Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Abraham Lincoln’s Biggest Mistake

(This post first appeared at Civil Warriors on March 12, 2009.)

Last February 12, several historians chatted about aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s public life in front of an attentive audience.  I happened to be one of those four historians, along with Jennifer Weber, Bruce Levine, and Vernon Burton.  During a question and answer session, someone asked the simple question, “What was Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake?”  Several of the people on the panel muttered something about George McClellan.  My answer, which I have given before, was simple and direct: allowing Andrew Johnson to run as his vice presidential running mate in 1864.

In the last month since I gave that answer, two other blogs have raised this issue as well.  Brian Dirck classifies this as Lincoln’s “worst flub”; Kevin Levin raises some questions about this, offering as a counterfactual “who should Lincoln have chosen?”

It might be a good idea to keep the following considerations in mind in discussing this issue:

1.   It’s open to debate as to whether Lincoln actually chose Johnson as his running mate.  I tend to believe that Lincoln had no objection to Johnson and saw him an an acceptable option, although in the 19th century presidential nominees rarely “named” their running mates as they do today.  Nor was it all that unusual to change vice presidential nominees: for example, Ulysses S. Grant ran with two vice presidential running mates (Schuyler Colfax in 1868, Henry Wilson in 1872).  But it is plain that Lincoln expressed neither objection nor surprise, and he did nothing to retain Hannibal Hamlin.

2.  By 1864 Lincoln was well aware that his life was in danger.  Indeed, just over a month after Johnson’s nomination, Lincoln placed his life in danger at Fort Stevens.  So the president was well aware of the possibility that his vice president might become president through the act of an assassin.

3.  It would have been difficult for anyone to imagine the sort of presidency that Johnson actually conducted, but Lincoln knew Johnson, and was well aware that when it came to issues of race and slavery, Johnson did not share his views (and Lincoln had honored Johnson’s request to omit Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation).  Lincoln also knew that Johnson was a fierce southern Unionist (a rare commodity outside of the ranks of the military), so much so that he was not as lenient as Lincoln … or so it seemed at the time.

4.  There were alternative candidates, including Benjamin F. Butler and Daniel S. Dickinson.  I’m amused to hear from the comments in Kevin’s blog that William H. Seward was a Radical Republican … he was Johnson’s supporter during Johnson’s presidency.  Seward may have played a role in Johnson’s getting the nod.  Then again, I’m amused whenever I hear about the Radicals getting their way during Reconstruction, for it would have come as a surprise to the Radicals themselves.  I think the myths of Reconstruction are in their way more damaging than many of the myths and memories of the American Civil War.

5.  Kevin remarks that he thinks it’s proper “to ask whether another choice within the political parameters governing such a choice would have made much of a difference.”  My answer: hell, yes.  Andrew Johnson was a particularly destructive force in the White House, unless you like white supremacy enforced through terrorist violence.  As controversial as Butler might have been, blacks would have done much better under a Butler presidency.  One can, I think, argue that there was no way Lincoln could have foreseen the course of action Johnson took, but he did not exercise due diligence in the way he did, for example, with Salmon P. Chase when it came to black rights.  That Reconstruction became as “radical” as it became can be explained in part by the Republican reaction to Johnson’s policies … presidential policies which sanctioned much of which was worst in the reaction of white southerners to defeat and emancipation.

I happen to think that one can’t determine what the Civil War did and did not accomplish without considering Reconstruction as part of the process.  Not to do so is akin to assessing the Iraq War as ending in 2003.  It really is time for people who claim an interest in the American Civil War to give Reconstruction the same attention that they give to the war of 1861-65.

Don’t Tell Me What I Don’t Want to Know

(this post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on October 14th, 2006)

One of the more interesting moments in historical research is when one comes across information that challenges a long-cherished account that has been accepted as unchallenged truth. For me, one of those moments happened in the early 1990s. I was starting work on several articles that helped to establish the foundation for my biography of Ulysses S. Grant: one concerned the Lincoln-Grant relationship. I’ve always found it useful to return to original accounts whenever possible, instead of relying upon filtered versions of the accounts, and it was with that in mind that I revisited Alexander McClure’s account of a conversation he had with Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of Shiloh. Here is the key portion:

“I appealed to Lincoln for his own sake to remove Grant at once, and, in giving my reasons for it, I simply voiced the admittedly overwhelming protest from the loyal people of the land against Grant’s continuance in command. I could form no judgment during the conversation as to what effect my arguments had upon him beyond the fact that he was greatly distressed at this new complication. When I had said everything that could be said from my standpoint, we lapsed into silence. Lincoln remained silent for what seemed a very long time. He then gathered himself up in his chair and said in a tone of earnestness that I shall never forget: ‘I can’t spare this man; he fights.’”

The only problem is that the rest of McClure’s account argues against the authenticity of this conversation. McClure advanced a series of claims that simply had no basis in the historical record, claiming that Lincoln had somehow arranged for Halleck to come to Grant’s army after Shiloh and make Grant second-in-command in order to keep him under cover for a while. At the right time, according to McClure, Lincoln would restore Grant to command. None of that is supported by a shred of evidence. Halleck had planned to join Grant before he learned of Shiloh; it was Halleck’s idea to place Grant in a second-in-command slot (and Grant didn’t like it); Lincoln (through Stanton) had asked Halleck whether Grant was at fault for Shiloh (suggesting Lincoln could well spare him); Lincoln did not restore Grant to command (Halleck’s departure to become general-in-chief and the dispersal of Halleck’s joint force after Corinth took care of that); and there is absolutely no documentation to support any of the claims McClure makes. So why trust the quote? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s not a football.

I published my findings and was honored when Don Fehrenbacher, one of the greatest of Lincoln scholars, cited my findings in the book his wife and he assembled that evaluated quotes attributed to Lincoln. If one could question the “I can’t spare this man” quote, then Lincoln’s ambivalence about Grant, including his willingness to lend an ear to John McClernand and his decision to investigate Grant’s command in the spring of 1863 make more sense. No one offered any evidence to suggest I was wrong.

It didn’t matter.

Geoffrey Perret embraced the old story in his 1997 biography, even though his footnote cited my article in Lincoln Lore on this issue; Jean Edward Smith endorsed the old tale as well in his 2001 biography. It’s appeared on websites that cite my own Grant biography, which is amusing. See

for an example.

Why would one want to continue to use a story that is not only not supported by evidence, but rather clearly contradicted by it, and where the veracity of the account in which the story appears is questionable, to say the least?

You tell me.

Lee and the Lost Cause (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on April 17, 2006)

Some readers were none too happy with my characterization of Lee’s General Order No. 9 as an early (pardon the pun) expression of a certain explanation of Confederate defeat attributing that outcome to the “overwhelming numbers and resources” of the Union, to use Lee’s phrasing (although aide Charles Marshall composed the draft document).

However, just 72 hours before, Lee had informed Grant that he did not share Grant’s view about “the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia”; the next day, he told Grant, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army.” It was not until April 9 that Lee changed his mind (or dropped his false bravado) and responded to the reality of the situation. The order that followed was characteristic of a new line of explanation: that of being overwhelmed. On April 12, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that he had only 7892 infantry carrying arms; he did not explain why that was the case, or why the number of Confederates who surrendered was more in the neighborhood of 25,000 (we have to revise our notion of stacking arms at Surrender Triangle if only a third of the soldiers were armed).

Lee also told Davis that “the enemy was more than five times our numbers,” which would not appear to be the case if some 25,000 Confederates surrendered. Eight days later, on April 20, Lee acknowledged that the number of those who surrendered amounted to 26,018, but claimed that all those unarmed me came back into the army on the evening of April 9 only after hearing of the surrender. It is odd that Lee was in the neighborhood of Appomattox Court House when he wrote the first letter on April 12, several days after the reported flood of returnees commenced, but claimed he did not know of this until he was back at Richmond.

Playing the numbers game was one of the most prominent themes on both sides after the war. Confederates tended to exaggerate the numbers they faced, while Union chroniclers argued for a much lower disparity. Lee was not immune to the practice. In the years following the war he set himself to the task of trying to compose a history of the Army of Northern Virginia in order to focus on the odds faced by that army. His goal, he said, was to recognize the bravery of his men. “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought,” he wrote Jubal Early in 1866.

This project collapsed, in part because Lee was not able to gather the records he desired: it may have been just as well. For in a series of interviews in 1868 Lee revealed another trait usually associated with what’s called the Lost Cause approach to Confederate history: a tendency to explain Confederate defeats in terms of the failure of Confederate subordinates to perform, and not because of anything done by their Union counterparts. Heading the list of the guilty for Gettysburg were Jeb Stuart and Richard Ewell, although in another interview Lee complained that James Longstreet was “often slow,” but in that case he was highlighting the Wilderness.

There’s always been an inherent tension in these two traits: if the Confederates were going to be overwhelmed in any case by superior numbers, then who cares about minor errors, which at most could only reshape the path toward the inevitable conclusion? And yet there is no doubt from Lee’s postwar writings and conversations that he thought the war was winnable. That the Confederacy lost was not due to Union leadership, but to the small margin of error the Confederates enjoyed if they were to win, a margin frittered away by Confederate actions on the field and elsewhere. That Lee was perfectly willing to point fingers, engage in recriminations, and assail the recollections of others suggests that it was best for his reputation that he never managed to assemble his account.

Round Tables and Square Pegs (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on April 21, 2006)

I’ve read with interest recent commentary on Civil War Round Tables, and I feel drawn in multiple directions, in large part because I have had a rather diverse experience with CWRTs over the years, and so I would not want to offer overall generalizations about them.

Let me begin by saying that I have had some very good experiences with CWRTs.  Usually I have not received a cent for these appearances, although one CWRT (in Fort Worth) gave some money.  Among the CWRTs I have visited where I’ve been treated rather well are the ones in New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Cincinnati; I appreciate the help of the St. Louis Round Table in helping to fund a presentation at the Ulysses S. Grant NHS outside St. Louis, and over the years I’ve spoken at local CWRTs, where, like Mark, I believe a matter of local service is involved.

I believe I’ve been spared some of the experiences of my peers precisely because of where I’m located, because, frankly, it’s too expensive for some CWRTs to have me speak due to travel costs.  The same goes for tour groups who visit battlefields or do other things: it’s just too much for them to fly me in and sometimes have to pay for an extra night in a hotel.  Both the Mosby Heritage Society and the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been very, very kind to me, and I appreciate how they have treated me: they have been marvelous hosts, and they have compensated me for my time and effort.  So have Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute.

As a teacher, one of my experiences has been that when speaking in front of a significant number of students, my attention is drawn to the occasional student who’s reading the newspaper, checking a cell phone, whispering, or even recovering from a long night out.  Needless to say, I have interesting ways to deal with such behavior, and there are few repeat offenses (or offenders) in a class.  However, it took me some time to understand that sometimes the behavior of a few people tended to make me jaded about the class as a whole.  That was unfair to the other students, especially those who were responding as best they could to the challenges presented in my class (I’ve always been known as “tough but fair”).  I think that the same reaction colors my response in some speaking engagements: there are a few people who for one reason or another annoy me, and that can turn one sour in a hurry if you aren’t aware of it.

So let me explain some ground rules and expectations that I carry into these encounters.

First, I’m not a traveling bookstore.  I’ve never carried with me books to sign.  There are plenty of ways to obtain my writings, and frankly I think it’s somewhat embarrassing, even humiliating, to assume we are there to peddle our wares.  If I want to publicize something, there are far more effective ways to reach a far larger audience.

Second, I don’t speak before general groups in order to sell books or to make money.  I don’t see my appearances as a book tour.  It’s flattering to have people ask me to sign books, but I don’t travel to sell books: that would be financially counterproductive.  An honorarium is always appreciated, but in some cases I’ve actually helped groups out by not charging certain expenses so they can use that money to do preservation work.  There are much better and easier ways to make more money in the same amount of time; if anything these trips eat into the time and energy I have for such enterprises.

Third, I speak because I suppose people want to hear what I have to say about something.  I don’t have a folder of recycled talks.  I do what I can to make each talk fresh and different, and the instances where I have returned to a previous talk are rare.

Fourth, although many people are very appreciative and kind, I do detect in a few members of the audience some of the traits Mark has highlighted.  I don’t think a CWRT or any other group is doing me a professional favor by having me come and talk.  Rather, what I’m doing is a professional courtesy.  I am very surprised when people in other white collar professions treat me in ways they would not be treated, and expect me to give away for free knowledge and insight for which they would charge … and then assume that I should be grateful for that opportunity.  What makes that even more amusing is to hear mumblings afterward that some people ascribe to me behavior they exhibited in my presence: some folks actually like to demean what I do by saying, “that’s your opinion,” “I know better,” or whatever.  I don’t think they would take that so kindly if they were the “expert” being consulted; if you are going to treat me that way, then why have me come in the first place, and why do you show up?  This said, these encounters with smugness and condescension are the exception, not the rule, in my experience.  Then again, I’ve never spoken before some of the groups Mark and Kevin Levin have mentioned.

Kevin Levin has discussed audience expectations and interests, and I understand his frustration.  I understand that in some cases, my talks will focus on military issues such as generalship and military operations: audiences also like my discussions of civil-military issues.  In less than two months, however, I’ll speak on Reconstruction at the Ann Arbor CWRT, and generally I try to see how to make my interests mesh with audience expectations so that I can introduce them to new ways of looking at things in such a way as to entice them to do so.

There are broader issues here that transcend the issues associated with speaking before a general public.  There are, indeed, multiple publics interested in the American Civil War, and they have different agendas and expectations.  There are also multiple ways of writing about the Civil War, and those people who write those books and articles have different aims and interests.  How those two groups interact with each other, how they interact within those groups, and how they interact with other groups (say, how Mark, Steve, and I interact with members of our profession who are not Civil War historians or who approach the study of the Civil War era with some preconceptions I’ll term “interesting” … all those issues are best left to other posts.

Armchair Generals, Historical Narrative, and Revisionism (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on September 26, 2006, in response to a series of posts Mark Grimsley had offered on the Bermuda Hundred campaign)

I’ve read Mark’s summary of a reassessment of the Bermuda Hundred campaign with some interest.  It’s based in part upon a book that I had heard about in dissertation form when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia: I recall a major in ROTC repeatedly telling me how it would change our understanding of the campaign.  That book, of course, is William Glenn Robertson’s Back Door to Richmond.  Another book, also of interest, is Herbert M. Schiller’s The Bermuda Hundred Campaign(1988).

I’d agree with Mark that the “traditional” narrative of the campaign is sprinkled with stereotypes that have persisted over time, so much so that they at first defy challenge simply because of how ingrained they have become in accounts of the campaign that depend so heavily on secondary sources: yet I’d also contend that several other forces are at work here.  First, of course, is that the stereotype was so extreme, so unexamined, that one could have bet that it would fall apart under careful reexamination, although the extent to which that reexamination would influence subsequent accounts usually remains problematic.  I think of Gordon Rhea’s work on Cold Harbor, in which he has provided the most detailed reexamination of that battle available, especially the June 3 assault.  For years some of us had found the traditional story troublesome, precisely because the evidence did not fit the narrative, and a return to the sources often cited revealed that they had been misused over time to the point that to chip away at the story was to risk being called an apologist for Ulysses S. Grant.  Rhea’s work has done away rather decisively with the old “7,000 men in 30 minutes/an hour” account of Union losses during the main assault on June 3, but I’m sure the legend will persist, in part because it serves an agenda of criticizing Grant’s generalship.  Oddly enough, there are other ways to criticize Grant’s generalship in 1864, and Mark’s series has alluded to some possibilities, but for some people familiar tales are best because they are familiar.

Another force that is at work here is a combination of retrospective armchair generalship and the desire among some people to offer fresh perspectives that may in the end prove as distorting in their own ways as do the traditional narratives they challenge and hope to displace.  Since we know that the Bermuda Hundred campaign ended up being a disappointment, we wonder how it could have been more successful from the point of view of the Union.  Robertson, Schiller, and Mark seem to agree that a better knowledge of the command skills of Butler, Gillmore, and Smith, along with clearer orders from Grant, would have helped; there’s also a hint that once these operations began to unfold, difficulties in communication and Grant’s increasing absorption with Lee made it difficult to coordinate operations.  I agree.  Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what Grant knew and when he knew it.  What did he know of Butler’s skills?  Had not Smith shown himself to be an able subordinate during the Chattanooga campaign?  Why did Grant select Gillmore?  Are we to assume that the only communication between Grant and Butler is that for which we have a documentary record, or have we been unable to recapture conversations that might have clarified points of contention?

I think the planning of the campaign challenges two assumptions often made about Grant and argued in the literature.  First, contrary to myth, Grant’s orders were not always clear and direct.  Second, contrary to myth, Grant was not always a great judge of military talent.  That said, of course, some of the responsibility for what happened in May 1864 must be shouldered by others, including the personalities that made the command situation along the James so dysfunctional.  By mid-June, 1864, Grant had better grounds upon which to assess the generalship of several key subordinates, and it’s what he decided to do with that knowledge in hand that I think opens him to much more damaging criticism.

Rethinking Political Generalship (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on September 28, 2006)

One of the premises that informs Mark’s reevaluation of the Bermuda Hundred campaign is the willingness to question the stereotype of “bad” political generals versus “good” professional soldiers.  The traditional literature suggests that the implementation of Union strategy as well as the success or failure of Union forces on the field of battle was whether untrained generals who owed their commissions to their own political status hampered the success of Union arms.

Mark is absolutely correct in that this traditional premise needs reexamining, and there have already been some attempts to do so.  I think it would be even better to abandon the premise altogether, and to start from scratch.  Here are a few of my premises in this discussion:

1.                  Most generals and colonels (the latter especially at the beginning of the war), regardless of their background, had some type of political connection working for them.  This was as true of Grant and Sherman as it was of most others.  One of the possible exceptions to that rule was George H. Thomas, and even he could get some indirect protection through Sherman.  I’m sure the diligent search could nominate other names, but those exceptions prove the rule.

2.                  The line between civil and military spheres was at least blurred and in many cases obliterated during the war.  Professionally-trained military officers corresponded with officeholders, editors, prominent politicians, and the like.  This was as true of Joseph Hooker as it was of George McClellan and as it was of Ulysses S. Grant.

3.                  Lincoln, cabinet members, governors, senators, and congressmen also blurred that line past the point of easy definition.  Salmon P. Chase stands out as one example; Richard Yates of Illinois stands out as another.  The struggles over command structure in various field armies, most notably the Army of the Potomac, offers abundant evidence of this.

4.                  One of the traditional explanations for Lincoln’s decision to commission several leading political figures is that he used those commissions as a form of patronage, in order to ensure support for the administration.  If that was so, it did not always work very well, as the cases of Butler, FrJmont, and Banks demonstrate.  All three men considered the possibility of seeking higher officer in 1864.  The Pathfinder launched an abortive third party run, while Butler was scheming with various groups throughout the summer.

5.                  Another traditional justification is that military incompetence was the price Lincoln had to pay for enlisting the support of these “political generals” by giving them commissions.  Let’s set aside Banks’s ill-fated Red River campaign, for Banks may have been blamed too much for the outcome.  However, the performance of Franz Sigel and Butler (regardless of what’s been posted here) throughout the spring and summer of 1864 did great damage to Grant’s spring plan of campaign.  Given that by August there was great concern over Lincoln’s reelection, might it not have been better to remove those people, take the political heat, and replace them with more trusted subordinates who might have gotten the job done better and in a timely fashion?  After all, Grant was being asked to produce significant results in a limited amount of time, results that would convince a majority of voters in the North that all was going well, and yet he found himself handcuffed in his ability to pick out the generals to implement his plan.  (This touches upon another myth, that of Grant’s “free hand,” which resides next to the equally mythical claim of “unlimited resources,” but one myth at a time.)

This is far from an exhaustive list, but simply to set some of these ideas out might suggest the degree to which the time-worn understanding of the relationship between war and politics needs serious reexamination.  There’s enough work here for serious students of the war who want to stick to military subjects and who may find it wise to eschew the sensationalistic in favor of the solid.

What Really Counts (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(note: this post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on October 13, 2006)

Dimitri Rotov has been blogging recently about how military historians use/misuse/abuse estimates of military strength and losses.  Rather than summarize his position, I point you here for a summary of the discussion:

Once you are there, you can make your way back to his previous commentary on the subject.

I think Dimitri has a point.  Over the last sixty or so years, American historians have been engaged in producing massive documentary editions of the writings of various people, movements, and events.  And we are talking large-scale enterprises: The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, which published volume one in 1967, is still going strong twenty-seven volumes later.  See

Such enterprises suggest the importance of the documentary record, and yet we have no modern version of such an enterprise to update, even replace, books such as Thomas Livermore’s Numbers and Losses in the Civil War or William Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War.  By the way, Livermore is now online:

as is Fox:

Recent research has called into question traditional estimates of strengths and losses in several battles and campaigns where traditional estimates have become entrenched in the literature.  There’s new information that calls into question strength estimates during the Seven Days (good news for McClellan fans) and numbers and losses during the Overland Campaign of 1864, especially the June 3 assault at Cold Harbor.  The last finding is key to Gordon Rhea’s recent account of the battle, and no one who studies Rhea’s account will ever again recite the “7,000 down in 30 minutes”  (or variations of time thereof) line of Civil War lore.

It would be a useful endeavor to ascertain estimates that are as accurate as possible, as such estimates are at the core of many assessments of combat performance and leadership.  But I want to go beyond this to offer a more intriguing observation, and that is that there is often something misleading about assessing the outcome of a battle or campaign or determining good generals and bad generals based primarily on some sort of numbers game.  One could half the losses on the June 3 assaults at Cold Harbor, for example, without having to reassess the poor performance of the Union high command that day (a close examination of Meade and his corps commanders shows that they have to share more than some of the blame usually unloaded primarily on Grant).

In some cases, of course, adjusting estimates in light of new information changes the story.  If Grant inflicted more losses on Lee during the spring of 1864, and if some of Grant’s losses (I speak here of the “lightly wounded”) can be attributed to the impact of impending expiring enlistments (short-timer’s syndrome), then reassessments are in order, since the original assessments hinged so much on comparing numbers and losses.  That said, however, would that really cause us to see the campaign as more successful for Grant, or would it cause us to reassess what constitutes victory and defeat and how we as scholars make such judgments?  Let’s say that Lee’s strength was at least equal to or perhaps exceeded McClellan’s strength on June 25, 1862.  How would that change an account of the ensuing campaign?  Oh, sure, we’d have to toss out notions that McClellan was inept because he “lost” despite outnumbering Lee, but, once we set that aside, how much else would change?  How much would it change?  Or would it force us to look at assessing outcomes in some way that placed force strengths and body counts in appropriate context (the definition of which would depend upon the context)?

Just some food for thought and discussion on how we do what we do, why we do it, and whether that’s how and why we ought to do it.