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President Abraham Lincoln, with officers in 1862, rarely dictated battlefield tactics. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)

Lincoln as Commander in Chief

A self-taught strategist with no combat experience, Abraham Lincoln saw the path to victory more clearly than his generals

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When the American Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln was far less prepared for the task of commander in chief than his Southern adversary. Jefferson Davis had graduated from West Point (in the lowest third of his class, to be sure), commanded a regiment that fought intrepidly at Buena Vista in the Mexican War and served as secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration from 1853 to 1857. Lincoln's only military experience had come in 1832, when he was captain of a militia unit that saw no action in the Black Hawk War, which began when Sac and Fox Indians (led by the war chief Black Hawk) tried to return from Iowa to their ancestral homeland in Illinois in alleged violation of a treaty of removal they had signed. During Lincoln's one term in Congress, he mocked his military career in an 1848 speech. "Did you know I am a military hero?" he said. "I fought, bled and came away" after "charges upon the wild onions" and "a good many bloody struggles with the Musquetoes."

When he called state militia into federal service on April 15, 1861—following the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter—Lincoln therefore faced a steep learning curve as commander in chief. He was a quick study, however; his experience as a largely self-taught lawyer with a keen analytical mind who had mastered Euclidean geometry for mental exercise enabled him to learn quickly on the job. He read and absorbed works on military history and strategy; he observed the successes and failures of his own and the enemy's military commanders and drew apt conclusions; he made mistakes and learned from them; he applied his large quotient of common sense to slice through the obfuscations and excuses of military subordinates. By 1862 his grasp of strategy and operations was firm enough almost to justify the overstated but not entirely wrong conclusion of historian T. Harry Williams: "Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals."

As president of the nation and leader of his party as well as commander in chief, Lincoln was principally responsible for shaping and defining national policy. From first to last, that policy was the preservation of the United States as one nation, indivisible, and as a republic based on majority rule. Although Lincoln never read Karl von Clausewitz's famous treatise On War, his actions were a consummate expression of Clausewitz's central argument: "The political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. Therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy."

Some professional military commanders tended to think of war as "something autonomous" and deplored the intrusion of political considerations into military matters. Take the notable example of "political generals." Lincoln appointed many prominent politicians with little or no military training or experience to the rank of brigadier or major general. Some of them received these appointments so early in the war that they subsequently outranked professional, West Point–educated officers. Lincoln also commissioned important ethnic leaders as generals with little regard to their military merits.

Historians who deplore the abundance of political generals sometimes cite an anecdote to mock the process. One day in 1862, the story goes, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were going over a list of colonels for promotion to brigadier general. Coming to the name of Alexander Schimmelfennig, the president said that "there has got to be something done unquestionably in the interest of the Dutch, and to that end I want Schimmelfennig appointed." Stanton protested that there were better-qualified German-Americans. "No matter about that," Lincoln supposedly said, "his name will make up for any difference there may be."

General Schimmelfennig is remembered today mainly for hiding for three days in a woodshed next to a pigpen to escape capture at Gettysburg. Other political generals are also remembered more for their military defeats or blunders than for any positive achievements. Often forgotten are the excellent military records of some political generals like John A. Logan and Francis P. Blair (among others). And some West Pointers, notably Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, might have languished in obscurity had it not been for the initial sponsorship of Grant by Congressman Elihu B. Washburne and of Sherman by his brother John, a U.S. senator.

Even if all political generals, or generals in whose appointments politics played a part, turned out to have mediocre military records, however, the process would have had a positive impact on national strategy by mobilizing their constituencies for the war effort. On the eve of the war, the U.S. Army consisted of approximately 16,400 men, of whom about 1,100 were commissioned officers. Of these, some 25 percent resigned to join the Confederate army. By April 1862, when the war was a year old, the volunteer Union army had grown to 637,000 men. This mass mobilization could not have taken place without an enormous effort by local and state politicians as well as by prominent ethnic leaders.

Another important issue that began as a question of national strategy eventually crossed the boundary to become policy as well. That was the issue of slavery and emancipation. During the war's first year, one of Lincoln's top priorities was to keep border state Unionists and Northern antiabolitionist Democrats in his war coalition. He feared, with good reason, that the balance in three border slave states might tip to the Confederacy if his administration stepped prematurely toward emancipation. When Gen. John C. Frémont issued a military order freeing the slaves of Confederate supporters in Missouri, Lincoln revoked it in order to quell an outcry from the border states and Northern Democrats. To sustain Frémont's order, Lincoln believed, "would alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us—perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky....I think that to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol."

During the next nine months, however, the thrust of national strategy shifted away from conciliating the border states and anti-emancipation Democrats. The antislavery Republican constituency grew louder and more demanding. The argument that slavery had brought on the war and that reunion with slavery would only sow the seeds of another war became more insistent. The evidence that slave labor sustained the Confederate economy and the logistics of Confederate armies grew stronger. Counteroffensives by Southern armies in the summer of 1862 wiped out many of the Union gains of the winter and spring. Many northerners, including Lincoln, became convinced that bolder steps were necessary. To win the war over an enemy fighting for and sustained by slavery, the North must strike at slavery.

In July 1862, Lincoln decided on a major change in national strategy. Instead of deferring to the border states and Northern Democrats, he would activate the Northern antislavery majority that had elected him and mobilize the potential of black manpower by issuing a proclamation of freedom for slaves in rebellious states—the Emancipation Proclamation. "Decisive and extreme measures must be adopted," Lincoln told members of his cabinet, according to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Emancipation was "a military necessity, absolutely necessary to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued."

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