Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief


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(Penguin Press HC, 2008)

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln did not get much respect as a military leader. Lincoln himself deprecated his expertise even as he pushed West Point generals into more aggressive action. “If possible I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemies communications being broken, but neither for this reason, or any other, do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness,” he advised the commander of the Army of the Potomac in May 1863 after the Battle of Chancellorsville. “An early movement would also help to supersede the bad moral effect of the recent one, which is sure to be considerably injurious. Have you already in your mind a plan wholly, or partially formed? If you have, prossecute [sic] it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try [to] assist in the formation of some plan for the Army.”1

The nation’s president did not have the military education or experience of his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. But Lincoln was a conscientious scholar – and he became a student of military tactics and eventually a better master of military strategy than his generals or Davis. “The President is himself a man of great aptitude for military studies,” wrote aide John Hay early in the war.2 Historian T. Harry Williams said President Lincoln was “a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals. He was in actuality as well as in title the commander in chief who, by his larger strategy, did more than Grant or any other general to win the war for the Union.” 3 Historian James M. McPherson, argued, however that Lincoln was not a “natural strategist.” Instead, Lincoln “worked hard to master this subject, just as had done to become a lawyer.”4 President Lincoln’s White House study paid off – certainly more than the West Point study of some of his subordinates.

Civil war journalist William A. Croffut wrote: “In critical moments Lincoln’s judgment seems to have been superb – superior to that of his generals. Had [George B.] McClellan followed his advice, he would have taken Richmond. Had [Joseph] Hooker acted in accordance with his suggestions, Chancellorsville would have been a victory for the nation. Had [George] Meade obeyed his explicit commands, he would have destroyed Lee’s army before it could have recrossed the Potomac.”5 Lincoln aides and biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “General W[illiam] F. Smith says: “I have long held to the opinion that at the close of the war Mr. Lincoln was the superior of his generals in his comprehension of the effect of strategic movements and the proper method of following up victories to their legitimate conclusions.’ General J[ames] H. Wilson holds the same opinion; and Colonel Robert N. Scott, in whose lamented death the army lost one of its most vigorous and best-trained intellects, frequently called Mr. Lincoln ‘the ablest strategist of the war.'”6 Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln wanted to rely on professional military counsel, but he quickly learned at the outset of the war that he could not rely on the Union’s top general, Winfield Scott, for firm, aggressive advice and that other generals held narrow, parochial views of the Union war effort.

Lincoln “learned quickly and proved to be a competent strategist. He abided by the old adage that in war, ‘the main thing is to make sure that the main thing remains the main thing, ” wrote military historian Mackubin T. Owens.7 “That Lincoln had the strategic insight to be a successful general is clear,” wrote historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz. “In September 1861, he drafted a ‘Memorandum for a plan of campaign’ that was the closest thing to an overall strategic plan produced by anyone in the federal administration, with the exception perhaps of [Winfield] Scott’s much-derided Anaconda Plan. In his advice to his generals, Lincoln displayed an intuitive understanding of such concepts as the advantage of interior lines and the importance of focusing on the objective.”8 While Union generals repeatedly focused on taking the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Lincoln focused on cornering and defeating the Confederate army. In 1865, Ulysses S. Grant did that – first in Richmond and a few days later at Appomattox Court House.

Lincoln “learned quickly and proved to be a competent strategist. He abided by the old adage that in war, ‘the main thing is to make sure that the main thing remains the main thing, ” wrote military historian Mackubin T. Owens.7 “That Lincoln had the strategic insight to be a successful general is clear,” wrote historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz. “In September 1861, he drafted a ‘Memorandum for a plan of campaign’ that was the closest thing to an overall strategic plan produced by anyone in the federal administration, with the exception perhaps of [Winfield] Scott’s much-derided Anaconda Plan. In his advice to his generals, Lincoln displayed an intuitive understanding of such concepts as the advantage of interior lines and the importance of focusing on the objective.”8 While Union generals repeatedly focused on taking the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Lincoln focused on cornering and defeating the Confederate army. In 1865, Ulysses S. Grant did that – first in Richmond and a few days later at Appomattox Court House.

Historian Walter A. McDougall noted that Scott’s strategy “for gradual asphyxiation of the rebellious states made perfect sense. His Virginian heritage taught him the Yankees were foolish to think southerners would not fight for the slave-owning oligarchy….Scott’s reading of military history and theory also caused him to buck the conventional wisdom that this war would be brief.”9 It would indeed take time – almost exactly four years – to divide and strangle the Confederacy. The Lincoln Administration decided early in the war that it would have to blockade the South in order to cut it off economically. Historian David Brion Davis wrote: “The initial Union strategy involved blockading Confederate ports to cut off cotton exports and prevent the import of manufactured goods; and using ground and naval forces to divide the Confederacy into three distinct theaters….Ridiculed in the press as the ‘Anaconda Plan,’ after the South American snake that crushes its prey to death, this strategy ultimately proved successful.”10

Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. observed: “The fundamental problem for the historian attempting to understand and describe the grand strategy for the American Civil War is that it was nowhere written down at the time. In an era without military war ‘colleges’ and a peacetime general staff, there were no contingency plans or white papers laying out strategic doctrine. There were only ad hoc responses to pressing military problems of war as it raged.”11 Under these difficult circumstances, James M. McPherson noted, it was President Lincoln who formulated the nation’s overall strategy towards the war: “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 preservation of the United States as one nation, indivisible, and as a republic based on majority rule.”12 McPherson noted that Lincoln enunciated policy and mobilized resources to effect that policy. He noted that “no matter how much this national strategy required maximum effort at all levels of government and society, the ultimate responsibility was the president’s in his dual roles as head of government and commander in chief.”13 Critics during and after the Civil War criticized Lincoln’s military decisions without giving adequate weight to the political context in which those decisions were made. Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams wrote: “The president well understood the difference between national strategy and military strategy. National strategy shapes a nation’s political goals in wartime while military strategy uses armed forces to achieve these political goals.”14

T. Harry Williams noted that President “Lincoln knew that numbers, material resources, and sea power were on his side….He grasped immediately the advantage that numbers gave the North and urged his generals to keep up a constant pressure on the whole strategic line of the Confederacy until a weak spot was found – and a break-through could be made.”15 In the Colin R. Ballard’s The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln, “Ballard listed five crucial areas in which the president displayed his strategic talents: he saw the importance of sea power in helping to isolate the Confederacy; understood the profound connections between politics and military strategy; called for northern pressure across an extensive geographical line; specified the best rebel army (Lee’s) as his primary target; and never settled for half measures.”16

Ohio journalist Whitlaw Reid wrote that “Abraham Lincoln was Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy! From that sad fact, and from its logical sequences, there was no escape!'”17 Lincoln knew and understood his responsibility. He progressively developed in his role as commander in chief, according to military historian Craig L. Symonds: “As he grew comfortable in holding the reins of power, Lincoln became more assertive as commander in chief…by 1862 he was beginning to exercise hands-on management, even issuing operation orders to division commanders; and by 1863 he was hitting his full stride as an activist commander in chief. As tentative as he was early on, he eventually became one of the most audacious of all American chief executives, authorizing a blockade and approving a conscription law, paper money, an income tax, and – most revolutionary of all – emancipation.”18

Lincoln understood that the war could not be won by piece-meal military efforts, but required the Anaconda Plan to squeeze on all military fronts simultaneously. McPherson argued that Lincoln quickly absorbed the lessons of major military strategists and came to his own conclusions about the importance of coordination: “Because of the Confederacy’s basic military strategy was to defend the territory that lay behind its frontier, Southern armies had the advantage of interior lines. That advantage enabled them to shift reinforcements from inactive to active fronts, as they had done at Manassas in July 1861. This concentration in space could be overcome only if the Union employed its greater numbers…to attack on two or more fronts at once – concentration in time.”19 Lincoln understood that action as well as strategy was required. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Many army officers doubted that Scott’s policy was energetic enough and thought he wasted time in excessive preparation.”20 Burlingame noted: “Lincoln gradually began to depend more on his own judgment.”21

In January 1862, Lincoln summarized his military strategy in a letter to General Don Carlos Buell, stating his “general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much. To illustrate, suppose last summer, when Winchester ran away to re-inforce Mannassas [sic], we had forborne to attack Mannassas, but had seized and held Winchester. I mention this to illustrate, and not to criticise. I did not lose confidence in McDowell, and I think less harshly of Patterson than some others seem to. In application of the general rule I am suggesting, every particular case will have its modifying circumstances, among which the most constantly present, and most difficult to meet, will be the want of perfect knowledge of the enemies movements. This had it’s part in the Bull-Run case; but worse, in that case, was the expiration of the terms of the three months men. Applying the principle to your case, my idea is that Halleck shall menace Columbus, and ‘down river’ generally; while you menace Bowling-Green, and East Tennessee. If the enemy shall concentrate at Bowling-Green, do not retire from his front; yet do not fight him there, either, but seize Columbus and East Tennessee, one or both, left exposed by the concentration at Bowling Green. It is matter of no small anxiety to me and one which I am sure you will not over-look, that the East Tennessee line, is so long, and over so bad a road.”22

As commander in chief, President Lincoln initially labored under several disadvantages. First was his lack of military experience and knowledge. Second, many of the most talented Union army officers such as Robert E. Lee defected to the Confederacy. Third, the venerable Winfield Scott, whose experience spanned five decades, was a font of wisdom, but not much active leadership. Fourth, Lincoln’s designated secretary of war, Simon Cameron, proved unable to handle the complexities and onslaught of his job. Moreover, the government lacked the necessary resources for waging the conflict. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “For decades, Congress and state governments had neglected the military so badly that the North had great difficulty mobilizing its vast resources swiftly.”23 Fifth, the Union generals at the beginning of the war tended not to share their thinking with the President. Sixth, political strategy as well as military strategy was required to determine whom Lincoln named as Union generals. Because many of the best American officers resigned their federal commissions and joined the Confederate Army, Lincoln’s choices for command positions at the beginning of the war were limited in number, talent, and experience. Indeed, “Lincoln had little choice at the outset but to create political generals, for which he has been pitied and mocked ever since, mainly mocked. Yet this was a civil war, a struggle in which domestic politics formed a seamless whole with tactics and strategy,” argued military writer Geoffrey Perret. “The condemnation of Lincoln’s political generals would be more telling had there not been so many spectacular duds among the…professionals,” wrote Perret.24 With a limited cast of mismatched characters, Lincoln was forced to design both military and political strategy.

Although President Lincoln did not have the military experience of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he did a better job as commander in chief. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “Davis was thin-skinned and lacked Lincoln’s ability to work with critics for a common cause.”25 McPherson wrote that “if Davis looked bad by sticking too long with [Braxton] Bragg, Lincoln looked bad by successively appointing and then dismissing John Pope, Ambrose E. Burnside, and Joseph Hooker over the course of a year during which the morale of the Army of the Potomac sank to a point perilously close to collapse.”26

Historian Gabor Boritt noted that “the most unsettling facet of Lincoln’s military policy was the drastic rate at which federal commanders were replaced. On the eastern front, for example, in a period of two years he removed the general in charge an unprecedented seven times.”27 Indeed, Lincoln changed commanders until he found ones whose vision of Union strategy and inclination to act paralleled his own. Sometimes, however, LIncoln did not change commanders soon enough.

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that “Lincoln made a mistake in not replacing Hooker immediately after Chancellorsville. Evidence suggests that the president may have decided to choose a new commander, in consultation with Halleck and Stanton, but for some reason hesitated.”28 Burlingame wrote “upon reading Hooker’s dispatch resigning his command, Lincoln turned pale. To Stanton’s query, ‘What shall be done?’ he replied: ‘Accept his resignation.’ When Chase, who had strongly supported Hooker, protested, Lincoln cut him off abruptly: ‘The acceptance of an army resignation is not a matter for your department.'”29

When Lincoln took office, there was no Union strategy, few Union troops and little protection for Washington, DC. President-elect Lincoln arrived in the nation’s capital that was a hotbed of secession sentiment. He was being pulled in several different directions by his civilian and military advisors. Gabor Boritt wrote: “As [Secretary of War Joseph] Holt cast a stern eye over the defenses of the federal capital in the early months of 1861, he found them lacking. On February 18, just a few days before President-elect Lincoln was due to arrive in the city, Holt issued a report to Buchanan expressing his concerns about Washington’s ability to defend itself from attack by the seceded states.”30 According to historian Elizabeth Leonard, “one of the first official documents to cross Lincoln’s desk in the Executive Mansion was a letter from… Holt, communicating the important news that Fort Sumter ‘must, in the lapse of a few weeks at most, be strongly reinforced or summarily abandoned.'”31 There was little time for the new President to adjust to the quickly changing political and military landscape, much less put a professional military team into place.

The status of Fort Sumter in South Carolina immediately preoccupied the Lincoln Administration in March 1861. It was topic of Lincoln’s “first cabinet meeting on March 9, at which General Scott reportedly said that it would require twenty-five thousand troops and six months or more of preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter.”32 At the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln understandably placed great reliance on the Union army commander Winfield Scott whose military experience went back five decades to the War of 1812 but whose weight and age ill-suited him for leadership in the war America was facing. Lincoln particularly wanted Scott’s advice on handling the fate of Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida. Historian Roy F. Nichols wrote: “President Lincoln respected and deferred to General Scott’s knowledge, but everyone knew that Scott could not take any field command….His mind, however, was clear, and he applied himself at once. He devoted himself to increasing the Regular Army for he had little confidence in the military utility of the three-months men who were pouring into Washington, often even without arms or uniforms.”33 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles believed that Scott was too much influenced by Secretary of State William H. Seward who wanted compromise with the seceding states. After the Civil War, Welles wrote that “it was not surprising that General Scott viewed [Seward] as the coming man, and as Mr. Seward was a man of expedients more than principle, he soon made it obvious that he intended to have no war, but was ready to yield anything – the Constitution itself if necessary – to satisfy the Secessionists. The General under this influence abandoned his early recommendations and ultimately advised surrendering all the forts.”34 Historian Mark Grimsley wrote that Winfield “Scott..epitomized the conciliatory policy at the war’s outset. He saw quite clearly the result if the North tried to reunify the country through unbridled violence.”35

On Thursday, March 28, 1861, the Cabinet gathered after a diplomatic dinner at the White House to discuss the military situation. Scott could not attend but sent a strategy memo that proposed abandoning both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. Scott biographer Charles Winslow Elliott wrote: “The chair reserved at the table for the General-in-Chief being withdrawn, the dinner proceeded without him, and at its conclusion, when all the guests except the Cabinet members had taken their leave. Mr. Lincoln disclosed to his astonished advisers the fact that Scott had formally counseled the abandonment of the two beleaguered fortresses.”36 Scott’s memorandum to the President read: “It is doubtful, according to recent information from the South, whether the voluntary evacuation of Fort Sumter alone would have a decisive effect upon the States now wavering between adherence to the Union and secession. It is known, indeed, that it would be charged to necessity, and the holding of Fort Pickens would be adduced in support of that view. Our Southern friends, however, are clear that the evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.”37 President Lincoln did not accept this advice. “I am directed by the President,” wrote Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay to Scott, “to say that he desires you to exercise all vigilance for the maintenance of all the places within the military department of the United States.”38

Lincoln aides and biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “A long pause of blank amazement followed the President’s recital, broken at length by [Postmaster General Montgomery] Blair in strong denunciation, not only of this advice, but of Scott’s general course regarding Sumter. He charged that Scott was transcending his professional duties and ‘playing politician.’ Blair’s gestures and remarks, moreover, were understood by those present as being aimed specially at Seward, whose peace policy he had, with his usual impulsive aggressiveness, freely criticised. Without any formal vote, there was a unanimous expression of dissent from Scott’s suggestion, and under the President’s request to meet in formal council next day, the Cabinet retired. That night Lincoln’s eyes did not close in sleep. It was apparent that the time had come when he must meet the nation’s crisis. His judgment alone must guide, his sole will determine, his own lips utter the word that should save or lose the most precious in inheritance of humanity, the last hope of free government on the earth. Only the imagination may picture that intense and weary vigil.”39

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “On the afternoon of March 29, Lincoln summoned Scott to the White House. In the course of their long conversation about the forts, the president said that Major Robert ‘Anderson had played us false’ and predicted that the administration ‘would be broken up unless a more decided policy was adopted, and if General Scott could not carry out his views, some other person might.”40 Scott’s memorandum had presented a dire picture of Union prospects and recommended abandonment of both remaining Union forts in the South – Sumter in South Carolina and Pickens in Florida. Nevertheless, Lincoln moved forward and took the decision to resupply Fort Sumter. It was significant, noted Craig Symonds, because “the United States was committing most of its available naval force to the expedition.”41 Although the Fort Sumter garrison was rapidly running out of supplies, Jefferson Davis effectively accelerated its surrender. Symonds noted that Davis “ordered [Confederate General P.G.T.] Beauregard to demand the immediate surrender of the fort, and if [Major Robert] Anderson refused, the general was to reduce it by gunfire.”42 The relief expeditions for Forts Sumter and Pickens were a comedy of errors and a tragedy of contradictory orders from Washington and commanders in New York. But by drawing the first fire from the secessionists, Lincoln achieved his goal of unifying a fractious North.

Even at this early point in the war, the President took command. Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “Military authorities, whether or not they approve Lincoln’s strategy as a whole, find no fault with the first big decision he had to make as Commander in Chief. This was, of course, his decision in regard to Fort Sumter, and in making it he rejected the advice of his general in chief, Scott.”43 Rather than condemning Lincoln’s bumbling policy leading up to Fort Sumter, McPherson described it as “a stroke of brilliance. In effect Lincoln flipped a coin with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, saying: ‘Heads I win; tails you lose.’ If the Confederates allowed the supplies to be landed, the status quo at Charleston would continue, peace would be preserved for at least a while, no more states would secede, and Seward’s cherished policy of ‘voluntary reconstruction,’ whereby a cooling of passions would bring the presumed legions of Southern closet Unionists out of the closet, might have a chance to go forward.”44

Despite their differences over Fort Sumter, Scott’s relations with the President continued to be cordial and respectful. Geoffrey Perret wrote: “They might talk for an hour or so, going in a relaxed, conversational way over military problems and prospects, who deserved promotion, who was the right man for this command or that. Lincoln enjoyed the legend’s company and sought his advice on strategy.”45 Scott’s strategic advice was: “If you will maintain a strict blockade on the seacoast, collect your revenues on board cutters at the mouths of the harbors, and send a force down the Mississippi sufficiently strong to open and keep it free along its course to its mouth, you will thus cut off the luxuries to which the people are accustomed; and they may feel this pressure, not having been exasperated by attacks on them within their respective states.”46

For President Lincoln at this time, execution was more important than planning. After Fort Sumter surrendered, Lincoln declined to call Congress back into session. Instead, he used his powers as commander in chief to mobilize the country. While acknowledging that Lincoln circumvented the Constitution after Fort Sumter, McPherson argued that the reason Lincoln did not call Congress into session was that seven states were to hold congressional elections in the spring of 1861. “Thus the special session could not meet until all representatives had been elected.” Of Lincoln’s invocation of presidential war powers, McPherson wrote: “The Constitution makes no mention of war powers; Lincoln seems to have invented both the phrase and its application.”47

In his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861, President Lincoln defined what was at stake in the conflict: “And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily, without any pretense, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. Its forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?’ ‘Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?'”48

Active leadership of the Army of the Potomac in the East was initially assigned in the spring of 1861 to General Irvin McDowell, a Scott aide. Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler observed of McDowell: “Paris-educated, he spoke fluent French and played Mozart sonatas with the style of a professional pianist.”49 McDowell’s military skills were not so well developed as his political connections. Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “McDowell, who in twenty-three years of service as a staff officer had never commanded a unit in the field, was appointed as a brigadier in the regular army on May 14, 1861, as a result of the intervention of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.”50 Civil War scholar Wayne Mahood wrote: “The dogmatic and censorious McDowell, a 42-year-old West Pointer and prodigious eater, was selected because he had served on Army Commander Winfield Scott’s staff and had studied French military operations firsthand.”51 Like Scott, General McDowell was not an aggressive commander and was reluctant to confront the Confederate army gathering in northern Virginia. McDowell complained before the First Battle of Bull Run: “This is not an army. It will take a long time to make an army.”52 Lincoln pushed McDowell into a confrontation with the Confederates earlier than the general thought comfortable. The general’s battle plans were undone by a superior Confederate strategy which allowed two southern army groups to unite and overwhelm the green Union troops at the First battle of Bull Run.

The day of the battle – July 21, 1861 – President Lincoln gathered with other Administration officials in Scott’s office to hear reports of the battle and its aftermath. Colonel Edward D. Townsend recalled that General Scott rejected rumors that the Confederate Army was advancing on Washington without opposition: “It is impossible, sir! We are now testing the first fruits of a war, and learning what a panic is! We must be prepared for all sorts of rumors. Why, sir, we shall soon hear that Jefferson Davis has crossed the Long Bridge at the head of a brigade of elephants, and is trampling our citizens under foot! He has no brigade of elephants, he cannot by any possibility get a brigade of elephants!”53 The President’s reaction was recorded by a longtime Illinois friend, Robert Wilson, who asked him how the battle had gone. President Lincoln “said, it was contrary to Army Regulations to give military information to parties not in military service. I said to him then, I don’t ask for the news, but you tell me the quality of the news, – is it good, or is it bad. Placing his mouth near my ear he said in a sharp, shrill voice, ‘damned bad’.”54

The end of the First Battle of Bull Run marked the beginning of the second stage in the President’s command of the Civil War. Historian David Detzer wrote: “Before the battle he had maintained an outward calm – though at some cost in sleeplessness and a nervous stomach. The loss at Bull Run made him stronger. This country lawyer had a marvelous capacity for growth, and he now grew.”55 Historian William E. Gienapp noted the “sobering effect of the Union military’s disastrous performance at the beginning of the war, and his understanding that the responsibility and the blame would rest with him as commander in chief.”56 After the Bull Run defeat General Scott declared that he should be removed by the president. Scott had repeatedly worried that the army was not ready for battle Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay recorded the strange confrontation between President Lincoln and General Scott that took place in the presence of four Illinois Congressmen:

“Sir,” he [Scott] exclaimed passionately, “I am the greatest coward in America.” I will prove it. I have fought this battle, sir, against my judgment; I think the President of the United States ought to remove me for doing it. As God is my judge, after my superiors had determined to fight it, I did all in my power to make the army efficient. I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in a condition for fighting, and resist it to the last!”
“Your conversation,” replied Lincoln gravely, “seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.”
The President’s remark seems to have disconcerted the angry General.
“I have never served a President,” he said hastily, “who has been kinder to me than you have been!”57

President Lincoln did not remove Scott from command but he did replace General McDowell. Lincoln had limited tools with which to oversee the war’s conduct and he could not afford to lose Scott in the summer of 1861. In the wake of Bull Run, Lincoln appointed young George McClellan to command the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s ego quickly clashed with Scott’s. “Try as he may, Lincoln was unable to stop the feuding between the hypersensitive Scott and his contemptuous subordinate; they continued to squabble for the next three months,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame.58 Lincoln eventually gave up playing mediator; Halleck resigned in early November, and McClellan took his place. After the President made the appointment, he told McClellan: “Draw on me for all the sense I have, and all the information. In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the army will entail a vast labor upon you.” McClellan humbly responded: “I can do it all.”59 Unfortunately, McClellan could not do it all. As Michael Burlingame observed of his defects: “Compounding his paranoia was a streak of narcissism, predisposing him to envy, arrogance, grandiosity, vanity, and hypersensitivity to criticism.”60

The president’s full-time staff at the White House generally included only three or four young men. Attorney General Edward Bates thought the President needed more aides to help to command the war and needed to take more direct action to lead it. Bates wrote in his diary on January 10, 1862: “I renewed formally, and asked that it be made a question before the Cabinet, – my proposition, often made heretofore – that the President as “comm[an]der in Chief of the Army and Navy’ do organize a Staff of his own, and assume to be in fact, what he is in law, the Chief Commander. His aid[e]s could save him a world of trouble and anxiety – collect and report to him all needed information, and keep him constantly informed, at a moment’s warning – keep his military and naval books and papers – conduct his military correspondence, – and do his bidding generally ‘in all the works of war[.]” Bates also thought Lincoln should take a much stronger role to “take and act out the powers of his place.”61 The advice of the attorney general was never taken.

About that time, however, Lincoln changed his secretary of war. Simon Cameron was shipped off to Russia as the American minister and Democrat Edwin M. Stanton, who had unofficially been advising Cameron, took his place. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Implacable and abrasive as Stanton could be, his scrupulous honesty, energy, and determination were invaluable to Lincoln.”62 Stanton, who has also been close to McClellan, now changed his attitude toward the army commander. Stanton told President Lincoln in January 1862: “You are Commander in Chief under the constitution and must act as such or the government is lost….You must order McClellan to move. I think he will obey. If not, put someone in his place who will obey.” 63 Civil War historian McPherson made no excuses for McClellan: “To move against the enemy was to risk failure. So McClellan manufactured phantom enemies to justify his demands for more troops, to explain his inaction against the actual enemy, and to blame others for that inaction.”64 At key points, McClellan’s judgment was as deficient as his courage. He allowed the Confederate use of “Quaker guns” – logs painted as cannon – to deter any attack on Manassas in late 1861 and early 1862. Moving his army south to the James River, he was fooled into believing that the Confederates in front of him outnumbered him. Illinois Governor Richard Yates wrote in February 1862 that the president “at last seems to be waking up to the fact…that the responsibility is upon him, & I think he has resolved hereafter not to content himself with throwing all army movements on the Generals commanding, on the ground that he is no military man.”65

In the fall of 1862, McClellan had pushed General Scott out of the top army spot and won the position for himself. Once he became general-in-chief, McClellan severely disappointed Lincoln with his failure to move expeditiously against Confederate forces. In March 1862, McClellan was relieved as the army’s top general and his authority was confined henceforth to the Virginia front. Eventually that summer, Henry W. Halleck was brought east as the army’s top general. Historian John Y. Simon wrote: “Had Lincoln known more about Halleck’s command in the West, he might have hesitated before making this crucial appointment. Halleck had already displayed excessive caution, avoidance of responsibility, duplicity, petty tyranny, and military ineptitude. He excelled in managerial capacity but lacked any skill in personal relations. He placed his own welfare about all other concerns.”66 McClellan thought most contemporaries far inferior, but his observation of Halleck is instructive: “It was more difficult to get an idea through his head than can be conceived by any one who never made the attempt. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea from beginning to end.”67 Halleck in turn developed his own disdain for presidential strategy. After observing a White House strategy conference in mid-1862, journalist Noah Brooks concluded: “Halleck though he treated the suggestions of Lincoln with respect, evidently entertained a profound contempt for his generalship.”68

McClellan never appreciated the competing demands on the limited resources of the Union government. His insatiable requests for more troops were legendary. In response to one, President Lincoln wrote: “That the whole force of the enemy is concentrating in Richmond, I think can not be certainly known to you or me. [Rufus] Saxton, at Harper’s Ferry, informs us that a large force (supposed to be Jackson’s and Ewells) forced his advance from Charlestown today. Gen. King telegraphs us from Fredericksburg that contrabands give certain information that fifteen thousand left Hanover Junction Monday morning to re-inforce Jackson. I am painfully impressed with the importance of the struggle before you; and I shall aid you all I can consistently with my view of due regard to all points.”69 As usual, LIncoln had concern for the big picture. Lincoln scholar Tom Wheeler noted: “Then his exasperation boiled over: ‘and last I must be the Judge as to the duty of the government in this respect.’ Before handling the message to the clerk for transmission, however, Lincoln reconsidered the outburst that put McClellan in his place and scratched through it. The marks reveal the struggle between the president’s great frustration and his better judgment as to when and how to deliver such a rebuke.”70 Lincoln’s frustration sometimes erupted in his private comments about those generals like McClellan who seemed to specialize in stationary maneuvers. After receiving a telegram from General Don Carlos Buell about the impossibility of launching an offensive in eastern Tennessee in January 1862, Lincoln wrote: “It is exceedingly discouraging. As everywhere else, nothing can be done.”71

Halleck returned McClellan’s disdain. He wrote of McClellan that he was “in many respects a most excellent and valuable man, but he does not understand strategy and should never plan a campaign.”72 “Little Mac” refused to inform President Lincoln of his military plans. Congressman William D. Kelley, who came to view McClellan as a “pampered and petulant egotist” reported that he met with President Lincoln on February 27, 1862: “He was more restless than I had ever seen him, and I think more dejected, though he had not yet been advised of the countermanding by McClellan of all orders for the forwarding of troops. His position was pitiable. He knew that the army was aware that Scott had recommended McClellan’s advancement and approved his ability; that he (McClellan) had placed his confidential friends in every important command of the Army of the Potomac; and that, whether true or false, the country had been made to believe that the rank and file of the army so worshipped their ‘Little Commander’ that to displace him might produce consequences which he was not willing to risk; yet this was a measure he must now contemplate. In conversation with trusted friends he said that he was now compelled to doubt whether McClellan had ever considered a plan with a view to its execution; that he did not believe he had; and that it was evident he would not execute movements directed by his superiors. Now, with extreme gravity and emphasis, he added, the time has come when such a plan for a movement toward Richmond must be adopted and be promptly executed by McClellan or his successor. The next day he requested an early interview with the General and, whether by accident or arrangement I do not know, Senators Ben Wade and Andrew Johnson were present when it was held. They were thenceforth unreserved in their denunciation of the General as ‘treacherous’ or ‘incompetent,’ and of the puerility of his explanations.”73

During 1861-1862, Lincoln repeatedly prodded McClellan into speedier action – without effect. The President understood that field conditions would never be perfect for aggressive action nor would there ever if the optimal number of troops or sufficient supplies. Perhaps because of his experience with McDowell and McClellan, Lincoln came to value Union commanders who exhibited initiative – like Generals Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman and Admirals David Farragut and David Dixon Porter. “Lincoln expressed repeated frustration with the inability of his armies to march as light and fast as Confederate armies,” noted McPherson. In mid-March 1862, his patience wore out with McClellan’s inaction. McClellan’s demotion from general in chief apparently galvanized him into action. Historian William Marvel wrote: “Within hours of learning that he was no longer general in chief, he arranged with the War Department for troop transports, consulted with the Navy Department for assurances that the Virginia could be contained, held a romantic division review beneath a glimmering moon, and convened his first council of war with the four corps commanders Lincoln had named.”74

Like some other historians, Marvel is highly critical of Lincoln’s actions in the spring of 1862 regarding McDowell, whose corps was withheld from McClellan’s force attacking Richmond. But, noted Civil War scholar Jeffrey D. Wert, “By Lincoln’s and Stanton’s calculations fewer than 27,000 troops were in the defenses and at Manassas. The president ‘was justly indignant’ when he discovered the disparity. ‘My explicit order,’ Lincoln reminded McClellan, ‘that Washington should, by the judgment of all commanders of army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected. It was precisely this that drove me to detain McDowell.” Wert noted by inflating the size of the Confederate Army, McClellan had justified Lincoln’s fear about the capital’s safety: “If the Rebels were so numerous and so capable, could they not oppose McClellan while striking at the vulnerable capital?”75

Historian Gary W. Gallagher observed that rather than being motivated by panic regarding the operations of Stonewall Jackson that perhaps threatened Washington, President Lincoln was clearly impatient with the inability of McClellan or any other Union leader to launch an effective attack on the Confederates. Historian John S. Salmon wrote: “Lincoln was perhaps overly worried about the threat to Washington, but he had a legitimate concern about recent events in the Shenandoah Valley, where one of the Confederate heroes of Manassas, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, was ranging freely.”76 Gary W. Gallagher wrote: “Lincoln’s orders to McDowell conveyed a decidedly offensive message. If fear for Washington’s safety stood paramount, McDowell could have marched directly toward the city to bolster its defenses. The destruction of Jackson’s army, not the protection of the capital, dominated Lincoln’s thinking…. He probably blanched when McDowell, after stating that he obeyed Lincoln’s orders immediately, listed a number of obstacles to success.”77 Lincoln scholar William J. Miller came to a similar conclusion: “Lincoln’s ‘general plan’ showed insight, massing strength against the vital point at Richmond while also articulating the subordinate status of operations in all other regions of Virginia.”78

Longtime Lincoln friend Robert L. Wilson recalled: “In 1862, after Gen[.] McClellan fell back on the Potomac, and the prospects were very dark, and uncertain; and Mr[.] Lincoln’s letters urging McClellan to strike and advance and take Richmond[,] I was that Summer with the Army under [Don Carlos] Buell and [Henry W.] Halleck. The matter of placing Mr Lincoln at the head of the Army in the field, was generally advocated outside the Regular Army influence. It was conceded that he was not a military man. But he had proved to the world that he was equal to the exigencies of the times, and no man in the army appeared to be.”79 Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller noted: “One can count in Lincoln’s Collected Works forty-five messages, long and short, that Lincoln sent McClellan in the nearly five months of the Peninsula Campaign. These messages make an extraordinary record of thorough, clearly reasoned, incredibly patient, and persistent argument trying to bring McClellan to act, to move, to fight.”80

With McClellan stalled before Richmond, Lincoln looked for another Union general to command the defense of Washington. John Pope knew Mr. Lincoln, but was not a personal friend of the President-elect when he met him in Indianapolis in February 1861 and was invited to accompany the presidential party to Washington. Thomas Goss wrote: “Pope, serving as a topographical engineer building lighthouses on the Great Lakes, made a direct appeal to a mutual friend of the president’s to be stationed in Washington to be near the new president.” 81 Early in Mr. Lincoln’s presidency, Pope wrote that “it would be well for Mr Lincoln to have near him some Army friend interested in him personally….I would be gratified therefore if the president would order me to Washington…as his aid[e] and military Secretary.”82 Instead, Pope was posted to the West, where he had some modest success – especially the capture of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River. Upon arrival in Washington in June 1861, General Pope met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who informed him of plans to combine the armies of Generals Nathaniel Banks, Irvin McDowell and John C. Frémont under his command. Pope told Stanton that his assumption of command would not be greeted favorably by the officers in the armies and that he would prefer to return to the West. Stanton pressed the matter and Pope told him “that I would also see the president and briefly recapitulate to him what I said. I told him, however, that I wished it distinctly understood that however the matter might be decided I might safely be counted on to do my best with cheerfulness and zeal.”83

Lincoln visited McClellan and the Army of the Potomac at Harrison’s Landing in early July. Lincoln was warmly received by the troops he reviewed. The President “rode slowly along the lines, the cheering was most enthusiastic. It evidently gratified and cheered both officers and men to witness this evidence of a lively interest in their welfare and sympathy with them of the President,” wrote one enlisted man.84 Lincoln understood his need to be both cheerleader and cheer recipient. Lincoln told the soldiers: “Be of good cheer; all is well. The country owes you an inextinguishable debt for your services. I am under immeasurable obligations to you. You have, like heroes, endured, and fought, and conquered. Yes, I say conquered; for though apparently checked once you conquered afterwards and secured the position of your choice. You shall be strengthened and rewarded. God bless you all.”85

In August of 1862, McClellan’s army was withdrawn by water from the Jamestown peninsula back to Washington. The Confederate army likewise moved north, but by land. Upon arrival, however, many of McClellan’s divisions did not rush to help Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run, where the Union Army was routed at the end of August 1862. “In Pope’s second battle of Manassas I have reason to believe that the President passed many days without sleep, for at all hours of the night I received telegrams from him asking if I had no further intelligence to communicate,” General Henry Haupt later recalled.86

After Pope’s defeat, Lincoln put McClellan back in charge of the Union forces defending Washington – although the President recognized the general’s deficiencies and virtual insubordination. Lincoln said “though he acted as Commander-in-Chief, he found himself in that season of insubordination, panic, and general demoralization consciously under military duress.” He told a Pennsylvania congressman: “McClellan, even while fighting battles which should produce no result but the expenditure of men and means, had contrived to keep the troops with him, and by charging each new failure to some alleged dereliction of the Secretary of War and President had created an impression among them that the administration was hostile to him.” 87 He was also disappointed in Halleck who had failed to direct the coordination of Pope and McClellan. Burlingame wrote: “Halleck became in effect, a clerk, while Stanton resumed his earlier status as a co-planner of the war effort.”88

When the Confederates crossed the Potomac into Maryland in September 1862, McClellan slowly and deliberately massed Union forces for the Battle of Antietam. A little more than a week after battle, Lincoln visited the Army of Potomac in early October to evaluate McClellan and his army. During his four-day stay, Lincoln conferred frequently with McClellan when not visiting wounded soldiers or reviewing healthy ones. Lincoln told McClellan: “I wish to call your attention to a fault in your character – a fault which is the sum of my observations of you, in connection with this war. You merely get yourself ready to do a good thing – no man can do that better – you make all the necessary sacrifices of blood and time, and treasure, to secure a victory, but whether from timidity, self-distrust, or some other motive inexplicable to me, you always stop short just on this side of results.”89

After returning to Washington, Lincoln ordered McClellan into action. Lincoln understood that delay was a first cousin of defeat; many of his generals did not. He confronted and cajoled his generals until his patience wore out and then he replaced them. But he had to work with the human resources he had; he could not manufacture an ideal general. Historian Allan Nevins noted: “In his uneasiness, Lincoln felt that he must carry his demands directly to McClellan. After visiting McClellan at the beginning of October, Lincoln ordered him to “cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south.” Nevins noted that “Lincoln was peremptory because he had come back totally unable to understand why an immediate forward movement was not undertaken.”90 On November 5, McClellan was dismissed and replaced with Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz that in Kentucky, General Don Carlos Buell suffered the same fate as McClellan for the same reason – failure to act aggressively against the enemy that fall. Prokopowicz noted that Buell’s inability to pursue the Confederates after the Battle of Perryville on October 8 led to his dismissal two weeks later.91

By then, Lincoln’s frustration was evident. Navy Secretary Welles reported that Mr. Lincoln “was shocked to find that of 140,000 whom we were paying for in Pope’s army only 60,000 could be found. McClellan brought away 93,000 from the Peninsula, but could not to-day count on over 45,000. As regarded demoralization, the President said, there was no doubt that some of our men permitted themselves to be captured in order that they might leave on parole, get discharged, and go home.”92 The president told some women visiting from Chicago: “The fact is the people haven’t yet made up their minds that we are at war with the South. They haven’t buckled down to the determination to fight this war through; for they have got the idea into their heads that we are going to get out of this fix, somehow, by strategy! That’s the word – strategy! General McClellan thinks he is going to whip the rebels by strategy; and the army has got the same notion. They have no idea that the war is to be carried on and put through by hard, tough fighting, that will hurt somebody; and no headway is going to be made while this delusion lasts.” President Lincoln continued: “They think there is a royal road to peace, and that General McClellan is to find it. The army has not settled down into the conviction that we are in a terrible war that has got to be fought out – no; and the officers haven’t either. When you came to Washington, ladies, some two weeks ago, but very few soldiers came on the trains with you – that you will all remember. But when you go back you will find the trains and every conveyance crowded with them. You won’t find a city on the route, a town, or a village, where soldiers and officers on furlough are not plenty as blackberries. There are whole regiments that have two thirds of their men absent – a great many by desertion, and a great many on leave granted by company officers, which is almost as bad. General McClellan is all the time calling for more troops, more troops; and they are sent to him; but the deserters and furloughed men outnumber the recruits. To fill up the army is like undertaking to shovel fleas.”93

Lincoln had to fill the gaps in the army’s leadership as well as the gaps in the rank and file. Halleck’s deficiencies became obvious after Lincoln replaced McClellan. General Ambrose Burnside showed more initiative than McClellan but was inadequately supervised by Halleck as Burnside prepared to confront the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg in late 1862. Civil War writer Francis Augustin O’Reilly wrote: “Newspaperman Murat Halstead returned to Washington on December 14 and promptly informed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase what was happening in Fredericksburg. Halstead frightened Chase with gory details of defeat, and later reiterated his observations to the president.”94 News of war casualties profoundly disturbed President Lincoln. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that Mr. Lincoln told a “congressman, freshly returned from [the Battle of ] Fredericksburg, who was recounting the battle: ‘I beg you not to tell me anything more of that kind. I have as much on me now as I can bear.’ A War Department telegrapher reported that when news arrived that so many men had been killed, ‘the calamity seemed to crush Lincoln. He did not get over it for a long time and, all that winter of 1863, he was downcast and depressed. He felt that the loss was his fault.'”95

Lincoln understood the necessity to care and feed of the Union troops: “More fight will be got out of well-fed and well-cared-for soldiers and animals than can be got out of those that are required to make long marches with empty stomachs, and whose strength and cheerfulness are impaired by the failure to distribute proper rations at proper seasons.”96 But the president was also impatient with repeated failures by the Army of the Potomac. Asked in April 1863 to grant a pass to visit Richmond, Lincoln replied in language he would repeat later in the war: “I would be most happy to oblige you if my passes were respected; but the fact is I have within the last two years given passes to more than two hundred and fifty thousand men to go to Richmond, and not one of them has got there yet in any legitimate way.”97

On the night of December 14, 1862, General Herman Haupt reported to President Lincoln on the state of General Burnside’s army after the Battle of Fredericksburg.. The Commander-in-Chief took Haupt to Halleck’s home where he ordered his top general “to telegraph orders to General Burnside to withdraw his army.” Halleck, who thought a general at the front knew more than a general in the capital, refused. “If we were personally present and knew the exact situation, we might assume such responsibility,” argued Halleck. “If such orders are issued, you must issue them yourself. I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.” When Haupt said that the Burnside was in a good position to retreat, President Lincoln said: “What you say gives me many grains of comfort.”98

For the next month, Burnside and his superior failed to come to an agreement on an effective military strategy for the Army of the Potomac. Historian Francis O’Reilly wrote that “Halleck, an enigmatically bureaucratic soldier, delayed Burnside’s operations. Neither Lincoln nor Halleck cared for Burnside’s plan, and consequently they withheld their approval. As soon as the president criticized the proposal, Halleck asked Burnside for a meeting the next day.'”99 After Lincoln announced his replacement, Burnside said: “I suppose, Mr. President, you accept my resignation, and all I have to do is to go to my home.” President Lincoln denied his request: “General, I cannot accept your resignation; we need you.”100 Burnside would move on to several military commands.

Lincoln’s next choice to head the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker, was hardly an improvement over Burnside. Union officer Charles Francis Adams, Jr. called Hooker “a combination of barroom and brothel.”101 When Burnside had attempted to dismiss Hooker in January 1863, Burnside wrote that Hooker was “guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers…”102 Strategically, Lincoln counselled Hooker: “I think Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. If he comes towards the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank, and on the inside track, shortening your lines, whilst he lengthens his. Fight him when oppertunity [sic] offers. If he stays where he is, fret him, and fret him.”103

Lincoln’s visits to the eastern front were instructive and didactic. He tried repeatedly to focus the commanders of the Army of the Potomac on Lee’s army rather than Davis’s Richmond. Historian Michael Burlingame noted that when Lincoln conferred with Hooker in April 1863, the commander in chief “went over plans for the upcoming campaign with Hooker and his corps commanders, and was disturbed by a discussion about whether to get to Richmond by going around Lee’s right flank or his left. So he penned a memorandum noting that the presence of Lee’s army on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock meant that there was ‘no eligible route for us into Richmond.'”104 When General George Meade stalled later that year, the President told General Halleck that “to attempt to fight the enemy slowly back into his intrenchments at Richmond, and there to capture him, is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year. My judgment is so clear against it, that I would scarcely allow the attempt to be made, if the general in command should desire to make it.”105

As commander-in-chief, President Lincoln had to balance personalities as well as strategy. Halleck and Stanton had come to dislike each before the war. Stanton and McClellan came to dislike each other after Stanton became Secretary of War. Disagreements among prominent generals (John C. Frémont and Frank Blair, Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan, McClellan and James Wadsworth, McClellan and John Pope, Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant, Grant and John McClernand, Grant and Benjamin F. Butler, George Meade and Daniel Sickles) were a persistent bane of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency. The President had to balance military considerations with the political considerations on which the success of the war was based. But he understood that he needed “someone” to run the army, and that his options were limited.

At the same time, Lincoln was not above using Halleck, Stanton, and Welles to avoid making certain decisions or taking direct responsibility. Welles, for example, blocked the promotion of Lincoln favorite John Dahlgren because Dalhgren lacked the requisite experience at sea. Craig Symonds noted that “it is possible that Lincoln counted on him [Welles] to do exactly that. He was the president, after all; he simply could have overruled Welles. The secretary’s firm stand meant that Lincoln could continue to demonstrate his friendship for Dalhgren without upsetting the command structure of the Navy Department as he had done with [David Dixon] Porter’s appointment.”106 Stanton was even more obdurate than Welles – making it even easier to hide behind Stanton’s prickly intransigence.

President Lincoln occasionally used General Halleck to do his military dirty work. Such was the situation in June 1863 when Halleck and Stanton helped force out Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Historian John F. Marszalek wrote: “Matters between Halleck and Hooker grew increasingly tense, so Hooker unburdened himself to the president in a 11:00 A.M. telegram on June 16. ‘You have long been aware, Mr. President, that I have not enjoyed the confidence of the major-general commanding the army, and I can assure you so long as this continues we may look in vain for success.’ There followed a series of telegrams between the three men that demonstrated the desperateness of the situation.”107 As Confederate soldiers marched into Pennsylvania, General Halleck on June 28 sent Meade orders to take command:

“You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you.”
“You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will, therefore, maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him so as to give him battle.”
“All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders. Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.”
“You are authorized to remove from command, and to send from your army, any officer or other person you may deem proper, and to appoint to command as you may deem expedient.”
“In fine, general, you are instructed with all the power and authority which the President, the Secretary of War, or the General-in-Chief can confer on you, and you may rely on our full support.”108

Although highly pleased with the subsequent Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, President Lincoln was highly frustrated with Meade’s failure to follow up and destroy the depleted Confederate army before it could recross the Potomac River – just as he had been frustrated by McClellan’s failure to chase the Confederates to the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. On July 7, 1863, Lincoln wrote General Halleck: “We have certain information that Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July. Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”109 Halleck prodded Meade to cut off Lee before he could cross the Potomac, but Meade provided a series of excuses for not moving faster. On July 8, Meade wrote Halleck: “So long as the river is unfordable, the enemy cannot cross….My army is assembling slowly. The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable.”110 Meade denied that Lee was already crossing the river and protested: “My army is and has been making forced marches, short of rations, and barefooted. One corps marched yesterday and last night over 30 miles. I take occasion to repeat that I will use my utmost efforts to push forward this army.”111

Meade’s lethargy in pursuing the army of Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Gettysburg greatly aggravated President Lincoln. General James B. Fry recalled: “Lincoln watched the operations of the armies in the field with the deepest interest, the keenest insight, and the widest comprehension. The congratulatory order which General Meade published to his troops after the battle of Gettysburg was telegraphed to the War Department. During those days and nights of anxiety, Lincoln clung to the War Office, and devoured every scrap of news as it came over the telegraph wires. He hoped for and expected substantial fruits from our dearly bought victory at Gettysburg. I saw him read General Meade’s congratulatory order. When he came to the sentence about ‘driving the invaders from our soil,’ an expression of disappointment settled upon his face, his hands dropped upon his knees, and in tones of anguish he exclaimed, ‘Drive the invaders from our soil! My God! Is that all?”112 When they later met, Lincoln inquired: “Do you know, General, what your attitude towards Lee after the battle of Gettysburg reminded me of?” Meade replied: “No, Mr. President – what is it?” Lincoln said: “I’ll be hanged if I could think of anything else but an old woman trying to shoo her geese across a creek.”113

Others also witnessed the President’s impatience. “This morning the Prest. seemed depressed by Meade’s despatches of last night. They were so cautiously & almost timidly worded – talking about reconnoitering to find the enemy’s weak place and other such. He said he feared he would do nothing,” reported aide John Hay. “About noon came the despatch stating that our worst fears were true. The enemy had gotten away unhurt. The Prest was deeply grieved. [“]We had them within our grasp’ he said. ‘We had only to stretch forth our hands & they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.”114 The next day, the President told his son Robert: “If I had gone up there I could have whipped them myself.”115 A few days later, he told Hay: “Our Army held the war in the hollow of their hand & they would not close it.” He added: “We had gone through all the labor of tilling & planting an enormous crop & when it was ripe we did not harvest it. Still…I am very grateful to Meade for the great service he did at Gettysburg.”116

Robert Lincoln recalled coming to Washington in July 1863: “I went into my father’s office at the time in the afternoon at which he was accustomed to leave his office to go to the Soldiers Home, and found him in [much] distress, his head leaning upon the desk in front of him, and when he raised his head there were evidences of tears upon his face. Upon my asking the cause of his distress he told me that he had just received the information that Gen. Lee had succeeded in escaping across the Potomac river at Williamsport without serious molestation by Gen. Meade’s army.”117 After explaining what had happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert’s father “then told me that the battle of Gettysburgh [sic] and after Lee reached the Potomac River and after our army had closed in upon him at that point, he felt sure that the final blow could be struck, and he summoned Gen. [Herman] Haupt, in whom he had great confidence as a bridge builder, and asked him how long in view of the materials which be supposed to be available under Lee, would it take him to devise the means and get his army across the river. That Gen. Haupt after reflection replied that if he were Gen. Lee’s chief engineer, he could devise the means and put him across the river with the materials at hand within twenty four hours, and he had no doubt that Gen. Lee had just as good engineers for that purpose as he was. My father then said that he at once sent at order to Gen. Meade…directing him to attack Lee’s army with all his force immediately, and that if he was successful in the attack he might destroy the order, but if he was unsuccessful he might preserve it for his vindication. My father then told me that instead of attacking upon the receipt of the order, a council of war had been held, as he understood, with the result that no attack was made, and Lee got across the river without serious molestation.”118

General James Wadsworth visited the White House and reported on the Council of War. John Hay wrote in his diary: “Wadsworth says that a council of War of Corps Commanders held on Sunday the 12th, he was present, on account of the sickness of his Corps Commander, he Wadsworth being temporarily in command of the corps. On the question of fight or no fight the weight of authority was against fighting. French, Sedgwick, Slocum & ____ [Sykes] strenuously opposed a fight. Meade was in favor of it, so was Warren, who did most of the talking on that side & Pleasonton was very eager for it as also was Wadsworth himself. The non-fighters…seemed to think that if we did not attack, the enemy would & even Meade, though he was in for action, had no idea that the enemy intended to get away at once.”119

On July 14, Halleck expressed the frustration of President Lincoln when he wrote Meade: “The escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has been sufficiently active heretofore.”120 In response, Meade offered his resignation: “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.” President Lincoln drafted a response (which he did not send) which stated: “I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very- very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles of Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle.” Instead of sending Lincoln’s own letter, Halleck responded to Meade: “My telegram, stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army, was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.”121

Lincoln summarized his frustration in a letter to General Oliver O. Howard, who had written on July 18 to defend Meade: “I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac, because the substantial destruction was perfectly easy – believed that Gen. Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill, and toil, and blood, up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste. Perhaps my mortification was heightened because I had always believed–making my belief a hobby possibly – that the main rebel army going North to the Potomac, could never return, if well attended to; and because I was so greatly flattered in this belief, by the operations at Gettysburg. A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.”122

Meade remained upset at the criticism directed at him from Washington and what Halleck had called the “feeling of disappointment” in his conduct. He wrote: “Now, let me say, in the frankness which characterizes your letter, that perhaps the President was right; if such was the case, it was my duty to give him an opportunity to replace me by one better fitted for the command of the army. It was, I assure you, with such feelings that I applied to be relieved. It was not from any personal consideration, for I have tried in this whole war to forget all personal considerations, and have always maintained they should not for an instant influence any one’s actions.”123

Meade biographer Isaac R. Pennypacker defended Meade: “Mr. Lincoln’s failure to forward the letter to Meade is convincive that he had doubts of the justness of his first impulse. In the opinion expressed in the draft, he erred because, as we know now, he was not in possession of all the facts. That Mr. Lincoln changed his mind is shown by his remark to Simon Cameron in regard to Meade, ‘Why should we censure a man who has done so much for his country because he did not do a little more?'”124 At the end of his letter to Halleck, Meade admitted that “I take this occasion to say to you, and through you to the President, that I have no pretensions to any superior capacity for the post he has assigned me to; that all I can do is to exert my utmost efforts and do the best I can; but that the moment those who have a right to judge my actions think, or feel satisfied, either that I am wanting or that another would do better, that moment I earnestly desire to be relieved, not on my own account, but on account of the country and the cause.”125

Lincoln’s impatience with Meade’s cautious behavior continued into the fall of 1863. Meade wrote Halleck on September 18 for specific orders: “I have reached such a position that I do not feel justified in making a further advance without some more positive authority than was contained in your last letter enclosing one from the President. If I apprehend rightly the views of the President and yourself it was to the effect that I might advance on Lee and threaten him with an attack and not permit him to cross the Rapidan without giving him battle. After accomplishing this my feint might be converted into a real attack if the development of the movement and subsequent information justified the same….” President Lincoln’s reply to Halleck demonstrated his priorities and his grasp of military strategy and details:

“By Gen. Meade’s despatch to you of yesterday it appears that he desires your views and those of the government, as to whether he shall advance upon the enemy. I am not prepared to order, or even advise an advance in this case, wherein I know so little of particulars, and wherein he, in the field, thinks the risk is so great, and the promise of advantage so small. And yet the case presents matters for very serious consideration in another aspect. These armies confront each other across a small river, substantially midway between the two Capitals, each defending it’s own Capital, and menacing the other. Gen. Meade estimates the enemies infantry in front of him at not less than forty thousand. Suppose we add fifty per cent to this, for cavalry, artillery, and extra duty men stretching as far as Richmond, making the whole force of the enemy sixty thousand. Gen. Meade, as shown by the returns, has with him, and between him and Washington, of the same classes of well men, over ninety thousand. Neither can bring the whole of his men into a battle; but each can bring as large a per centage in as the other. For a battle, then, Gen. Meade has three men to Gen. Lee’s two. Yet, it having been determined that choosing ground, and standing on the defensive, gives so great advantage that the three can not safely attack the two, the three are left simply standing on the defensive also. If the enemies [sic] sixty thousand are sufficient to keep our ninety thousand away from Richmond, why, by the same rule, may not forty thousand of our keep their sixty thousand away from Washington, leaving us fifty thousand to put to some other use? Having practically come to the mere defensive, it seems to be no economy at all to employ twice as many men for that object as are needed. With no object, certainly, to misle[a]d myself, I can perceive no fault in this statement, unless we admit we are not the equal of the enemy man for man. I hope you will consider it.”
“To avoid misunderstanding, let me say that to attempt to fight the enemy slowly back into his intrenchments at Richmond, and there to capture him, is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year. My judgment is so clear against it, that I would scarcely allow the attempt to be made, if the general in command should desire to make it. My last attempt upon Richmond was to get McClellan, when he was nearer there than the enemy was, to run in ahead of him. Since then I have constantly desired the Army of the Potomac, to make Lee’s army, and not Richmond, it’s objective point. If our army can not fall upon the enemy and hurt him where he is, it is plain to me it can gain nothing by attempting to follow him over a succession of intrenched lines into a fortified city.”126

About a year after the Meade disappointment, Lincoln had a similar reaction to the failure of Union forces to follow up after a Confederate attack on Washington, DC was repulsed by General Horatio Wright. “The President thinks we should push our whole column right up the River Road & Cut off as many as possible of the retreating raiders,” wrote aide John Hay in his diary on July 13, 1864. Then he reflected the president’s frustration: “There seems to be no head about this whole affair. Halleck hates responsibility: hates to give orders. Wright, Gillmore and McCook must of course report to somebody & await somebody’s orders which they don’t get.” The next day, Hay reported that Lincoln told him: “Wright telegraphs that he thinks the enemy are all across the Potomac but that he has halted & sent out an infantry reconnoissance [sic], for fear he might come across the rebels & catch some of them.” Hay added: “The Chief is evidently disgusted.”127

Despite his frustrations, Mr. Lincoln generally used a kindly, paternal, somewhat exasperated but firm approach to his generals – as evidenced by this letter to Nathaniel Banks, the newly appointed Union commander in New Orleans in November 1862:

Early last week you left me in high hope with your assurance that you would off with your expedition at the end of that week, or early in this. It is now the end of this, and I have just been overwhelmed and confounded with the sight of a requisition made by you, which, I am assured, can not be filled, and got off within an hour short of two months! I inclose you a copy of the requisition, in some hope that it is not genuine – that you have never seen it.
My dear General, this expanding, and piling up of impedimenta, have been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned. If you had the articles of this requisition upon the wharf, with the necessary animals to make them of any use, and forage for the animals, you could not get vessels together in two weeks to carry the whole, to say nothing of your twenty thousand men; and, having, the vessels, you could not put the cargoes aboard in two weeks more. And, after all, where you are going, you have no use for them. When you parted with me, you had no such idea in your mind. I know you had not, or you could not have expected to be off so soon as you said. You must get back to something like the plan you had then, or expedition is a failure before you start. You must be off before Congress meets. You would be better off any where, and especially where you are going, 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.
Now dear General, do not think this is an ill-natured letter – it is the very reverse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you.128

Lincoln valued initiative in his generals. Historian Richard Striner wrote that “Lincoln’s modus operandi, both in politics and war, was his constant preparation for the best-case and worst-case contingencies – both of them at once. He wanted armies that were poised to attack while positioned to defend.”129 General Egbert L. Viele wrote that Secretary of War Stanton “had received a telegram from General Mitchell, in Alabama, asking instructions in regard to a certain emergency that had occurred. The secretary said that he did not precisely understand the emergency as explained by General Mitchell, but he had answered back, ‘All right; go ahead.’ ‘Now,’ he said, ‘Mr. President, if I have made an error in not understanding him correctly, I will have to get you to countermand the order.’ ‘Well,’ exclaimed Lincoln, ‘that is very much like the occasion of a certain horse sale I remember that took place at the cross roads down in Kentucky when I was a boy. A particularly fine horse was to be sold, and the people gathered together. They had a small boy to ride the horse up and down while the spectators examined the horse’s points. At last one man whispered to the boy as he went by: ‘Look here, boy, hain’t that horse got the splints?’ The boy replied: ‘Mister, I don’t know what the splints is; but if it is good for him he has got it, if it ain’t good for him he ain’t got it.'” Mr. Lincoln continued: “Now, if this was good for Mitchell it was all right: but if it was not I have got to countermand it.”130

When possible, Mr. Lincoln tried to shift generals in order to appease their political supporters. That is the interpretation for Mr. Lincoln’s appointment of John C. Frémont to the Mountain Department in Virginia in the late winter of 1862 after removing him a few months earlier from command of troops in Missouri. Historian Brooks D. Simpson was critical. He wrote: “One is hard pressed to conclude that Lincoln derived any benefit from his association with Frémont, whose actions damaged the Union cause politically and militarily.”131 Historian William Marvel was even more critical about the segmented departments created in Virginia in 1862 – one of which Fremont commanded: “Abraham Lincoln had created such fragmented departments largely to satisfy the dignity of influential politicos who never should have worn the major generals’ stars in the first place.”132

Political generals and would-be political generals were in fact a necessary evil that President Lincoln had to manage. In his study of Lincoln’s Political Generals, David Work wrote: “The president thought that it was impossible to fight the war without the services of political generals. Granting Republicans generals’ commissions was a logical source of patronage, helped to build the party, and ensured that prominent party members supported the president. Lincoln also needed to ensure that the war was a national undertaking, a goal that could be partly secured by giving generals’ commissions to Democrats and members of important ethnic groups such as the Germans and Irish.”133

Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “The harnessing of ‘political generals’ during the Civil War was part of a long tradition of amateur military commanders during each of America’s wars that dated back to the colonial militia.”134 President Lincoln used all the tools at his disposal – and politics was a tool. (Of the 583 general officers who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, 47 were politicians according to a study by Ezra J. Warner – while 194 were professional soldiers, 126 were lawyers or judges and 116 were businessmen.135

General Halleck complained of the influence of political generals in 1863: “How long the president will submit to this dictation is uncertain. He must either put it down, or it will sink him so low that the last trump of Gabriel will never reach his ears!” 136 On another occasion, Halleck regretted that “political power over-rules all military considerations.”137 Such criticisms have persisted, but West Point-trained generals like Halleck himself had not been a successful field commanders. “Benjamin F. Butler, in many ways the epitome of a political general, represented both the positive and negative generalizations of amateur generalship during this era,” wrote Thomas Goss. “He was an early hero of the war and, with the prominent role he played in the war effort, became the symbol of political generals for both policymakers and the public. When Butler arrived in Washington in April 1861, President Lincoln was glad to have the support of such a prominent Democrat, who donated his popularity to the Union cause with every newspaper account containing his name and rank and every speech that proclaimed his political support for the administration’s policies. Lincoln was willing to risk Butler’s lack of military experience to gain the appearance of national unity behind the war effort regardless of prewar political partisanship.”138

Lincoln had to face political realities and one of the political realities in 1861 was that many Union army officers who had been trained at West Point had Democratic roots. Historian James Rawley noted that President Lincoln “in 1861..named a smaller percentage of political generals – about one third – than did Jefferson Davis. Calculating their contribution to Northern unity, Lincoln attached Democrats like Ben Butler and John A. Dix and foreigners like Carl Schurz and Franz Sigel to the Union cause. Ethnic balance was also needed. Historian Michael Burlingame noted: “The president tolerated Sigel’s behavior because the general was popular with his countrymen, who formed an important voting bloc.”139 When Schurz complained about appointment of Democratic generals, Lincoln replied that few Republicans had a military education. ‘I have scarcely appointed a democrat to command,’ he declared, ‘who was not urged by many republicans and opposed by none.”140 Historian T. Harry Williams noted: “In the first year of the war the great majority of the general officers were Democrats….The three most important commands were held by Democratic generals: George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, and Don Carlos Buell.”141 A political balance was needed. “Lincoln had chosen many Democrats as generals in order to win the support of their party, without which the war effort was doomed,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “Lincoln regarded their appointment as an indispensable investment in national unity.”142

Historian Brooks D. Simpson was highly critical of Lincoln’s retention of political generals. “Butler, Banks and Sigel: three political generals, appointed by Lincoln, whose performance during the 1864 campaign impaired military operations critical to the president’s prospects for reelection. Whatever the merits of awarding these men commissions at the beginning of the war to rally support for the cause from diverse groups, their retention proved costly.”143 By necessity, Lincoln tried a succession of Union generals – professional and political – and when he realized his error, he replaced them. David Work concluded that “every political general who commanded an independent army failed.” Work added: “Early in the war, with few experienced generals to choose from, it was understandable that Lincoln allowed these men to lead armies, but, as the war progressed and these generals demonstrated their incompetence, they should have been denied further chances to direct an army.”144

Historian William E. Gienapp complained that President Lincoln “gave too many important field commands to men appointed for political reasons….To some degree, such appointments were necessary, but it was one thing to appoint these men, another to give them vital field commands.”145 But professional generals often failed as well. Nor did matching political generals with West Point graduates necessarily solve the deficiencies of either. Historian Brooks Simpson wrote: “Grant believed that although Butler understood military concepts, he lacked the ability to execute them. So Grant attempted to solve the problem by providing Butler with two corps commanders of demonstrated ability: Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore and the often-shuffled Brigadier General William F. Smith.”146 It didn’t help.

As President, Lincoln had to balance military and political concerns – as well as ever-present concerns about recruitment of new soldiers. Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “In a political system so steeped in patronage, Lincoln made little attempt to hide the quid pro quo involved with the appointment of men like Schurz, Sigel and others. Lincoln often wrote openly about how many Irish, German, or other types of recruits he wanted from his potential new generals, while these men made similar promises of specific numbers of volunteers in their petitions for military appointment.”147 Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams noted: “To Lincoln, each political general represented an important ethnic, regional, or political constituency whose support was critical to the war effort.”148 Goss wrote: “With no formal standard to judge military expertise and potential for command, President Lincoln was simply doing his best to gain the benefit of patronage and political support by choosing from the candidates known to be available.”149 When Secretary of War Stanton protested that a German-American by the name of Alexander Schimmelfennig was unfit to be a brigadier general, Lincoln responded: “No matter about that, his name will make up for any difference there may be, and I’ll take the risk of his coming out all right.”150 James McPherson is more forgiving of Lincoln’s record in this regard than some historians: “The main purpose of commissioning prominent political and ethnic leaders was to mobilize their constituencies for the war effort.”151

McPherson wrote: “But army politics in the sense of cliques and rivalries for promotion and preferment probably played a part. The army’s senior corps commander, Erasmus D. Keyes, no friend of McClellan, deplored ‘the cloud of envy, jealousy, & malice under which this army has been shrouded.'”152 Politics was used by generals as well as the President, noted historian Stephen Haafe. “As evidence began to accumulate that his days as Army of the Potomac commander were numbered, McClellan sought to cut a deal with the Lincoln administration that would enable him to retain some role in the war.” He sought to win back his old job as general in chief if he lost his current job as commander of the Army of the Potomac.153

A number of prominent Civil War generals came from Mr. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. Some like Ulysses S Grant and James Harrison Wilson were West Point professionals. Equally prominent were a group of political generals from Illinois whose support Mr. Lincoln coveted. One, John Logan, was a Democratic congressman who “proved to be an excellent general who demonstrated leadership and tactical ability at every level of command from regiment to army,” according to David Work.154 General James A. Shields was a former Illinois senator with whom Lincoln had once nearly fought a duel in 1842. Less successful was John McClernand, a prominent Democratic congressman who wanted an even more prominent role in the war effort and who clashed repeatedly with professional soldiers like William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. More disreputable was General Stephen Hurlbut, a former Illinois legislator who displayed bravery on the battlefield and moral impairment off it. Goss wrote: “At a time of such national crisis, many political figures looked upon military service as an outlet for their honest patriotism, while others saw time in the military as a system to influence the war effort. The result of this volunteering was that by the fall of 1861, at least seventeen congressmen had joined the Union army, four as brigadiers, ten as regimental colonels, and the other three as officers on either McClellan’s or Frémont’s staff.”155 Former Illinois Congressman Edward D. Baker, for example, raised a regiment and was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861. The death of Colonel Baker, a longtime Lincoln friend who had moved to Oregon where he had been elected to the U.S. Senate, devastated the president.

Mr. Lincoln understood the need for balance in military appointments. “For instance, when [Congressman] George Julian visited the White House in early 1863 to lobby for the reappointment of Frémont to a military command, Lincoln rebuffed him,” wrote historian Bruce Tap. “It would stir the country on one side, and stir it the other way on the other. It would please Frémont’s friends, and displease the conservatives,” said Lincoln.156 Lincoln exercised his political discretion – or avoided it – as he saw fit. “As commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln reserved for himself the power to appointed corps commanders, but it was never that simple. Lincoln eventually realized that he lacked the time and expertise to propose officers for corps command, so he usually merely expressed his approval or disapproval of names his military advisers put forth,” wrote historian Stephen R. Taafe. He noted that army commanders used temporary appointees to promote their favorites through a back door, a tactic Lincoln tolerated “when he wanted to avoid making controversial appointments.”157 David Work noted: “The jump to corps command proved beyond the ability of most political generals, because their lack of education and training left them unprepared for the complexities of leading such a large unit.”158 Military historian Mackubin T. Owens wrote that “Lincoln never let sentiment or his personal opinion of an officer get in the way of his assessment of the officer’s military potential.'”159

Army promotions frequently raised a storm of jealous and protest. William R. Morrison was a wounded army officer who had been elected to Congress in November 1862. In response to Morrison’s allegation that the President was about to promote army colonels junior to him, President Lincoln replied that “your suspicions that I intend you an injustice are very painful to me. I assure you such suspicions are groundless. I can not even conjecture what juniors of yours, you suppose I contemplate promoting over you. True, seniority had not been my rule, in this connection; but in considering military merit, it seems to me the world has abundant evidence that I discard politics.”160

The President had the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War looking over his shoulder. “Although the attitude of some regular army officers toward civilian leaders was cause for concern, committee members and other Republican congressmen seemed to forget that their actions might have contributed to the atmosphere of intense factionalism and hostility among the army’s leading officers…In the numerous committee investigations of 1861 and 1862, it was self-evident that its members took a dim view of conservative West Point professionals and that they used what amounted to political tests in evaluating fitness for command. Thus the hostility and factionalism were, in part, the natural consequences of the committee’s investigations. Historian Bruce Tap noted that the committee thought “the principal problem plaguing the Union war effort was the lukewarm attitude of the country’s West Point-educated generals.”161

Commander in Chief Lincoln seldom imposed his will and judgment on his military subordinates but often shared his ideas. Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams noted: “Often he submitted to the advice of his generals. Occasionally they disregarded his wishes if not his direct orders.”162 Historian Marvin R. Cain wrote that Lincoln “continued his longtime charade that he did not understand the strategy of war nor the meaning of armed conflict. On the other hand, when he directed McClellan to effect a corps reorganization of the Army of the Potomac, he cited military studies that supported that system. After making Henry Halleck, the army’s leading military theorist, General-in-Chief, he used him primarily as a political buffer between himself and the senior commanders. Lincoln told his cabinet that he did not understand military developments, but he often gave them as well as Congressmen detailed briefings on tactical and strategic situations.”163 Lincoln nonetheless tried to reassure generals that they had his confidence while prodding them to action: “I am not watching you with an evil eye,” he wrote General William S. Rosecrans in August 1863.164

By 1864, noted Craig L. Symonds: “Lincoln had long since concluded that for all his theoretical knowledge, Halleck simply lacked the temperament to give orders. Halleck offered innumerable suggestions but almost never issued an unequivocal order; he simply did not want to command.”165 His deficiencies were particularly evident in July 1864 when Confederate troops marched through Maryland and arrived on the outskirts of Washington without Halleck exercising military leadership. On that occasion, the commander in chief was forced to take orders from one of his generals. “Mr. President, I know you are commander of the armies, of the United States,” General Horatio Wright told Lincoln as he stood on the parapet of Fort Stevens in northwest Washington on July 12, 1864, “but I am in command here, and as you are not safe where you are standing, and I am responsible for your personal safety, I order to come down.”166 Wright’s concern was justified; a surgeon standing next to Lincoln was shot and killed by rebel snipers. Historian John Y. Simon explained why President Lincoln kept Halleck in his position despite his evident frustration with Halleck’s professional and personal quirks: “Halleck remained a master of military technique, adept at moving troops and supplies. He knew how to translate Lincoln’s directions into proper orders and to offer suggestions about minor matters. He provided Lincoln with a buffer against senior commanders; Halleck’s name consistently appeared upon orders for removal.”167

Just as Mr. Lincoln came to master the issue of slavery, so too did President Lincoln come to master military affairs. His was less reliant on generals like Scott and Halleck than he had been at the beginning of the war. Frank J. Williams wrote: “Lincoln grew as a strategist; he asked questions; he read; he probed – anything within his power to win and shorten the war. Ironically it was Lincoln, a most unlikely military man, who became America’s apostle of modern war.”168 Lincoln also grasped impossible subordination – dismissing Major John Key in 1862 for saying: “The object [of the war] is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”169 Lincoln reportedly claimed he “dismissed Major Key for his silly treasonable talk because I feared it was staff talk and I wanted an example.”170

Lincoln reserved to himself the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief. In August 1861 when John C. Frémont issued orders freeing slaves in Missouri command, Lincoln first suggested that the orders be retracted. When the general did not do so voluntarily, Lincoln ordered him to do so. When Lincoln rejected the emancipation orders of General David Hunter in May 1862, Lincoln noted that the subject was one “I reserve to myself, and I can not feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field.”171 William Lee Miller noted that “as military chief he could command, on his own authority, the freeing of slaves in states in rebellion as a necessary military measure.”172 Lincoln’s exact policies regarding slaves and ex-slaves were not always clear. Historian Edna Greene Medford wrote: “Union commanders understood that Lincoln had declared a hands-off policy regarding enslaved people, but with no clear guidelines in place regarding runaways, they responded to the situation according to their own proclivities.”173

One of the keys to Lincoln’s leadership was his ability to listen – to generals and much lower ranking individuals in the army and navy. Naval historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: “Lincoln”s relationship with these two officers, [David Dixon] Porter and Samuel I. Du Pont, reveals several important characteristics about Lincoln’s management of men, and ultimately his management of war. First, he was willing – even eager – to solicit the advice of experts. He listened carefully to Du Pont’s plan for the blockade of the Southern coast, and even after others had raised questions about Porter’s loyalty, he listened just as carefully to that officer’s assessment of the situation at Vicksburg. Knowing he was not an expert, Lincoln was conscientious in soliciting the views of those who were. He let them play the role of teacher while he adopted that of the student. In the end, he graduated with honors.”174

After General Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Lincoln wrote him: I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”175

Lincoln’s appointment of Ulysses Grant as his top military commander allowed Lincoln to take a different approach. Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “Though, at…[their] first private interview, Lincoln confessed his shortcomings as a strategist, he made bold to suggest to Grant his own plan of operations, with the understanding that the general of course could do as he pleased about it.”176 Grant’s and Lincoln’s general ideas on strategy coincided, noted Civil War historian Jeffrey D. Wert – “the simultaneous convergence of the Union’s superior reservoir of manpower upon various points of the Confederacy.”177 McPherson noted that the strategy that Grant adopted was actually very similar to one Lincoln suggested to his generals early in the war.178 Grant scholar John Y. Simon wrote: “Lincoln had found the man whom he could trust to bring the war to a close at the earliest possible moment. Grant would not meddle in politics, blame the President for his own failures, or demand more troops when there were none to be had…. Lincoln expected Grant to return to Washington from the Army of the Potomac for regular conferences; and when Grant could not come, the President went for him.”179 Nevertheless, the President did relax his oversight. Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “Overseeing everything was Lincoln himself, the Commander in Chief. Taking the responsibility for men and supplies was Stanton, the Secretary of War. Serving as a Presidential adviser and as a liaison with military men was Halleck, the Chief of Staff. And directing all the armies, while accompanying the Army of the Potomac, was Grant, the general in chief.”180

Grant was given room to operate within limits. “After the war, Grant wrote that Lincoln had given him carte blanche, but in fact the president rejected parts of the general’s initial proposal, including a suggestion to attack Richmond’s supply lines with an army landed in North Carolina,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. But in general, Lincoln and Grant agreed on the plan. ” On the eve of the spring offensive, Lincoln told John Hay that Grant’s proposal ‘powerfully reminded’ him of his ‘old suggestion so constantly made and as constantly neglected, to Buell & Halleck et al to move at one upon the enemy’s whole line so as to bring into action to our advantage our great superiority in numbers. Otherwise by interior lines & control of the interior railroad system the enemy can shift their men rapidly from one point to another as they may be required. In the concerted movement[,] however, great superiority of numbers must tell: as the enemy however successful where he concentrates must necessarily weaken other portions of his line and lose important position. This idea of his own, the Prest. recognized with especial pleasure when Grant said it was his intention to make all the line useful – those not fighting could help the fighting.'”181

Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith noted that after Grant was appointed general in chief in March 1864, he toured both the eastern and western commands before returning to Washington where he “confronted …the statutory independence of various army staff sections such as quartermaster, commissary, ordnance, and the adjutant general…. Grant insisted that the branches be subordinated to the chain of command, and he took the matter to the president. Lincoln told Grant that although he could not legally give him command of the staff departments, ‘there is one but myself that can interfere with your orders, and you can rest assured that I will not.'”182

“What Lincoln looked for in his generals was the ability to achieve results without constantly requiring guidance from Washington or reinforcement by additional troops,” British military historian John Keegan wrote.183 With time, President Lincoln had developed more confidence in his own strategic sense – while leaving tactical operations to his military commanders. Even with Grant, Lincoln was still in control. Historian Richard Striner wrote: “Legend has it that when Grant took over as general in chief, Lincoln faded as a military strategist. Such was not the case. Grant’s initial strategic conceptions were at odds with the views of Lincoln, and the president was called upon to take some remedial action.”184 Grant’s strategy emphasized the coordinated use of Union military resources in a way that President Lincoln could strongly endorse. Civil War scholar Edward H. Bonekemper wrote: “In March and April 1864, Grant devised a grand strategy that would put all Union troops on the offensive against their Confederate counterparts and thereby keep the latter from using their interior lines to transfer troops among theaters. This plan envisioned Sherman’s three armies (the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Ohio) pushing Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee southeastward back toward Atlanta, Nathaniel Banks joining Sherman after capturing Mobile, General Franz Sigel clearing Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley, Major General Benjamin F. Butler directly attacking Petersburg-Richmond via the James River, and the Army of the Potomac going after Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia until it was defeated or destroyed. Every Union soldier and army had a role.”185 According to British military historian John Keegan, “Grant…understood the war in its entirety and quickly grasped how modern methods of communication, particularly the telegraph and the railroads, had endowed the commander with the power to collect information more quickly and the means to disseminate appropriate orders in response.”186

Grant, Sherman and Lincoln shared an aggressive approach to strategy. Lincoln had lost patience with previous commanders who failed to follow up on battlefield success by pursuing the enemy. One telegraph operator in the War Department noted that Lincoln “was sometimes critical and even sarcastic when events moved slowly.”187 General Philip Sheridan exemplified the more aggressive approach favored by Lincoln. After the Battle of Winchester in October 1864, which Sheridan turned from a Union rout into a confederate rout, Lincoln told serenaders that it was “fortunate…for the Secesh that Sheridan was a very little man. If he had been a large man, there is no knowing what he would have done with them.”188 General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, was not considered sufficiently aggressive on offense. After the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, Grant telegraphed General George Thomas: “Push the enemy now, and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed. Your army will cheerfully suffer many privations to break up Hood’s army and render it useless for future operations. Do not stop for trains or supplies, but take them from the country as the enemy have done. Much is now expected.”189

There was no drama in Grant’s approach to such problems. Historian Charles Francis Atkinson, noted that Grant was characterized by his quiet determination: “The concentration of effort purposed by Grant, simple and obvious as it seems, had proved to much for his predecessors. Department commanders in subordinate theatres of war were loth to part with their troops, sometimes on personal grounds, sometimes because they were apt to overestimate the significance of their departments in the general scheme of the war. Grant’s will prevailed, however.”190 Atkinson wrote: “Grant’s was…a simple, quiet, unostentatious and lovable character, which was entirely under the control of a tremendous will power. This will power required the stimulus of circumstances to bring it into action….Action with him had its springs in the mind, and was translated from thought to the deed by all the force of a dominant personality.”191 Lincoln told a journalist: “Grant is the first General I have had. You know how it has been with all the rest. As soon as I put a man in command of the Army, he’d come to me with a plan of campaign and about as much as to say, ‘Now, I don’t believe I can do it, but if you say so, I’ll try it on,’ and so put the responsibility of success or failure on me. They all wanted me to be the general….I am glad to find a man that can go ahead without me.”192

It is a credit to Grant that he came to appreciate and incorporate President Lincoln’s thinking into his own plans. Historian Bruce Catton wrote that “Grant showed a political awareness and sensitivity such as few American soldiers have ever shown.”193 For Grant and Lincoln to function together effectively they needed to respect each others’ roles. The role of commander-in-chief was not separate from politician-in-chief. Historian Frank J. Goss wrote: “From the start of the war, Lincoln knew the inherent dangers involved in this military patronage and perfectly understood what he wished to avoid in his military policies. He had served in Congress during ‘Mr. Polk’s War’ and witnessed firsthand the damage of partisan infighting on military policy-making and strategy. With this in mind, Lincoln wanted to keep the war from becoming a partisan Republican campaign against slavery if he wanted to avoid the sort of antiwar campaigns that had plagued Polk during the Mexican War. The president therefore needed the assistance of the ‘War Democrats’ to maintain support for a collective war for the Union.”194 President Lincoln also began to appreciate Grant’s strategy, writing him on June 15, 1864, only two weeks after the blood battle of Cold Harbor: “I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all.” The strategy of enveloping Richmond and Petersburg had become apparent.195

From the war’s outset, the Mississippi River was key to President Lincoln’s strategic vision. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “Even though circumstances continued to compel Lincoln to focus mainly on the Virginia and Kentucky-Tennessee theaters through the end of 1862, he was well aware of the importance of the great river that he had twice descended on a flatboat in his youth.”196 Nevertheless, noted naval historian Craig L. Symonds, “Lincoln did not like to intervene in the details of military or naval operations. He was no micromanager….He defined the objective and allowed his subordinates to define the means they would employ to achieve it. Men like Porter and Farragut, or, for that matter, men like Grant and Sherman, grasped the essence of Lincoln’s directions, and applied their professional expertise toward the accomplishment of those goals, and they did so without whining, or complaining, or asking constantly for reinforcement.”197 Historian Allan Nevins noted that by 1864, “The President no longer experimented with the appointment, displacement, and replacement of his chief generals, soon able to confide in Grant, Meade, Sherman, and Thomas, he was free to deal with other problems. He left military affairs to the best military leaders.”198 Lincoln wrote Grant on April 30: “You are vigilant and self-reliant; and pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you.”199 But Lincoln continued to reserve some judgments to himself. As Grant tightened the noose on Richmond in March 1865, Lincoln had Stanton telegraph Grant; “He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions.”200

One of Lincoln’s preoccupations as commander in chief was with technology. He was drawn to those military officers- like the Navy’s John Dahlgren – who shared his interest in improved military armaments. The President fought with the Army’s Bureau of Ordnance to purchase more effective arms for soldiers – especially the repeating carbine. He was also a leading proponent of Navy Captain David Porter’s idea to use mortar boats to bombard confederate forts from a long range. He quickly endorsed the use of Union ironclads designed by John Ericsson. He even promoted the idea of using military balloons to collect intelligence. He was an inveterate user of the telegraph.

Lincoln liked maps – whether in his office or at the front. Symonds noted that “in the middle of an inspection tour, he would stop, take out his map, spread it on his knee, and enquire about possible military movements.”201 George William Curtis later recalled accompanying Congressman Isaac Arnold to the White House where they met the President in his office. “Mr. Lincoln received us in his office….He was dressed in black and wore slippers. On a table at his side were maps and plans of the seat of war; and pins with blue and gray heads represented the position of the soldiers on both sides. He had a weary and anxious look in his sad eyes, and a tenderness of tone in talking that was very touching. He spoke without bitterness toward any person or party, and with the air of a man bearing a most solemn responsibility.” As the pair departed, Mr. Lincoln said “with a paternal kindness and evident profound conviction: ‘We shall beat them, my son – we shall beat them.'” But the air and tone with which he said the words were so free from any unworthy feeling that the most resolute and confident of his opponents would have been deeply impressed.”202

“As long as he lived, Lincoln’s commander-in-chief image continued to be subject to attack.,” noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. “Among the viciously anti-Lincoln graphics that abounded during his 1864 campaign for re-election, none was more brutal than The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldier’s Votes on the Battle Field. The print illustrated the libel that a callous Lincoln had called for comic songs as he walked among the dead and wounded at Antietam.”203 Although Lincoln was relatively philosophic about such attacks, he acknowledged to the brother of New York’s Democratic governor that “when the army was unsuccessful, everyone was dissatisfied and criticised the administration.” He added: “If a cartman’s horse ran away, all the men and women in the streets thought they could do better than the driver, and so it was with the management of the army.”204

But despite such criticism, Lincoln continued to grow in his role as commander-in-chief. Lincoln “read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war. He held long conferences with eminent general and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge,” wrote aide John G. Nicolay.205 Craig Symonds noted: “Throughout the war Lincoln had proved a remarkably patient navigator. Though he knew his destination – or at least he clearly envisioned his destination – he frequent waited for events to clarify themselves before charting a course.”206

At the end of March 1865, Lincoln met at City Point with Generals Grant and Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter. Historian Bruce Catton wrote: “When President Lincoln sat down with Grant and Sherman he wanted reassurance; Sheridan apparently read him correctly when he saw anxiety in him. The President feared that at the last minute something would go wrong. In Sherman’s absence, might not Johnston slip away, join Lee, and spoil the spring campaign before it began? They told him that this could not happen. Sherman’s army, with [John] Schofield as second-in-command, was in good hands; it had a lock on Johnston, his escape was impossible, and in any case Sherman would go back to North Carolina as soon as this conference ended. Lincoln was at last convinced, although he kept insisting that Sherman should rejoin his troops as quickly as possible; and he hoped very much (although neither general could give him reassurance on this point) that the whole mess could be settled without another big battle. As commander-in-chief of all the armies, Lincoln made no attempt to find out just what Grant and Sherman proposed to do next; he simply wanted to be told that they were sure they could do it.”207 But he did press for action, telegraphing Grant midday on April 7: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”208 Two days, later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

President Lincoln had continued to exercise control over the political impact of his commanders’ decisions in bringing the war to a close. Lincoln made that clear in a telegram he had Secretary Stanton wire General Grant on March 3, 1865: “The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor, and purely, military matter. He instructed me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost, your military advantages.”209


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VI, p. 201 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, May 7, 1863).
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 130 (November 2, 1861).
  3. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, p. iii.
  4. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 4.
  5. William A. Croffut, An American Procession 1855-1914: A Personal Chronicle of Famous Men, p. 121.
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor, Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, p. 140 (From John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume X, pp. 351-356).
  7. Mackubin T. Owens, “Commander-in-Chief,” Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2008-2009, p. 59.
  8. Gabor Boritt, editor, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 65 (Gerald J. Prokopowicz, “Military Fantasies”). Scott had made reference to a “boa constrictor” but newspapers labeled it the anaconda plan. Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography, p. 430.
  9. Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, p. 415.
  10. David Brion Davis, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty, p. 310.
  11. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, p. 202
  12. Eric Foner, editor, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, p. 22 (James J. McPherson, “A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief”).
  13. Eric Foner, editor, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, pp. 22-23 (James J. McPherson, “A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief”).
  14. Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln and His Contemporaries, p. 23 (Frank J. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln: Commander in Chief or ‘Attorney in Chief’).
  15. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, pp. 7-8.
  16. Gary W. Gallagher, “Blueprint for Victory,” in James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., editors, Writing The Civil War: The Quest to Understand, p. 22.
  17. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 448
  18. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. xii.
  19. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 70
  20. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 180
  21. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 166
  22. CWAL, Volume V, pp. 98-99 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Don Carlos Buell, January 13, 1862).
  23. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 162.
  24. Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief, pp. 261, 263
  25. James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, p. 54.
  26. James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, p. 52.
  27. Cullom Davis, Charles B. Strozier, Rebecca Monroe Veach and Geoffrey C. Ward, editors, The Public and the Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives, p. 66. (Gabor S. Boritt, “The Right to Rise”).
  28. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 500.
  29. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 503.
  30. Elizabeth D. Leonard, Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War, p. 21.
  31. Elizabeth D. Leonard, Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War, p. 23.
  32. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 15.
  33. Roy F. Nichols, The Stakes of Power, 1845-1877, p. 107.
  34. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, pp. 515-516. (May 29, 1866)
  35. Mark Grimsley, “Conciliation and its Failure, 1861-1862,” Civil War History, December 1993, p. 320.
  36. Charles Winslow Elliott, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man, p. 703.
  37. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 394.
  38. CWAL, Volume IV, p. 280.
  39. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume III, p. 394-395
  40. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 110.
  41. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 17.
  42. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 29.
  43. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 135.
  44. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 20.
  45. Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief, pp. 54.
  46. Edward D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 55-56.
  47. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 24.
  48. CWAL, Volume IV, p. 426 (Special Message to Congress, July 4, 1861).
  49. H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p.158.
  50. Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, p. 53-54
  51. Wayne Mahood, General Wadsworth: The Life and Times of Brevet Major James S. Wadsworth, p. 63.
  52. Wayne Mahood, General Wadsworth: The Life and Times of Brevet Major James S. Wadsworth, p. 64
  53. Edward D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 58-59.
  54. Douglas Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 207 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  55. David Detzer, Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861, p. 190.
  56. Michael J. Birkner, James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s, p. 107 (William E. Gienapp, “‘No Bed of Roses’: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Presidential Leadership in the Civil War Era”)
  57. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, pp. 358-359.
  58. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 194.
  59. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 195.
  60. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 199
  61. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, pp. 223-224 (January 10, 1862).
  62. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 672.
  63. Frank Abial Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 138.
  64. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p. 48.
  65. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 286.
  66. Charles Hubbard, editor, Lincoln and His Contemporaries, p. 77 (John Y. Simon, “Lincoln and Halleck”)
  67. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 369.
  68. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed, p. 101(February 4, 1864)
  69. CWAL, Volume, V. p. 245 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, May 28, 1862).
  70. Tom Wheeler, “Lincoln Online: The Telegraph as a Window into the Mind of the 16th President,” Washington Post, February 12, 2007.
  71. CWAL, Volume V, p. 95 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron, January 10, 1862).
  72. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 138. (Letter from Henry W. Halleck to Elizabeth Halleck, July 28, 1862).
  73. William D. Kelley, Lincoln and Stanton: A Study of the War Administration of 1861 and 1862, with Special Consideration of Some Recent Statements of Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, p pp. 51, 28-29.
  74. William Marvel, Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862, p. 22
  75. Jeffrey D. Wert, The Sword of Lincoln, p. 69.
  76. William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, Jr., editors, Virginia at War 1862, p. 5 (John S. Salmon, “Land Operations in Virginia”)
  77. Gary W. Gallagher, editor, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, p. 11 (Gary W. Gallagher, (“You Must Either Attack Richmond or Give Up the Job and Come to the Defence of Washington”).
  78. Gary W. Gallagher, editor, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, p. 79 (William J. Miller, “Federal Command in Western Virginia”).
  79. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 208 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  80. William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, p. 179.
  81. Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, p. 54.
  82. Library of Congress (Letter from John Pope to Ward Hill Lamon, April 11, 1861).
  83. Peter Cozzens and Robert I. Giardi, editors, The Military Memoirs of General John Pope, pp. 121-122.
  84. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 328.
  85. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. New York Evening Post and New York Herald, July 14, 1862).
  86. Herman Haupt, Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt, p. 298.
  87. William D. Kelly, Lincoln and Stanton, p. 75.
  88. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 379.
  89. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 426.
  90. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, p. 325.
  91. Gerald J. Prokopowicz, “Lincoln’s Other McClellan: General Don Carlos Buell,” Lincoln Lore, Summer, 1996, p. 7.
  92. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 117 (September 8, 1862).
  93. Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War, p. 557.
  94. Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, p. 435.
  95. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 446.
  96. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 444.
  97. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 497.
  98. Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, p. 435.
  99. Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, p. 22.
  100. Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, p. 491.
  101. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 165.
  102. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 373 (General Orders No. 8, January 23, 1863).
  103. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 257 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, June 10, 1863).
  104. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 495.
  105. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 580.
  106. Symonds wrote that “Porter was talented and energetic but he was also self-promoting, boastful, casual with the truth, and lacking in what Welles called ‘high moral qualities.'”
  107. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 173.
  108. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 447.
  109. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 319 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, July 7, 1863).
  110. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 455. (Letter from George Meade to Henry W. Halleck, July 8, 1863).
  111. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 456.
  112. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 402 (James B. Fry).
  113. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 512.
  114. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 62 (July 14, 1863).
  115. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 63 (July 15, 1863).
  116. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 64-65 (July 19, 1863).
  117. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 88 (Conversation with Robert Todd Lincoln, January 5, 1885).
  118. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, pp. 88-89 (Conversation with Robert Todd Lincoln, January 5, 1885).
  119. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 63 (July 16, 1863).
  120. Eric J. Wittenberg, “An Inauspicious Beginning: George G. Meade and Abraham Lincoln in the Wake of the Battle of Gettysburg,” For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 2008, p. 4.
  121. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 327-328 (Unsent letter from Abraham Lincoln to George G. Meade, July 14, 1863).
  122. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 341 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Oliver O. Howard, July 21, 1863).
  123. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 462. (Letter from George Meade to Henry Halleck, July 31, 1863).
  124. Isaac R. Pennypacker, Great Commanders: General Meade, p. 214.
  125. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 463 (Letter from George Meade to Henry Halleck, July 31, 1863).
  126. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 466-467 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, September 19, 1863).
  127. Michael Burlingame and John R. T. Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House, the Complete Civil War Diaries of John Hay, p. XX (July 13-14, 1864).
  128. CWAL, Volume V, p. 506 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Nathaniel Banks, November 22, 1862).
  129. Richard Striner, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, p. 225.
  130. Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates, p. 119 (Egbert L. Viele, “Lincoln as a Story-Teller”).
  131. Brooks D. Simpson, “Lincoln and His Political Generals,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2000, p. 66.
  132. William Marvel, Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862, p. 57.
  133. David Work, Lincoln’s Political Generals, pp. 227-228.
  134. Thomas J. Goss, The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, p. 3.
  135. Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue, p. xix.
  136. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 435.
  137. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 435.
  138. Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, pp. 25-26.
  139. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 480.
  140. James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For, p. 56.
  141. T. Harry Williams, “Voters in Blue: The Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, September 1944, p. 189.
  142. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 438.
  143. Brooks D. Simpson, “Lincoln and His Political Generals,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2000.
  144. David Work, Lincoln’s Political Generals, p. 230.
  145. James M. McPherson, editor, “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, p. 77 (William E. Gienapp, “Abraham Lincoln and Presidential Leadership”).
  146. Brooks D. Simpson, “Grant the Boss,” Civil War Times, April 2004, p. 60.
  147. Thomas J. Goss, The War Within the Union High Command, p. 44.
  148. Frank J. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln: Commander in Chief or ‘Attorney in Chief, Experience, Spring 200, p. 18.
  149. Thomas J. Goss, The War Within the Union High Command, p. 59.
  150. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 165.
  151. Eric Foner, editor, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, p. 24 (James J. McPherson, “A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief”).
  152. James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, p. 53.
  153. Stephen R. Taafe, Commanding the Army of the Potomac, pp. 54-55.
  154. David Work, Lincoln’s Political Generals, p. 228.
  155. Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, p. 16.
  156. Bruce Tap, “Amateurs at War: Abraham Lincoln and the Committee on the Conduct of the War,”Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 2, Summer 2002, p. 17.
  157. Stephen R. Taafe, Commanding the Army of the Potomac, p. 4.
  158. David Work, Lincoln’s Political Generals, p. 229.
  159. Mackubin T. Owens, “Commander-in-Chief,” Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2008-2009, p. 60.
  160. CWAL, Volume V, p. 486 (Letter to William R. Morrison, November 5, 1862).
  161. Bruce Tap. Over Lincoln’s Shoulder, pp. 153-154.
  162. Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln Reshapes the Presidency, p. 13 (Frank J. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln and the Changing Role of Commander in Chief”).
  163. Marvin R. Cain, “Lincoln as Soldier of the Union: A Reappraisal,” Lincoln Herald, Spring 1981, p. 596.
  164. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 377-378 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William S. Rosecrans, August 10, 1863).
  165. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 290.
  166. Marc Leepson, Desperate Engagement, p. 204. A more colorful version of these events has future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yelling: “Get down you fool” but there is little evidence for this version of events. See Leepson, pp. 201-204.
  167. Charles Hubbard, editor, Lincoln and His Contemporaries, p. 83 (John Y. Simon, “Lincoln and Halleck”).
  168. Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln Reshapes the Presidency (Frank J. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln and the Changing Role of Commander in Chief”), p. 26.
  169. CWAL, Volume V, p. 442 (Record of Dismissal o John J. Key, September 26-27, 1862).
  170. William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, p. 219.
  171. CWAL. Volume V, p. 222 Proclamation Revoking General Hunter’s Order of Military Emancipation of May 9, 1862, May 19, 1862).
  172. William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, p. 264.
  173. Harold Holzer, Edna Greene Medford, and Frank J. Williams, The Emancipation Proclamation, p. 7.
  174. John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer, and Dawn Vogel, editors, Lincoln Revisited, p. 212 (Craig L. Symonds, “Lincoln and His Admirals”).
  175. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 326 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, July 13, 1863).
  176. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 155.
  177. Jeffrey D. Wert, The Sword of Lincoln, p. 331.
  178. Eric Foner, editor, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, p. 32 (James J. McPherson, “A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief”).
  179. John Y. Simon, Lincoln and Grant, p. 7.
  180. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 162.
  181. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, pp. 646-647.
  182. Jean Edward Smith, Grant, p. 296.
  183. John Keegan, “A Brit Rates Our Generals,” Civil War Times, December 200, p. 58.
  184. Richard Striner, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, p. 225.
  185. Edward H. Bonekemper, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius, p. 153.
  186. John Keegan, “A Brit Rates Our Generals,” Civil War Times, December 200, p. 58.
  187. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 213.
  188. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 57.
  189. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, p. 389 (Letter from Ulysses S.Grant to George Thomas, December 15, 1864).
  190. Charles Francis Atkinson, Grant’s Campaigns of 1864 and 1865: The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, p. 23.
  191. Charles Francis Atkinson, Grant’s Campaigns of 1864 and 1865: The Wilderness and Cold Harbor, p. 27.
  192. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 655.
  193. Bruce Catton, “Grant and the Politicians,” American Heritage Magazine, October 1968. See Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command.
  194. Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, p. 35.
  195. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 393 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, 15 June 1864).
  196. James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, p. 134.
  197. John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer, and Dawn Vogel, editors, Lincoln Revisited, p. 213 (Craig L. Symonds, “Lincoln and His Admirals”)
  198. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, The Organized War, 1863-1864, p. 146.
  199. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 324 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, April 30, 1864).
  200. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 330 (Letter from Edwin M. Stanton to Ulysses S. Grant, March 3, 1862).
  201. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 360.
  202. “Abraham Lincoln: The Thirtieth Anniversary of his Assassination,” (Letter from George William Curtis to R.R. Wright, undated), pp. 107-108.
  203. Charles Hubbard, editor, Lincoln and His Contemporaries, p. 59 (Harold Holzer, “‘That Attractive Rainbow:’ The Image of Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief”).
  204. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 528.
  205. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, pp. 155-156.
  206. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 365.
  207. Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, Volume II, pp. 437-438.
  208. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 392 (Telegram from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, April 7, 1865).
  209. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 330 (Telegram from Edwin M. Stanton to Ulysses S. Grant, March 3, 1865).


Publisher’s Weekly reported: “As McPherson shows, Lincoln understood the synergy of political and military decision-making; the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, harmonized the principles of union and freedom with a strategy of attacking the crucial Confederate resource of slave labor. Lincoln’s commitment to linking policy and strategy made him the most hands-on American commander-in-chief; he oversaw strategy and offered operational advice, much of it shrewd and perceptive. Lincoln may have been an amateur of war, but McPherson successfully establishes him as America’s greatest war leader.” Infantry Magazine reported of Goss’s book: “The author illustrates how most West Pointers played politics, using their contacts in Congress and the cabinet to secure positions of responsibility. He skillfully explains how many of these “professional” officers acted in decidedly unprofessional manners, failing to support Lincoln’s strategy.” Kirkus Reviews on Symond: “The Civil War forced the 16th president to know a lot more, and Symonds expertly demonstrates how he learned about ships, strategy, new technologies and, above all, about dealing with the fractious personalities to whom he delegated naval operations…For scholars and the general reader alike, an insightful and highly readable treatment of a neglected dimension of Lincoln’s wartime leadership.”

More on the Author

Featured Book (continued)

Thomas J. Goss, The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
(University of Kansas Press, 2003).

Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).