Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
by James M. McPherson
Reviewed by Drew Gilpin Faust
The New Republic Online
In his remarkable Personal Memoirs, written in 1885 when he was dying of throat cancer, Ulysses Grant recalled his first encounter with Abraham Lincoln. In March 1864, Grant had come to Washington to be commissioned lieutenant general and to assume command of Union armies that had struggled for three years without effective military leadership. Lincoln had admired Grant's resoluteness in successes from Fort Henry and Fort Donelson to Vicksburg, and hoped that he had at last found his general, the man who could turn the North's superior strength and resources into victory. Grant's memories of their encounter on that day provide a telling glimpse into Lincoln's conception of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as into the frustrations that had plagued him as he searched for the kind of leader that Grant became. Lincoln explained "that he had never professed to be a military man," but had been "forced" by the shortcomings of commanders to take on a far more extensive military role than he either intended or desired. "All he wanted or had ever wanted," Grant reported, "was some one who would take the responsibility and act." Grant would prove to be just that man.
Grant remembered with some bemusement that at that first meeting Lincoln submitted a detailed and comprehensive campaign plan to his new lieutenant general, complete with annotated maps indicating proposed movements and lines of supply. But even as he described his ideas, the president insisted that the new general should do exactly as he pleased. Grant noted both the extent and the limit of Lincoln's understanding of the science of war, and took pleasure in his commander's ready and willing grasp of strategic principles as Grant illuminated them.
Educated in war by circumstance and necessity, Lincoln was able to find a general who would act and could win -- and in so doing relieve the president of the direct military responsibility that weighed so heavily upon him. But even though Grant may have been less than impressed by the plan that Lincoln presented to him for victory in Virginia in 1864, Lincoln's self-education in strategic thinking had enabled him to recognize Grant's genius, and also to appreciate a philosophy of war incomprehensible to the highly trained generals who had failed to achieve Union victory through three long and costly years of fighting.
In his new book, James M. McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, reminds us that war was Lincoln's most fundamental and important work. Without military success, nothing else would have been possible -- not union, not emancipation, not "a new birth of freedom." As Lincoln himself put it, "on the progress of our arms, all else chiefly depends." Lincoln's duties as commander-in-chief, McPherson observes, required more of his "time and energy than anything else." In the course of the war, Lincoln made eleven separate visits to the Army of the Potomac, spending forty-two days of his presidency in the field. At home in Washington, the president haunted the War Department telegraph office for news: Grant remembered late-night telegraph conversations with Lincoln when he was fighting in West Tennessee well before the two men ever met. In the words of Lincoln's secretary John Hay, the president "gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation."
Since the time of his death, Lincoln has been the subject of a steady stream of books -- a raging river, really: more than sixteen thousand, by one estimate. His bicentennial birthday on February 12 this year has only intensified the outpouring. A book about Lincoln seems to appear every week. We are given Lincoln the icon, Lincoln the man of ideas, Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the political genius; we have learned about his wit and wisdom, his depression, his marriage, his friends -- even the lessons that his life holds for the ambitious twenty-first-century businessman. And we have, of course, seen Lincoln anew through the eyes of another politician from Illinois who sought in the experience of the sixteenth president insight into managing the crises that now confront us. But McPherson argues that we have not devoted sufficient attention, or appreciation, to Lincoln as a military leader.
Since the appearance of his first book in 1964, McPherson has written on a wide range of Civil War topics, beginning his career with a focus on abolitionists and then on the lives of African Americans during the war, and later turning to more military topics and a particular emphasis on soldiers' experiences and motivations. In 1989, McPherson published Battle Cry of Freedom, an overview of the war that became a best-seller and remains the best single-volume account of the great conflict. Yet every topic that he addressed seemed to lead McPherson one way or another to Lincoln -- as emancipator, as commander, as the determining force in what McPherson called "the second American revolution."
In the 1990s, McPherson found himself at the center of a historiographical controversy about Lincoln and race -- more particularly, about the degree of credit that Lincoln deserved for black emancipation. New work in American history was revealing in rich detail the variety of ways in which slaves had acted as agents of their own liberation, fleeing to Union lines in such numbers that Yankee soldiers and statesmen were forced to make the war about slavery, challenging bondage on farms and plantations across the South until the peculiar institution became a liability rather than an asset for the Confederate nation. These historians argued that it was the slaves themselves, rather than the president, who had put emancipation on the wartime agenda. Lincoln's twentieth-century critics pointed out as well how long the president took to embrace black freedom as a war aim, and how the Confiscation Acts of the summers of 1861 and 1862 showed Congress to be far more forward-looking than the president on slavery's future, and how in overturning the ad hoc emancipatory orders of military officers such as John Fremont and David Hunter, Lincoln might even be seen to have cast freed-people back into bondage.
For more than a decade, McPherson has argued forcefully against any such characterization of Lincoln. He ardently upholds Lincoln's place in history as the Great Emancipator. McPherson has shown that Lincoln carefully managed the art of the possible with a pragmatism that embraced abolition as a war aim only when he could cast it as necessary to victory and to national preservation -- causes for which he could generate political support that did not exist for emancipation itself. And McPherson has emphasized that the end of slavery ultimately depended on the military defeat of the Confederacy. Without victory, slavery would not have been destroyed. Lincoln was able to free the slaves -- and should be granted the credit for freeing the slaves -- because he succeeded in winning the war. In McPherson's view, Lincoln's claim as Great Emancipator is inseparable from his performance as commander-in-chief, and Tried by War, chronicling Lincoln's brilliant execution of his military responsibilities, thus serves as well as a significant contribution to McPherson's arguments about the sources of black freedom.
McPherson offers an authoritative and highly readable overview of Lincoln as a military leader, from his decision to resupply Fort Sumter in 1861 through his visit to Richmond after its fall in April 1865, just days before Appomattox and Lincoln's own death. McPherson's narrative is richly informed by his extensive research in fifty years as a practicing historian, but it also distills the work of a wide range of other Lincoln scholars into a volume that can inform the practiced student of the subject even as it welcomes the novice into Civil War history.
Just as the Civil War defined so many other aspects of the nation -- the meanings of freedom and citizenship, the perpetuity of the Union -- so, too, it presented the Chief Executive with the need to claim for himself the definition of his office: "to establish," McPherson writes, "most of the powers of commander in chief for himself." The Constitution was vague on the matter, stating in Article II, Section 2 only that "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States." But the powers that were entailed by this responsibility were nowhere specified, and at the time of ratification Alexander Hamilton had taken pains to reassure those Americans worried about a Constitution that might entrust the president with excessive power. This clause, he wrote in The Federalist, intended "nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military forces."
The powers and the purview of the commander-in-chief have emerged as matters of recent -- and urgent -- attention as George W. Bush has invoked the Constitution's language as a legitimation for his own actions as a war president. McPherson does not connect Lincoln directly to our own turbulent time, and he treats with a light and generous hand Lincoln's challenges to civil liberties and the prevailing rules of war in his suspension of habeas corpus and his declaration of a blockade against the southern states. Yet McPherson attributes to Lincoln the invention of the notion of war power, which appears nowhere in the Constitution and was not invoked by any of his predecessors. Lincoln had a clear idea of his duty, and the power justified by its execution. "It became necessary," the president explained, "for me to choose whether, using only the existing means, agencies and processes which Congress had provided, I should let the government fall at once into ruin, or whether availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it with all its blessings for the present age and for posterity." The end justified the means. History has granted Lincoln that judgment, for the most part agreeing that he correctly balanced those specific ends with those particular means. Meanwhile we vigorously debate the appropriate balance still.
Only hinting at current controversy over the powers and the responsibilities of the commander-in-chief, McPherson presents what amounts to a job description for Lincoln as war president, encompassing the dimensions of his role in terms of five functions that he "performed or oversaw." Lincoln was responsible for policy -- defining the political goals for the nation in war; for national strategy -- the mobilization of all available resources in pursuit of war aims; for military strategy -- the role of armed forces in pursuing these policies; for operations -- the movements of specific campaigns in service of overall military strategy; and for tactics -- the direction of an army in battle. From the outset, Lincoln wanted to focus on the first and the second of these tasks. But until he found Grant, he was compelled to deal with them all.
McPherson's conceptualization of the president's task in these terms usefully clarifies the shortcomings of the generals to whom Lincoln turned in the initial years of war. George McClellan was at once the most promising and the most disappointing of them. He had graduated second in his class from West Point and was hailed by the press and the public as "the young Napoleon" and "the man of destiny." Appointed general-in-chief of the United States armies in November 1861, McClellan was confident that "I can do it all." But insisting his army was unprepared and outnumbered, McClellan for most of the winter and spring instead did nothing, sorely testing the patience of a commander-in-chief desperate for action and results. Lincoln came to recognize the profound source of McClellan's dilatory behavior. McClellan, he insightfully concluded, "had the capacity to make arrangements properly for a great conflict, but as the hour for action approached he became...oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis." McClellan's fear of the costs of action paralyzed him.
When the general failed to pursue Lee's broken army after Antietam in the fall of 1862, Lincoln had enough. But a replacement was not easy to find. Ambrose Burnside refused twice to take on the command before he reluctantly accepted. He should perhaps have followed his initial inclination, for after the calamitous Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Burnside lasted little more than a month before Lincoln replaced him with his arch-rival Joseph Hooker, who managed a slightly longer but no more successful tenure. In the western theater as well, Lincoln struggled to find generals who could seize opportunities and produce victories. General Rosecrans in Nashville worried the president by demonstrating a reluctance to act that reminded him of McClellan. Lincoln's emerging understanding of military matters and resulting dissatisfaction with his generals forced an evolution in northern command until, by the summer of 1863, Grant's success at Vicksburg and Meade's repulse of Lee at Gettysburg began to turn the tide.
At the heart of the matter was a new reality that Lincoln had come to grasp, a reality that provided the foundation for Grant's Virginia campaign in the spring of 1864, a reality that McClellan had not been able to see -- or perhaps could not bear to confront. Northern victory would lie not in maneuver, but in superiority of numbers, in the ability to overwhelm Confederate forces through attrition, determination, and bloody cost. Lincoln called this "hard fighting," and contrasted it with "strategy" focused on movement and geography. "Lee's army, not Richmond is your goal," Lincoln had telegraphed McClellan in exasperation in 1862. Grant knew this, as did his colleagues Sherman and Sheridan. This was a new kind of warfare. This was a kind of warfare that no general had learned at West Point, a kind of warfare that Lincoln grew to comprehend through his own self-education, and that Grant understood through both instinct and experience. As McPherson writes, Lincoln "oversaw the evolution of the war from one of limited ends with limited means to a full- scale effort that destroyed the old Union and built a new and better one on its ashes."
McPherson's recounting of the story of Lincoln's leadership, his remarkable ability to persevere through adversity, to use his common sense and uncommon intelligence to chart a road to victory, amazes still, and reminds us yet again of our extraordinary good fortune as a nation to have had that man in that office at that moment. We are reminded, too, of the seeming hopelessness of the task that Lincoln faced as he took office in 1861. He was so loathed he had not even been on the ballot in ten southern states; the secession of seven states took place before he was even inaugurated. By the time nine months of his presidency had elapsed, northern forces had been ignominiously defeated only miles from the Capitol; efforts to liberate Unionist Tennessee had failed; no military commander seemed to have any plan for effective movement against the enemy; and northern popular opinion was impatient for either military success or political compromise. "The bottom is out of the tub," Lincoln proclaimed in despair. "What shall I do?"
In the face of such odds, he managed to create an army, win a war, and save a nation -- setting the stage as commander-in-chief for Union military triumph but also, as national strategist and policy maker, tying war aims to larger purposes -- creating the new birth of freedom of which he spoke, and which we are still realizing today. Perhaps this is why, in the season of his two-hundredth birthday, this remarkable president continues to mean so much to us. Abraham Lincoln is, quite simply, the greatest argument against despair in dark times that our history provides.
Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University and the author most recently of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage).