General Lincoln? (Article 62)

“General, I have just received your dispatch about sore tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  –  Abraham Lincoln to General George McClellan after the General said he could not advance that day because his horses were too tired.

“If the General is not going to use his army, I wonder if I might borrow it.”  –  Abraham Lincoln in a staff meeting, talking about General George McClellan.

“Had McClellan followed his advice, he would have taken Richmond. Had Hooker acted in accordance with his suggestions, Chancellorsville would have been a victory for the nation. Had Meade obeyed his explicit commands, he would have destroyed Lee’s army before it could have re-crossed the Potomac.” And, continuing: “The War would have ended two years earlier, President Lincoln would have served his second term, and the nation would be healed.”  – William A. Croffut, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author, writing in 1875.

As the new Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln was constantly frustrated with his Generals. He had given them the largest standing Army in the history of the United States and provided them with the equipment and munitions they requested. But still, no significant progress had been made against the smaller and lesser equipped Confederate Army. But, because he had hardly any military experience himself, he was reluctant to give specific direction to the Generals who had made a career in the Army. After all, his only experience in the military was as an Illinois militia Captain in the 1832 Black Hawk War; thirty years before he became the Commander-in-Chief. He never engaged in any direct action in that short war, and even made fun of his experience saying (paraphrased), “I fought many bloody battles with mosquitoes, I was no hero.”

Later, as a young Congressman in 1847, he had argued against the war with Mexico and showed little interest in the tactics of the Generals who carried out President Polk’s invasion plans. He simply thought the war was a “land grab” by Polk’s administration and opposed the overall mission.

Now, however, as President, he was ultimately responsible for the progress, and the outcome, of the largest military engagement in United States history. And, he was not confident that the senior commanders he had appointed were leading the nation toward a victory and preservation of the Union. Even worse, one commanding General, George B. McClellan, failed to even acknowledge the Commander-in-Chief ’s requests for definitive reports on strategic plans. In fact, McClellan had such disrespect for the President, that he once refused to see Lincoln when he called at the General’s home.

On the other side, when war broke out, the Confederates had attracted about one-third of the officers who had been in the United States Army, and that included many of most experienced and able Generals. Lincoln noted after several early military set-backs, “We were out-generaled!”

In the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln usually deferred to the plans of his generals; even when he noted to others that he disagreed with some of their strategies. Lincoln was a highly intelligent man and was prone to utilize careful logic (and an occasional metaphoric yarn) when presenting his opinion, whether about political issues or military affairs. He recognized his lack of military knowledge, including lessons which might be learned from the study of historic engagements, so he read books on battlefield tactics and strategies and conferred with other Generals. As a result, over time, he gained confidence in his own ability to understand the various military situations.

Only then, did he begin to more forcefully influence the war effort.

His primary concerns were that the Generals were hesitant to take the battle to enemy forces and that they were obsessed with “place”, which meant gaining and holding territory, even if that location held little strategic importance. (The old, “take that hill” military mentality.) And often, satisfied with their occupation of a place, they would wait for long periods before moving to another engagement. Lincoln, on the other hand, felt there were only a few strategic locations worth fighting for and defending; and he wanted the Union army to focus on overcoming rebel forces wherever they were encountered and to pursue them until they were too weakened to resist. He believed that the Union forces held such numerical advantage, in both men and supplies, that a “pursue and conquer” strategy would be successful.

One of his early attempts at directing battlefield strategy was in January 1862, when he suggested that Generals Halleck and Buell merge their two armies which were both operating around Tennessee. Urging cooperation, Lincoln wrote (in part): “We have the greater numbers. We must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time. And if he weakens one to strengthen the other, seize the weakened one.” Lincoln thought his “overwhelming force strategy” could also prevent the Confederates from re-taking a place they had lost, if the Union would pursue the enemy rather than holding the place until rebels counter-attacked. The two Generals simply ignored the President’s request.

Perhaps his only excursion into a battlefield area to actually give commands, rather than to just counsel and/or observe, occurred in May 1862 when Lincoln felt that General McClellan should reduce his forces around Yorktown in order to send more troops to re-take the nearby Norfolk Naval facilities. Lincoln felt strongly that Norfolk was one on those “places” worth taking and keeping. The Confederates were using Norfolk not only to repair and supply their ships, but also as a staging area for the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) which endangered Union shipping. Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton went to the area and, leaving McClellan out of the discussion, directed a dual assault against Norfolk, one from gunboats sent up the James River and the other a coordinated ground attack by troops from Fort Monroe. The Confederates quickly abandoned Norfolk and scuttled the famous ironclad.  As was his style, Lincoln did not take credit for the mission’s success; but, General McClellan and his senior staff were still outraged by the interference in their battle plans.

While Lincoln readily conceded that McClellan had created and trained a great army, the President believed he had failed to lead his mass of troops consistently, and aggressively, against Confederate forces. And, eventually, he began to appoint successors.

Some were more aggressive than McClellan, but each was “out-generaled” in Lincoln’s view.

For one, there was General Joseph Hooker, who Lincoln knew would fight, but soon learned that Hooker might not choose the best battleground. When both Hooker and Lincoln realized that General Robert E. Lee was moving a large Confederate army north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Hooker planned to circle behind and attack Richmond, the South’s Capital city. Lincoln disagreed with Hooker’s plan and gave Hooker different orders. Lincoln said, “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. Follow on his flank, shortening your (supply) lines while he lengthens his. Fight him when the opportunity offers.” Then a week later, Lincoln told Hooker, “This invasion gives you back the chance that I thought McClellan lost to cripple Lee’s army far from its base.” To Lincoln’s astonishment, Hooker replied that he would be outnumbered, which Lincoln knew to be untrue, and Hooker would not commit to attack Lee’s army. Hooker then made a devastating tactical error and chose to fight a large Confederate army at Chancellorsville; where he lost the battle and his command.

Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade, and was at first elated when Meade led Union forces to the victory at Gettysburg, but then saw Meade, as had McClellan and Hooker (and others), fail to pursue and destroy Lee’s army; instead Meade allowed a retreat by Confederate forces back into Virginia. Lincoln realized that the Union forces would now be fighting in that battle-weary area between Washington and Richmond, and said, “To attempt to fight the enemy back to his entrenchments in Richmond, is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year.” While he respected General Meade, Lincoln again looked for another General who would “Chase the Rebels without let-up.”

For the first three years of the War, Lincoln was constantly either unsure if he had the right Generals in place, or absolutely certain he did not.

Until he appointed General Ulysses S. Grant! He had finally found his General.

So, with all of his earlier dissatisfaction with the various Generals before settling on Grant as the Commanding General, why did Lincoln not take an even more direct role in battlefield strategy? There were three primary reasons and all relate to Lincoln’s logical thought process, which usually included trying to anticipate options he might need if an opponent, whether legal, political or military, did the unexpected.

First, he was a master politician and knew there was an advantage to having a barrier (the Generals) between himself and the public. Lincoln did not want to be either a hero, who became Dictator/Emperor (like Napoleon) because he “won” the war, nor a scapegoat if the war were prolonged or eventually lost. But, he also believed in the Constitution’s requirement that the elected civilian President would have authority to over-see the military leadership. To Lincoln, the roles of Commander-in Chief and Commanding Generals were separate, and the Country needed both.

Second, he knew he was a persuasive leader. Lincoln realized that his lack of military credentials would always, at first, elicit skepticism so, with few exceptions, he counseled with his generals, rather than give firm orders. He did a lot of ranting to members of his cabinet, and his two dedicated secretaries, but he was usually restrained when meeting with, or writing to, his Generals.

Third, and perhaps most important, with his limited military experience, he was not always sure he was right! For example, in a telegram, Lincoln admitted to General Grant that he had been wrong to doubt Grant’s plan to invade deep into Mississippi. As usual, with Lincoln, self-doubt almost always resulted in self-control.

President Abraham Lincoln was, however, absolutely convinced that he was right to make one bold strategic military decision.

While not technically a tactical battlefield event, Lincoln’s most significant military directive may have been the inclusion of Black troops into the U.S. Army. He certainly risked the resistance of many Union military leaders, and alienation of those in the North who were opposed to making the war about freedom for slaves.  Lincoln re-enforced his decision with the Emancipation Proclamation, which he declared was a “military necessity.” He then brought thousands of willing (and soon to be proven, able) Black soldiers into the Union Army and that was, by any rationale, a direct intervention by the President in military strategy.

Throughout the Civil War, with few exceptions, Abraham Lincoln did not interfere with battlefield plans or overall military objectives; therefore, in the strictest sense of the phrase, he never really became “General Lincoln.”

But, he certainly asserted himself as “The” Commander-in-Chief.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com