Stephen Augustus Hurlbut had very little military experience before the Civil War. Born in Massachusetts, Hurlbut settled in Charleston, South Carolina for 30 years before the outbreak of hostilities. He studied law, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar. His only military experience came when he served as an adjutant of a regiment of troops from South Carolina during the Seminole Wars. In 1845, he returned to the North and was serving in the state legislature of Illinois when shots were fired on Fort Sumter. He was quickly appointed to brigadier general of volunteers by Abraham Lincoln on June 14, 1861.
Hurlbut took full advantage of his political connections throughout the war, leading to many difficulties. On September 17th, 1862, most likely through political connections, Hurlbut was promoted to major general, before his military career even began. Hurlbut commanded the 4th Division of the Army of the Tennessee at Shiloh and Corinth, after which he commanded the XVI Corps. In 1864, he was placed in command of the Department of the Gulf. While in this role, Hurlbut tried to further his own position, and caused problems with the government, which had been set up by the North to run Louisiana after Confederate soldiers were forced out of the area. His action brought forth an order from E. R. S. Canby for his arrest, but the case was quieted, and Hurlbut was mustered out of the army on June 20, 1865.