The President and General McClellan, photographed by Alex
Gardner, published by M. B. Brady, October 4, 1862
The President and General McClellan, photographed by Alex Gardner, published by M. B. Brady, October 4, 1862Page  [End Page 18]

We ask, and expect, a great deal of our presidents. While we demand they be civilians — at least while they are serving as president — they must also be commander in chief of all the armed forces of the United States.

This has great significance and importance because the civilian president actually is part — indeed he is at the top — of what the military calls "the chain of command." He issues orders, salutes and is saluted and makes ultimate military decisions. He either himself formulates — with any help he can exploit — or he must approve of, whatever strategy is employed. He is responsible for approving the selection of all the top generals and admirals.

He must work well with a multitude of people, sometimes with individuals whose personalities clash or are disharmonious with his own. And all the while that he is accomplishing this he must also inspire the troops as well as lead the people at home. According to Thomas A. Bailey, who made a study of presidential greatness, "The American people admire a chieftain who can command their allegiance, unite the sections, placate factions in Congress, inspire them to greater patriotism, and arouse them with a challenge that will appeal to their better selves."[1] All of this, Abraham Lincoln did to an exemplary degree.

When Lincoln became president, he was but a rank amateur in military affairs; however, the crisis of the Civil War made it crucial that he learn about such things. And to his great credit, this he did, efficiently and well.

Lincoln mastered conventional 19th century military strategy.[2] He came to understand, and learned how to interact with the better thinking of West Point trained officers. He, and these generals, insightfully analyzed operations, believed — correctly — in the superiority of the defensive over the offensive and saw in turning Page  [End Page 19] movements the only way to overcome the power of the rifle-strengthened defensive.

Lincoln shouldered full responsibility for making and seeing to the execution of strategic plans sufficient to bring victory. He derived his ideas primarily from his generals, but also from his prescient observations of military realities as exhibited in the course of the war. It is significant that Lincoln's military ideas were realistic and workable.

He was a keen student, and with the early aid of Major General George B. McClellan and other officers, Lincoln became fully at home with his generals' military conceptions. To the question as to why "the North with her great armies" so often faced the South in battle "with inferiority of numbers," the president perceptively explained that "the enemy hold the interior, and we the exterior lines." Along with understanding lines of operations he came fully to grasp the logistics of field armies and the significance of entrenchments and learned to attach great importance to the turning movement or to any chance "to get in the enemy's rear," or to "intercept the enemy's retreat." [3]

The military sophistication which Lincoln acquired in less than a year and a half extended to a clear understanding of the significance of battles and appreciation of the limited degree to which the Confederates actually were achieving positive results, even while it appeared otherwise to the more nescient. Lincoln grasped that individual battles were unlikely to be decisive and that the means of victory lay in occupying the enemy's territory and breaking the lines of communication. Early he explained that his "general idea of the war" was that "we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon the points of collision; that we must fail unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can 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, forebear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much." Modern students of military history have termed this "the principle of simultaneous ad- Page  [End Page 20] vance."[4] It became a controlling idea in the Union strategy. This was the concept upon which Lincoln based the policy which was abortively begun with his 1862 order for all armies to advance on Washington's birthday. There followed three simultaneous Union advances: Henry W. Halleck and McClellan in the spring of 1862; Ulysses S. Grant, William S. Rosecrans and Ambrose E. Burnside in the fall; and Grant and Joseph Hooker in the spring of 1863.

The situation and circumstances in the eastern theater of the war differed significantly from those in the West. After the secession of Virginia and the relocation of the Confederate capital to Richmond, the president initially endorsed proposals to move upon the rebel capital in one swift movement. He believed, somewhat naively, that the sheer weight of Union numbers so early in the war would gain for the North a decisive victory. His hopes were dashed in the panicked flight at Manassas. Again, in the opening months of 1862, Lincoln agreed to another campaign against Richmond, although for different reasons. Lincoln, by this time, had come to a better understanding of military tactics. McClellan had convinced him that a frontal assault on Richmond, regardless of size or timing, might eventually gain the city but would not destroy the enemy's army. Thus, in order to inflict actual damage to Confederate forces, the Union army would have to turn the enemy out of his fortified position by entrenching in his rear, threatening his communications and forcing him to come out and fight over ground selected by the North. That the plan failed was due more to the impatience of Lincoln's political associates and McClellan's growing distrust of the administration than to flaws in the grand scheme of the campaign.

After the failure of this second drive on Richmond, Lincoln's military advisors worked in vain to formulate yet another plan to invest the city. But Richmond's extensive system of defensive works, and its well-protected communications consisting of three trunk line railroads and a canal, rendered further offensive efforts implausible. Without interdicting Richmond's communications, thereby depriving the city of ample reinforcements, every attack would be futile; yet no turning movement could take place quickly enough to offset the advantage of reinforcements via the South's interior lines. Only through simultaneous advances over Page  [End Page 21] a broad front could Lincoln hope to decrease available Confederate reinforcements and eventually carry the city. Therefore, he directed that emphasis be placed instead on containing the army of Robert E. Lee while Union forces elsewhere made inroads into the Confederacy's vulnerable regions.

To facilitate this change of emphasis and to increase the odds of tactical success, the president concluded that it would be best to fight Lee as far as possible from his base in Richmond. "If we cannot beat him when he bears the wastage of coming to us, we never can when we bear the wastage of going to him." Because of the wastage for General Lee of long lines of communication, "in coming to us, he tenders us an advantage which we should not waive." Even so, the president realized that an outright defeat of Lee was unlikely at the present time, that by engaging Lee in battle the immediate benefit was to prevent him from reinforcing southern armies elsewhere and that only through a general weakening of the Confederacy could Lee — and Richmond — be overwhelmed.[5]

General in Chief Henry W. Halleck
General in Chief Henry W. HalleckPage  [End Page 22]

Having then abandoned the idea of sensational attacks against Richmond and settled instead on repeated, if marginal, blows against Lee, Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck — by then the president's chief military advisor — sought to guide the commander of the Army of the Potomac to adopt the unconventional and unpromising objective assigned him. In this, they faced a formidable task, one which required long patience, and two changes in personnel at the top, to accomplish.

As Lincoln was evolving a doctrine for dealing with the stalemate in Virginia, he was also maturing a strategy for the operations of the western armies. Despite the vast area of the western theater, the military goals there were comparatively straightforward and unchanging. Lincoln's policy centered on territorial and logistical objectives: seeking to control the Mississippi River, eventually to dominate Arkansas and occupy East Tennessee, and to cut the western extension of the Confederacy's strategically vital East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. Major advances to secure these goals would be made in synchronization with each other and with movements against Lee in Virginia.

Embracing the early design of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, Lincoln also ordered into effect the naval blockade of southern ports. Intended to isolate the South from European aid, the blockade resulted in no immediate occupation of enemy territory but it did serve the important dual purpose of supporting operations against the rebel coastline and rivers.

Lincoln's matured startegy, taking both theaters simultaneously into account, was thus a sophisticated variation of General Scott's anaconda plan. [6] Two other measures were also part of his overall strategy. In late 1863 his policy of amnesty and reconstruction sought to lure rebels away from Confederate allegiance and he hoped, by a combination of political and military action, to reconstruct all of the peripheral areas of the Confederacy.

Before he implemented his matured political strategy he moved to adopt a measure which was an extension and logical consequence of his Emancipation Proclamation. He announced that those blacks freed by the proclamation would "be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places." In this way Lincoln planned for manpower difficulties to be significantly eased by tapping this new source of soldiers, "the great available and as yet unavailed of, Page  [End Page 23] force for the restoration of the Union"[7] Arming southern blacks most effectively harmonized with the basic anaconda strategy because Lincoln saw that it worked "doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us," for it took "so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men."[8] Lincoln correctly believed that the program weakened the enemy in another way: psychologically. He thought that "the bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once." He did not believe that the rebellion could survive if such a black military force could "take shape, and grow, and thrive, in the South." [9]

Hence Lincoln as a strategist was orthodox militarily, relying on professional military advice. The professionals for the most part did know what was possible and what was not, and they correctly perceived what needed to be done; Lincoln, over a period of time, developed an insight that matched that of the professionals. In his arguments with McClellan and McClellan's successor, George G. Meade, Lincoln had the advice and full agreement of General Halleck, himself leader of the western group of generals who ultimately dominated the Union high command. Like his professional advisors, President Lincoln understood the power of the defense and the futility of trying to destroy an enemy army in the open field. That Robert E. Lee's army remained intact in spite of Grant's direct assaults upon it further confirmed the assumption of the president and his generals about the superiority of the defense.

Perhaps no other president has suffered more at the hands of his own advisors and generals than did Lincoln. He was often judged harshly for inconsequential reasons, such as his awkward appearance or his western mannerisms. He was insulted, ridiculed and humiliated, yet he tolerated such transgressions because he realized the value of certain people in cabinet positions or in command assignments, even when they clashed with him person- Page  [End Page 24] ally. Indeed, Lincoln's personnel decisions rank in importance with his strategic delineations.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton became the first serious Lincoln detractor, and for what might be called personal vanity. He had met Lincoln as a fellow lawyer in 1855 and had rudely avoided Lincoln throughout the case on which they were to have worked together. Stanton had cruelly asked, within Lincoln's hearing, "Where did that long-armed creature come from?" Lincoln was deeply mortified, but five years later, as president, surprised Stanton by asking him to serve in the cabinet, despite Stanton's still virulent condemnation of Lincoln for early war reverses. Stanton had made no apology for having called Lincoln "a low cunning clown," "that giraffe" and "the original gorilla." [10]

Even George McClellan, no friend himself of Lincoln, wrote that he "was often shocked" by the secretary's abuse of Lincoln. But the president's evenhanded dealing with Stanton, his approval of the secretary's job performance and a striking similarity in family tragedies all in time bonded Lincoln and Stanton in close friendship.[11]

Not nearly as amicably resolved, yet possibly even more important to the nation's well-being was the conflict between the president and General McClellan. Twice the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the man who helped frame Lincoln's understanding of military precepts, McClellan constantly ignored the president's political concerns over the war's conduct, and dealt with the president in a high-handed and condescending manner.

Yet McClellan's continuing arrogance never prevented Lincoln from making wise decisions, and the president used McClellan in high command as long as he seemed to be the best available man for the job. Nothing better illustrates McClellan's arrogance than an occurence in the fall of 1861 during one of Lincoln's frequent visits. The president and the secretary of state went to McClellan's house one evening, and, finding him out, waited an hour for his return. On his return McClellan "came in and, without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went upstairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated." After waiting a half hour for McClellan to come down to see Page  [End Page 25] them, the president and the secretary sent "a servant to tell the General they were there, and the answer cooly came that the General had gone to bed." The president put up with "this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes" not only because Lincoln still was trying to learn from McClellan about military matters but also because of his realization that it was important for McClellan to be shielded from already rising popular dissatisfaction with the general's performance.[12] When Republican Senator Benjamin Wade had insisted that Lincoln replace McClellan, a Democrat, the president had asked irritably, with whom could he replace him? "Anybody!" cried Wade. Lincoln shook his head; "anybody" might do for Wade, but he must have "somebody." And, for a crucial period of time, by virtue of his abilities and the absence at the moment of an equally or more able substitute, that somebody simply had to be McClellan.[13]

McClellan never repaid this professional trust. During the peninsula campaign, he wrote that the government "cannot hold me responsible for the result" of the campaign, and he told Stanton that he owed "no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington" for his saving the army from disaster. [14]

When Lincoln decided that Joe Hooker was the right man for a top command, he did so despite knowing about Hooker's brash bravado and thinly veiled self-seeking tendencies. These qualities, more than any conviction, doubtless had prompted his famous remark that Lincoln and the administration were imbeciles and nothing would proceed properly until the Union installed a military dictator. Knowing Hooker well, Lincoln, upon his appointment, sent him a meticulous letter containing this remarkable statement: "There are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great Page  [End Page 26] wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."[15]

Major General Joseph Hooker, better known by all
soldiers of the Army of the Potomac as "Fighting Joe Hooker"
Major General Joseph Hooker, better known by all soldiers of the Army of the Potomac as "Fighting Joe Hooker"

As commander in chief, Lincoln was far from perfect. He sometimes allowed his generals too much discretion in putting their plans into action, and he did nothing when some of them at times chose casually to ignore his directives. Caving in to political pressure, he often meddled at the wrong time or failed to do so when the situation called for positive leadership. His tolerance for the abuses heaped upon him might easily have been taken as undue meekness or vacilation. There, too, were instances when individual cabinet members seemed to have the upper hand.

But Lincoln's quick grasp of military knowledge helped to sustain him even in his occasional errors. He never lost his insight Page  [End Page 27] that, once the war inescapably had come, the ultimate solution rested in achieving success militarily, on or off the battlefield. That Lincoln proved able not only to ferret out correct military advice but also to formulate sound strategy himself, placed him at the pinnacle, when compared with others who have shouldered that awesome task of performing as commander in chief.

Subsequent presidents have benefited from Lincoln's example. As commanders in chief, they consciously or unconsciously have followed many of the precepts exemplified in Lincoln's performance. Lincoln strengthened the office itself. Not our first "strong president," to be sure, he nevertheless added to our understanding of that term. As a war leader, he provided quasi-religious inspiration. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt emulated his evangelistic bent (especially in combining a war effort with forward-looking domestic programs).

Four presidents who succeeded Lincoln approached in their performances similar firmness and resolve during the most trying of times: William McKinley, who had to contend with an inept orator-politician in Secretary of War Russell Alger; Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, who both were outstanding commanders in chief because they wisely selected generals and then backed them with confidence, not trying to tell them in detail how to do their jobs, even when critics complained; and Harry Truman, who, like Lincoln with McClellan and Hooker, had "general trouble," with Douglas MacArthur.

Lincoln was a "bender" of the Constitution, an "overstretcher" to use Thomas A. Bailey's word as he observed that Lincoln "blazed a trail that was followed and improved upon by later comers," but most importantly Lincoln "demonstrated what could be done in persuading the people to accept," such a momentary expediency "in surmounting a crisis."[16] What made Lincoln's example as commander in chief a great one was this constitutional "bending" within the framework of his wise, honest, restrained, inspirational conduct. Lincoln avoided narrow overemphasis, and understood the difference between distortion and bending for a higher purpose, while aiming ultimately to preserve. Lincoln was an effective leader of the American people as well as the military. As commander in chief, as well as in countless other ways, Lincoln effectively preached to the American peo- Page  [End Page 28] ple what he felt about the true destiny of the Union: that the cause of the United States is intrinsically a part of the fulfilling of God's cosmic plan.[17] Page  [End Page 29]


  1. Thomas A. Bailey, Presidential Greatness (New York: Appleton Century, 1966), p. 223. return to text
  2. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, "Lincoln as Military Strategist," Civil War History, 26: 293–303. return to text
  3. Lincoln to Agenor-Etienne de Gasparin, 4 August 1862 in Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 5: 355; Lincoln to John A. Dix, 30 June 1862, ibid., 194; Lincoln to George B. McClellan, 9 April, 24 May, 25 May 1862, ibid., 184–185, 232, 236. See also: Lincoln to Halleck, 24 May 1862, ibid., 231; Lincoln to Irvin McDowell, 30 May 1862, ibid., 252. return to text
  4. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 89 and passim, especially chap. 4 and chap. 7. return to text
  5. Lincoln to McClellan, 13 October 1862, Basler, Collected Works, 5: 460–62. The maxim quoted by Lincoln is from Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini's The Art of War, trans. G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill (1862; reprint ed., Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1971). return to text
  6. See Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, pp. 35–37. return to text
  7. Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863, Basler, Collected Works, 6: 30; Lincoln to John A. Dix, 14 January 1863, ibid., 56; Lincoln to Andrew Johnson, 26 March 1863, ibid., 149. For Lincoln's having learned about the role of blacks as soldiers in the American Revolution, see: Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 155. return to text
  8. Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, 9 August 1863, Basler, Collected Works, 6: 373; Annual Message to Congress, 8 December 1863, ibid., 7: 50. return to text
  9. Lincoln to Grant, 9 August 1863, ibid., 6: 374; Annual Message to Congress, 8 December 1863, ibid., 7: 50. return to text
  10. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, p. 91. return to text
  11. Stephen B. Oates, "Lincoln and Stanton: An Uncommon Friendship," Timeline 1 (October 1984): 5. return to text
  12. Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries of John Hay (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939), pp. 30–31. return to text
  13. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, p. 172. return to text
  14. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 1 (Washington: GPO, 1880–1901), 2, pt. 1: 61; ibid., pt. 3: 260. return to text
  15. Basler, Collected Works, 6: 78–79. return to text
  16. Bailey, Presidential Greatness, pp. 223–230. See also: Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1960), pp. 22, 23, 28, 102–103, 142–143. return to text
  17. Edmund Wilson, "The Union as Religious Mysticism," New Yorker 29 (March 14, 1953): 116, 119–126, 129–136. See also: Richard Beringer, et al., Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). return to text