD 765) and the USS Altair (AK 257). He retired as a commander in 1962. Largess later taught at the Naval Academy Prep School and District of Columbia public schools.

-- Dennis Largess

Dennis Largess enlisted in the Navy after college and served for 1972-1974 aboard the USS Manley (DD 940) , home ported at Athens, Greece, followed by 1975-76 in the Farragut (DDG 37), captained by Mike Boorda, who later served as CNO. He says that the most exciting moment of his naval career occurred during the Bicentennial OpSail at New York for July 4, 1976, when sailors were given a tumultuous welcome. Arguably, the next night was a major low point; hearing that Elizabeth Taylor was kissing any sailor with a beard at a local watering hole named “Your Father's Mustache,” Largess headed for the place, only to arrive 15 minutes after she had left. He now lives in the Metro D.C. area.

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