Greatest Hits from Civil Warriors: Towards Reassessing A. Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief

(published in somewhat different form at Civil Warriors on May 16, 2007)

Many people like to point to Abraham Lincoln as a model commander-in-chief. Scholars have celebrated him as an instinctive strategist who had to put up with a series of inferior generals until he finally assembled the team that went out and won the war. At most, he comes under some criticism for appointing some generals based primarily upon their political value instead of their military skill, but even this practice has been defended as a necessary step towards winning the war.

I happen to think that while Lincoln was on the whole an able commander-in-chief, some of the aspects of his management of that position call for reassessment. It really doesn’t help us to present Lincoln as a model commander-in-chief if the model itself is flawed in construction. What follows, then, are some suggestions on how Lincoln may not have been a model commander-in-chief, at least in his relations with subordinates.

First, Lincoln meddled with his commanders in significant ways. Let’s set aside for the purposes of this discussion how McClellan and he disagreed over McClellan’s plans on how to invade Virginia in 1862. I’ll even be kind and pass by his appointment of corps commanders for the Army of the Potomac, although one can understand why McClellan might have been unhappy with the way in which this was done and the result. Rather, one might look to Lincoln’s visits to the front after the Seven Days, after Antietam, and after Chancellorsville, when he interviewed corps commanders and sought information from them that caused him to question the army commander. After mid-1862 corps and division commanders learned that they could always bypass their army commanders and go directly to Lincoln, and they did, especially after Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Both Joseph Hooker (Antietam) and Daniel Sickles (Gettysburg) took advantage of battle wounds that sent them to the rear to share their own version of events with the president. Nor need one limit this criticism to the Army of the Potomac, as Lincoln’s interaction with John A. McClernand illustrates. One way in which Ulysses S. Grant was better than many of his eastern counterparts was in his ability to deal with this interference: no sooner had he become general-in-chief in 1864 than he stopped the practice of going to Washington without permission from headquarters.

Second, Lincoln was not above badmouthing his generals to others. We may now see such comments as funny or folksy, but they should also be seen as unprofessional. Scholars habitually whack McClellan for referring to Lincoln in derogatory fashion, but they think it’s okay for Lincoln to compare his generals to stunned ducks (Rosecrans) or old women shooing geese away (Meade). When it came to McClellan, Lincoln gave as good as he got, and did not confine his comments to letters to his wife.

Third, Lincoln had no problem volunteering his own notions of how to conduct campaigns, even as he spoke disparagingly of “strategy” as something opposed to “fighting.”  Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong.  Indeed, he showed amazing restraint in not sharing his ideas about how to take Vicksburg with Grant until that campaign had concluded.  Oddly enough, by war’s end he was seeking to close out the conflict without another single big, bloody battle, a result that would have taken — you guessed it — “strategy.”  Moreover, the president could be inconsistent, chiding Meade for allowing the Confederates to escape after Gettysburg while never mentioning that at both Atlanta and Savannah Sherman took cities while the defenders escaped to fight another day.  Lincoln sometimes confused a simplicity of will — just do it — with a notion that how to go about doing it was simple as well.

Fourth, although there has been an upsurge in a discussion over the value of “political generals,” what I take away from that discussion is a need to discard the term (since one can define it in so many ways) and stick with looking at advantages and disadvantages, instead of simply saying that political generals were a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.  While I might now reframe a talk that I originally gave at Springfield and that was later published, I would not change the essential thrust of the argument: the success of Grant’s 1864 strategy was severely compromised in part by the need to retain in positions of command generals who owed their rank and seniority primarily to their political clout (real or perceived).  Whatever political damage might have come about by removing these men before the spring of 1864 might well have been counterbalanced by the achievement of significant military successes that would have led to an easier time for a president seeking reelection.

Fifth, one can imagine today the fury with which the press might respond if it was learned that a president had sought to place his son in a cushy staff job out of harm’s way. And yet this is exactly what Lincoln did in early 1865 when it came to his son Robert. He asked Grant to find a place for him, and Grant generously did. One always hears of how Lincoln sought this as a solution to assuage Mary Lincoln’s concerns while giving Robert his long-awaited chance to serve, and yet there are other ways to see this. Not that Lincoln was alone in this regard: Grant had his brother-in-law on his staff, and Meade had his son on his, to give two examples.

Most historians have been too busily celebrating Lincoln as commander-in-chief to assess his performance dispassionately. There have been dissenting voices, but they tend to come from scholars who want to defend a particular general, and in many cases the voices have been drowned out in a chorus of mostly untempered praise. Sometimes the Lincoln myth actually does a disservice to Lincoln, as in the oft-told tale of his supposedly constant support of Ulysses S. Grant. Better, I think, to admit that Grant’s performance at times could have called into question his qualifications as a commander.  Much can be learned from how Lincoln performed as commander-in-chief, but only if we are willing first simply to understand how he performed as commander-in-chief.

2 thoughts on “Greatest Hits from Civil Warriors: Towards Reassessing A. Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief

  1. Richard McCormick February 6, 2011 / 7:40 pm

    One criticism I’ve heard of him in this role is that he focused too much on the East. Of course, that same comment has probably been made about all students of the war too, so it’s not unique, but do you find that flaw in Lincoln’s performance?

    Also, the way he dealt with Halleck seems a bit bothersome. He named him general-in-chief, but never forced him to do his job – sometimes it seemed like Lincoln was performing Halleck’s duties, especially issuing orders, making Halleck into a “first-rate clerk.” Was this Lincoln meddling too much, or should he have been more forceful in making Halleck take charge of situations? Or should he have replaced Halleck with someone more competent?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 6, 2011 / 9:56 pm

      I don’t think he focused too much on the East, but he sure meddled more there. The Union never embraced the idea of a strategic defensive to force Lee to take the initiative and then go after his army … which Lincoln always embraced during Lee’s invasions, but not otherwise.

      Halleck lacked the ability to lead or to command. He could advise. Eventually Lincoln did replace Halleck with someone more competent. Even Grant understood that it was wise to defer to the boss at times. Lincoln never gave anyone a free hand, although he came close to doing so for a while with McClellan in 1861.

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