Lincoln as Commander in Chief- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
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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Lincoln's efforts to get his commanders to move faster with fewer supplies brought him into active participation at the operational level of his armies. In May 1862 he directed General Irvin McDowell to "put all possible energy and speed into the effort" to trap Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln probably did not fully appreciate the logistical difficulties of moving large bodies of troops, especially in enemy territory. On the other hand, the president did comprehend the reality expressed by the Army of the Potomac's quartermaster in response to McClellan's incessant requests for more supplies before he could advance after Antietam, that "an army will never move if it waits until all the different commanders report that they are ready and want no more supplies." Lincoln told another general in November 1862 that "this expanding, and piling up of impedimenta, has been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned....You would be better off.... for not having a thousand wagons, doing nothing but hauling forage to feed the animals that draw them, and taking at least two thousand men to care for the wagons and animals, who otherwise might be two thousand good soldiers."

With Grant and Sherman, Lincoln finally had top generals who followed Ewell's dictum about the road to glory and who were willing to demand of their soldiers—and of themselves—the same exertions and sacrifices that Confederate commanders required of theirs. After the 1863 Vicksburg campaign that captured a key stronghold in Mississippi, Lincoln said of General Grant—whose rapid mobility and absence of a cumbersome supply line were a key to its success—that "Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war!"

Lincoln had opinions about battlefield tactics, but he rarely made suggestions to his field commanders for that level of operations. One exception, however, occurred in the second week of May 1862. Upset by McClellan's monthlong siege of Yorktown without any apparent result, Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase sailed down to Hampton Roads on May 5 to discover that the Confederates had evacuated Yorktown before McClellan could open with his siege artillery.

Norfolk remained in enemy hands, however, and the feared CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) was still docked there. On May 7, Lincoln took direct operational control of a drive to capture Norfolk and to push a gunboat fleet up the James River. The president ordered Gen. John Wool, commander at Fort Monroe, to land troops on the south bank of Hampton Roads. Lincoln even personally carried out a reconnaissance to select the best landing place. On May 9, the Confederates evacuated Norfolk before Northern soldiers could get there. Two days later the Virginia's crew blew her up to prevent her capture. Chase rarely found opportunities to praise Lincoln, but on this occasion he wrote to his daughter: "So has ended a brilliant week's campaign of the President; for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, Norfolk would still have been in possession of the enemy, and the 'Merrimac' as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever....The whole coast is now virtually ours."

Chase exaggerated, for the Confederates would have had to abandon Norfolk to avoid being cut off when Johnston's army retreated up the north side of the James River. But Chase's words can perhaps be applied to Lincoln's performance as commander in chief in the war as a whole. He enunciated a clear national policy, and through trial and error evolved national and military strategies to achieve it. The nation did not perish from the earth but experienced a new birth of freedom.

Reprint from Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, edited by Eric. Foner. Copyright © 2008 by W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. "A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief" copyright © by James M. McPherson. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc

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