How effective was Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief?

Jan 2008
18,733
Chile, Santiago
#1
In the annals of wartime leadership, there are very few statesmen whose historical reputation has loomed as large as that of Abraham Lincoln. He was a ground-breaking figure: the first American president who was able to play a significant role in the day-to-day direction of a military conflict; and the first leader of a democracy to preside over what we would recognize today as a modern, "total" war. His role in leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, and bringing about the abolition of slavery, have ensured that up to this day there are very few polls of the American presidents that don't rank him in the top two at least. For many, he remains the ultimate yardstick in measuring the greatness of wartime statesmanship.

But is that degree of veneration deserved?

Not even the harshest critics would disagree that Lincoln was, at the very least, an overall successful commander-in-chief. But assessments of his strengths and weaknesses as a war leader have varied considerably over the years. The historian T. Harry Williams, who wrote one of the most influential studies of the relationship between Lincoln and his generals, claimed that the president was a "natural strategist" whose insight into the big picture of the war was so keen that it bordered on genius, and whose grasp of the military situation made him the chief architect of Union victory. Others consider this claim to be far-fetched, or at least a great exagerration. It is generally allowed that Lincoln possessed some common-sense wisdom about the war's strategic fundamentals - he understood the importance of the blockade, and of seizing control of the Mississippi to divide the Confederacy in two, and of pursuing the destruction of the rebel armies - but beyond that it is questioned how much of a positive influence he had on the shaping of Union strategy.

The dichotomy extends into other areas. Lincoln has been praised as a shrewd judge of character; and criticized as a poor picker whose predilection for "fighting" generals and excessive support for politically-connected officers proved costly to the Union cause. Many have admired the light and skillful touch with which he handled his relations with his commanders; others have argued that he often achieved the worst of both worlds - infuriating the generals with his direct interference, but without managing to bend them to his will in the process. His willingness to play a hands-on role in directing the war has been praised for its spirit, and lambasted for its meddling effect. (His role in the Valley Campaign remains a particularly acute example of the perils inherent in any amateur warlord trying to move his soldiers around like pieces on a chessboard to accomplish his designs.) It has been noted that he presided over the successful marshalling of the North's manpower and resources to overwhelm the South, but also that he was a poor administrator whose lack of executive experience prior to the presidency often showed. Some commentators have noted he had a fine appreciation of the technical aspects of war - even going so far as to test-fire new models of weaponry on the grounds of the Executive Mansion; but by the some token it must be admitted that he failed to exert himself as he might have to maximize this advantage for the Union war effort. And libraries could be filled with the controversy generated by his evolving policies on slavery and the curbing of civil liberties during the war.

All these and many other factors besides play into assessing the effectiveness of Lincoln's military leadership. I've had a number of thoughts about this subject that have been brewing for a whole, but before I go on with them at length, I'm very eager to read whatever thoughts and arguments other people here might have about Lincoln as commander-in-chief.

On that note, fire away.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2014
346
Brussels
#2
In the annals of wartime leadership, there are very few statesmen whose historical reputation has loomed as large as that of Abraham Lincoln. He was a ground-breaking figure: the first American president who was able to play a significant role in the day-to-day direction of a military conflict; and the first leader of a democracy to preside over what we would recognize today as a modern, "total" war. His role in leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, and bringing about the abolition of slavery, have ensured that up to this day there are very few polls of the American presidents that don't rank him in the top two at least. For many, he remains the ultimate yardstick in measuring the greatness of wartime statesmanship.

But is that degree of veneration deserved?

Not even the harshest critics would disagree that Lincoln was, at the very least, an overall successful commander-in-chief. But assessments of his strengths and weaknesses as a war leader have varied considerably over the years. The historian T. Harry Williams, who wrote one of the most influential studies of the relationship between Lincoln and his generals, claimed that the president was a "natural strategist" whose insight into the big picture of the war was so keen that it bordered on genius, and whose grasp of the military situation made him the chief architect of Union victory. Others consider this claim to be far-fetched, or at least a great exagerration. It is generally allowed that Lincoln possessed some common-sense wisdom about the war's strategic fundamentals - he understood the importance of the blockade, and of seizing control of the Mississippi to divide the Confederacy in two, and of pursuing the destruction of the rebel armies - but beyond that it is questioned how much of a positive influence he had on the shaping of Union strategy.

The dichotomy extends into other areas. Lincoln has been praised as a shrewd judge of character; and criticized as a poor picker whose predilection for "fighting" generals and excessive support for politically-connected officers proved costly to the Union cause. Many have admired the light and skillful touch with which he handled his relations with his commanders; others have argued that he often achieved the worst of both worlds - infuriating the generals with his direct interference, but without managing to bend them to his will in the process. His willingness to play a hands-on role in directing the war has been praised for its spirit, and lambasted for its meddling effect. (His role in the Valley Campaign remains a particularly acute example of the perils inherent in any amateur warlord trying to move his soldiers around like pieces on a chessboard to accomplish his designs.) It has been noted that he presided over the successful marshalling of the North's manpower and resources to overwhelm the South, but also that he was a poor administrator whose lack of executive experience prior to the presidency often showed. Some commentators have noted he had a fine appreciation of the technical aspects of war - even going so far as to test-fire new models of weaponry on the grounds of the Executive Mansion; but by the some token it must be admitted that he failed to exert himself as he might have to maximize this advantage for the Union war effort. And libraries could be filled with the controversy generated by his evolving policies on slavery and the curbing of civil liberties during the war.

All these and many other factors I have missed play into assessing the effectiveness of Lincoln's military leadership. I've had a number of thoughts about this subject that have brewed for a whole, but before I go on with them at length, I'm very eager to read whatever thoughts and arguments other people here might have about Lincoln as commander-in-chief.

On that note, fire away.
All in all I wouls argue Lincoln was a very effective commander-in-chief. Not because he was a great strategist or always right in picking generals. But that wasn't his role. He was very effective because he did reralize the essence of what the war was about and what it required to win it. and that was his role as commander-in-chief.
 
Oct 2011
3,738
the middle ground
#3
First, excellent post DIVUS IVLIVS. I hope this thread gets the attention it deserves.

I would agree with post #2 in that, if the question is overall effectiveness (the political and diplomatic as well as the military direction of an unprecedented conflict for his nation), then Lincoln deserves high marks - short of canonization of course. He certainly made many mistakes while he grew into the job: the botched 1862 Valley Campaign was indeed a glaring example. But he was largely able to put together and maintain effective leadership teams throughout the war. Although part of the credit belongs to able administrators like Haupt and Meigs (sometimes even Halleck LOL) the bottom line is that a war leader must be a pragmatist and Lincoln does seem to have been a great example, with the balance favoring intended over unintended results.

My $0.02 for now, anyway.
 
Feb 2013
6,724
#4
Lincoln was, first of all, victorious in the largest war in American history and managed to emerge from it with civil-military relationships intact and strengthened, as well as a deepened understanding of the nature and rule of law in the United States. As a grand strategist he had a few simple (and entirely correct for the situation he faced) concepts about a civil war and its highly politically charged nature and the kind of generalship needed to win it. The problem he faced was that the armies his war produced were unprecedented in American history, and it took years to create both strong armies and for the general to wield them to find his place. At the time that the war began the largest US armies of the past would have been a tiny force by Civil War standards. By the time the war ended, no prior general could have matched the immense armies that Lincoln, Grant, and Halleck were overseeing at the time.

The only Presidents to face equivalent challenges to Lincoln in time of war were Wilson, FDR, and (due to the timing of his becoming President), Truman. Due to that he's not really someone who can be fairly appraised in American terms because the other three had several years to prepare for their crises and didn't get dumped into the deep end of a shark-infested pool where a malicious individual already chummed the water first.
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,724
#5
[FONT=&quot]Lincoln had a task of incredible magnitude. The Confederacy was about the size of modern Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Poland combined, with a huge coastline. The Union navy started with about 40 ships in commission with most of them stationed abroad. By the war's end they would have nearly 700 ships. The Union army started with about 17,000 men. By the war's end, over 2.6 million men (and a couple hundred women) had served, with peak strength of over 600,000. The railroad, telegraph, minie ball and ironclad all changed the way war was fought. Even the professionals had no experience with raising training, arming, equipping, organizing, or leading the numbers involved.[/FONT]

[FONT=&quot]There was also the political element. Lincoln had to balance a coalition of Republicans and War Democrats. The Republicans themselves were a recent combination of Whigs, Free Soilers, Know Nothings, and northern Democrats. The Radical Republicans and the Border State politicians had completely opposing views on slavery, but the support of both was needed. In addition to balancing all that, Lincoln had to convince the public the war was worth the cost. Government revenues for 1860 were $52 million. The war cost about $2.7 billion. Nearly 3% of the Union population became casualties, the equivalent of the modern US suffering 8 to 10 million casualties. And war photography could bring pictures of those casualties into the homes of the public.[/FONT]

[FONT=&quot]Needless to say, there was a massive learning curve and Lincoln made mistakes, but he did not lose sight of his goal and he learned from his mistakes. [/FONT]
 
Nov 2012
887
Virginia
#6
Its amazing to me that Lincoln got anything done at all. A lot of his cabinet were of the opinion that he didn't have what it took to get the job done, and that they could do better. The power in both houses of Congress didn't give him much of a passing grade either.
Abe might have come across to people as simple and folksy, but I believe he was one of the shrewdest politicians of his day.

He had to be.
 

Vintersorg

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,938
Belgium
#7
Before the war, Lincoln knew next to nothing about how to conduct one, and he started studying military manuals only once the conflict had started. Keeping that in mind, he performed excellently.
At times, he had better insight on the situation than the generals of the Army of the Potomac themselves (I'm thinking about McLellan there).
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
#8
The dichotomy extends into other areas. Lincoln has been praised as a shrewd judge of character; and criticized as a poor picker whose predilection for "fighting" generals and excessive support for politically-connected officers proved costly to the Union cause. Many have admired the light and skillful touch with which he handled his relations with his commanders; others have argued that he often achieved the worst of both worlds - infuriating the generals with his direct interference, but without managing to bend them to his will in the process. His willingness to play a hands-on role in directing the war has been praised for its spirit, and lambasted for its meddling effect. (His role in the Valley Campaign remains a particularly acute example of the perils inherent in any amateur warlord trying to move his soldiers around like pieces on a chessboard to accomplish his designs.) It has been noted that he presided over the successful marshalling of the North's manpower and resources to overwhelm the South, but also that he was a poor administrator whose lack of executive experience prior to the presidency often showed. Some commentators have noted he had a fine appreciation of the technical aspects of war - even going so far as to test-fire new models of weaponry on the grounds of the Executive Mansion; but by the some token it must be admitted that he failed to exert himself as he might have to maximize this advantage for the Union war effort. And libraries could be filled with the controversy generated by his evolving policies on slavery and the curbing of civil liberties during the war.
Good thread DIVUS. Some thoughts of mine, presented in somewhat random order...

To start, I think Lincoln was very cognizant of the fact that he was an amateur. Having said that, he didn't initially let this get in his way of telling McDowell to embark on the First Manassas campaign, and Union problems in 1861 aren't really his fault. It's certainly debatable whether he should have done this, but Lincoln was absolutely correct that the Confederates were just as green. Only the failure of Union forces in the Valley, something Lincoln couldn't have counted on, causes the ultimate failure at First Manassas. Out west too, Nathaniel Lyon's bullheadedness (mixed with the ineptitude of Franz Sigel) is what causes Wilson's Creek to become a minor disaster, again, not really Lincoln's fault.

1862 becomes a much more interesting year for Lincoln. By this time he's appointed McClellan as the commander-in-chief, and grows impatient with McClellan's reluctance to take the offensive through early 1862. McClellan's ludicrous estimates of Confederate numbers hardly inspired confidence either. Don Carlos Buell displays similar sloth further west, and he and Henry Halleck constantly bicker. Here we begin to see what I think is a real problem with Lincoln; even when he does have the correct strategic insight, he doesn't actually impose it on his generals and insist they get something done. Instead he and McClellan just snipe at each other behind the other's back, counter-productively in both of their cases. He shows extraordinary tolerance for McClellan's terrible attitude towards his civilian superiors, hoping McClellan's military talents will overcome his personal defects.

When McClellan finally gets moving, Lincoln demonstrates what is another defect for some time in the war; major paranoia about D.C.'s safety. McClellan's counting of the forces actually defending Washington was rather liberal, yes, and he should have reached a firm understanding with Lincoln on the matter, but that's on both of them. D.C. was in no danger with McClellan on the Peninsula, but Lincoln badly overreacts, both to McClellan's liberal counting and to Jackson's noisy diversions in the Valley. That said, using McDowell's corps to spring a trap on Jackson's forces along with the Valley forces and destroy them wasn't at all a bad idea, McDowell simply couldn't out-march Jackson. And realistically, McDowell;s presence with McClellan would have no effect, with McClellan still convinced he was outnumbered 2-1. Still, holding back McDowell's corps was unjustified on Lincoln's part.

Another problem for Lincoln is the continued presence of McClellan's army on the Peninsula after the Seven Days. McClellan's actually in an excellent position where he should be able to threaten Richmond and perhaps use the move that Grant eventually does of descending upon Petersburg. He even suggests this. But McClellan continued to be myopic about Confederate numbers and insist on reinforcements before he will act. If he had gotten more men (somehow,) undoubtedly he would have then claimed the Confederates had been reinforced and requested even more. He wasn't going anywhere. Lincoln's solution to this problem was to form a new army in Northern Virginia under John Pope (a Radical Republican darling) and hope that Pope would accomplish what McClellan would not. When Lee detached troops to contain Pope and McClellan still did nothing as usual, Lincoln ordered the army off the Peninsula to join Pope.

Here I think Lincoln errs. The problem isn't the Army of the Potomac's position, or that Pope lacks men (Lee is only able to move his entire army against Pope once he's sure that McClellan is leaving.) The problem is McClellan's inability to act. Lincoln should have relieved McClellan and appointed someone else who would take action. The problem for Lincoln, which is a real one, is that he doesn't have any convenient replacement immediately on hand perhaps. Still, he wasn't addressing the problem by recalling the AotP, just trying to temporarily work around it by funneling units to Pope, who proved to be a failure.

Lincoln finally does take some more proactive measures around this time, calling Halleck to D.C. to act as general-in-chief, getting rid of Buell and replacing him with the successful Rosecrans, and restoring McClellan to primary command to deal with the Maryland Campaign. For all of McClellan's flaws he was an excellent organizer and Lincoln was probably correct to make use of him after the Second Manassas near-disaster. After he finally relieves McClellan, he forces the command upon Ambrose Burnside, and more or less forces Burnside's hand into suicidal attacks at Fredericksburg even though the campaign had no prospect of success at that point. Burnside is eventually replaced by Hooker after Burnside is unseated by dissent within the army.

Here is Lincoln's most grievous error in the east I think, his meddling with the upper command of the Army of the Potomac. Intentionally or not, he taught the AotP officers that they would be rewarded for intriguing against superiors, particularly Joe Hooker, and actually McClellan himself against Scott. Lincoln plays a major role in creating an absolutely poisonous and politicized command climate in the Eastern theatre that seriously handicaps his generals, encourages intrigue and dissent, and makes the AotP highly dysfunctional and causes high turnover. One of the smartest things Grant did upon taking over was to immediately ban officers from going to D.C. without specific authorization from headquarters. Lincoln's interference was motivated by real strategic insight often, and he was often right over some of his generals, but overall his actions created a major problem in the eastern theatre.

In the west, while Halleck and Lincoln generally do a better job of managing their affairs there, it's worth noting that the apocryphal remark about Lincoln not being able to spare Grant doesn't really reflect his actions. Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant after Shiloh. During Vicksburg he sends multiple spies to report on Grant and authorizes the absolutely idiotic McClernand independent command in Grant's department because he was friends with McClernand. Thankfully, Halleck took quick steps to neutralize that. One of the most underrated aspects of the Vicksburg Campaign is that it guaranteed job security for Grant! Yet Lincoln wasn't quite done with doubts about Grant after that, even following his remarkable letter to Grant at the end of Vicksburg. During Chattanoogsa, David Hunter was sent out to apparently report on Grant. Hunter also reported on Grant's drinking or the lack thereof, although it's possible the puritanical Hunter wasn't actually instructed to do so. In short, Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant several times, and doesn't really commit to staying the course with Grant until 1864 when he decides to stick with this hand until the end.

And even then, he doesn't exactly give Grant a free hand, which leads to my final major criticism of Lincoln as a commander-in-chief, which is his use of political generals. Now at the start of the war, this can hardly be faulted. But by 1864, any continued political benefit to maintaining them is far outweighed by the military burden they've become on active operations. Yet Grant is stuck with Banks leading a pointless campaign into Louisiana, stealing veteran troops he wants for Sherman and not taking Mobile, and he's stuck with Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler leading his other major armies in the Virginia theatre. Banks to this point hasn't fully demonstrated his ineptitude, but Grant already distrusts him and warns Lincoln, but is ignored. Butler and Sigel's failings are well known, with Halleck in particular harboring a distinct contempt for Sigel. If Lincoln had been willing to fully commit to Grant's campaigns and let him place better men in command of these armies, he could have practically won the war in 1864 and not been in danger for reelection in all likelihood. Instead, these particular political generals that he insisted on using were a major drag on military success in 1864, and in fact majorly contributed to the fact that Lincoln's reelection was in danger at all.

In conclusion, I think Lincoln was faced with a massive and unprecedented challenge, and rose to the occasion perhaps better than anyone in his position could be expected to. But he made some fairly serious errors along the way, there's no doubt.
 
Nov 2011
4,742
Ohio, USA
#9
Good thread DIVUS. Some thoughts of mine, presented in somewhat random order...

To start, I think Lincoln was very cognizant of the fact that he was an amateur. Having said that, he didn't initially let this get in his way of telling McDowell to embark on the First Manassas campaign, and Union problems in 1861 aren't really his fault. It's certainly debatable whether he should have done this, but Lincoln was absolutely correct that the Confederates were just as green. Only the failure of Union forces in the Valley, something Lincoln couldn't have counted on, causes the ultimate failure at First Manassas. Out west too, Nathaniel Lyon's bullheadedness (mixed with the ineptitude of Franz Sigel) is what causes Wilson's Creek to become a minor disaster, again, not really Lincoln's fault.

1862 becomes a much more interesting year for Lincoln. By this time he's appointed McClellan as the commander-in-chief, and grows impatient with McClellan's reluctance to take the offensive through early 1862. McClellan's ludicrous estimates of Confederate numbers hardly inspired confidence either. Don Carlos Buell displays similar sloth further west, and he and Henry Halleck constantly bicker. Here we begin to see what I think is a real problem with Lincoln; even when he does have the correct strategic insight, he doesn't actually impose it on his generals and insist they get something done. Instead he and McClellan just snipe at each other behind the other's back, counter-productively in both of their cases. He shows extraordinary tolerance for McClellan's terrible attitude towards his civilian superiors, hoping McClellan's military talents will overcome his personal defects.

When McClellan finally gets moving, Lincoln demonstrates what is another defect for some time in the war; major paranoia about D.C.'s safety. McClellan's counting of the forces actually defending Washington was rather liberal, yes, and he should have reached a firm understanding with Lincoln on the matter, but that's on both of them. D.C. was in no danger with McClellan on the Peninsula, but Lincoln badly overreacts, both to McClellan's liberal counting and to Jackson's noisy diversions in the Valley. That said, using McDowell's corps to spring a trap on Jackson's forces along with the Valley forces and destroy them wasn't at all a bad idea, McDowell simply couldn't out-march Jackson. And realistically, McDowell;s presence with McClellan would have no effect, with McClellan still convinced he was outnumbered 2-1. Still, holding back McDowell's corps was unjustified on Lincoln's part.

Another problem for Lincoln is the continued presence of McClellan's army on the Peninsula after the Seven Days. McClellan's actually in an excellent position where he should be able to threaten Richmond and perhaps use the move that Grant eventually does of descending upon Petersburg. He even suggests this. But McClellan continued to be myopic about Confederate numbers and insist on reinforcements before he will act. If he had gotten more men (somehow,) undoubtedly he would have then claimed the Confederates had been reinforced and requested even more. He wasn't going anywhere. Lincoln's solution to this problem was to form a new army in Northern Virginia under John Pope (a Radical Republican darling) and hope that Pope would accomplish what McClellan would not. When Lee detached troops to contain Pope and McClellan still did nothing as usual, Lincoln ordered the army off the Peninsula to join Pope.

Here I think Lincoln errs. The problem isn't the Army of the Potomac's position, or that Pope lacks men (Lee is only able to move his entire army against Pope once he's sure that McClellan is leaving.) The problem is McClellan's inability to act. Lincoln should have relieved McClellan and appointed someone else who would take action. The problem for Lincoln, which is a real one, is that he doesn't have any convenient replacement immediately on hand perhaps. Still, he wasn't addressing the problem by recalling the AotP, just trying to temporarily work around it by funneling units to Pope, who proved to be a failure.

Lincoln finally does take some more proactive measures around this time, calling Halleck to D.C. to act as general-in-chief, getting rid of Buell and replacing him with the successful Rosecrans, and restoring McClellan to primary command to deal with the Maryland Campaign. For all of McClellan's flaws he was an excellent organizer and Lincoln was probably correct to make use of him after the Second Manassas near-disaster. After he finally relieves McClellan, he forces the command upon Ambrose Burnside, and more or less forces Burnside's hand into suicidal attacks at Fredericksburg even though the campaign had no prospect of success at that point. Burnside is eventually replaced by Hooker after Burnside is unseated by dissent within the army.

Here is Lincoln's most grievous error in the east I think, his meddling with the upper command of the Army of the Potomac. Intentionally or not, he taught the AotP officers that they would be rewarded for intriguing against superiors, particularly Joe Hooker, and actually McClellan himself against Scott. Lincoln plays a major role in creating an absolutely poisonous and politicized command climate in the Eastern theatre that seriously handicaps his generals, encourages intrigue and dissent, and makes the AotP highly dysfunctional and causes high turnover. One of the smartest things Grant did upon taking over was to immediately ban officers from going to D.C. without specific authorization from headquarters. Lincoln's interference was motivated by real strategic insight often, and he was often right over some of his generals, but overall his actions created a major problem in the eastern theatre.

In the west, while Halleck and Lincoln generally do a better job of managing their affairs there, it's worth noting that the apocryphal remark about Lincoln not being able to spare Grant doesn't really reflect his actions. Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant after Shiloh. During Vicksburg he sends multiple spies to report on Grant and authorizes the absolutely idiotic McClernand independent command in Grant's department because he was friends with McClernand. Thankfully, Halleck took quick steps to neutralize that. One of the most underrated aspects of the Vicksburg Campaign is that it guaranteed job security for Grant! Yet Lincoln wasn't quite done with doubts about Grant after that, even following his remarkable letter to Grant at the end of Vicksburg. During Chattanoogsa, David Hunter was sent out to apparently report on Grant. Hunter also reported on Grant's drinking or the lack thereof, although it's possible the puritanical Hunter wasn't actually instructed to do so. In short, Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant several times, and doesn't really commit to staying the course with Grant until 1864 when he decides to stick with this hand until the end.

And even then, he doesn't exactly give Grant a free hand, which leads to my final major criticism of Lincoln as a commander-in-chief, which is his use of political generals. Now at the start of the war, this can hardly be faulted. But by 1864, any continued political benefit to maintaining them is far outweighed by the military burden they've become on active operations. Yet Grant is stuck with Banks leading a pointless campaign into Louisiana, stealing veteran troops he wants for Sherman and not taking Mobile, and he's stuck with Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler leading his other major armies in the Virginia theatre. Banks to this point hasn't fully demonstrated his ineptitude, but Grant already distrusts him and warns Lincoln, but is ignored. Butler and Sigel's failings are well known, with Halleck in particular harboring a distinct contempt for Sigel. If Lincoln had been willing to fully commit to Grant's campaigns and let him place better men in command of these armies, he could have practically won the war in 1864 and not been in danger for reelection in all likelihood. Instead, these particular political generals that he insisted on using were a major drag on military success in 1864, and in fact majorly contributed to the fact that Lincoln's reelection was in danger at all.

In conclusion, I think Lincoln was faced with a massive and unprecedented challenge, and rose to the occasion perhaps better than anyone in his position could be expected to. But he made some fairly serious errors along the way, there's no doubt.
Great post! Another issue I think Lincoln had with his relationship with McClellan was that the latter was so popular with his troops that Lincoln may have been afraid that his removal from command would trigger a mutiny. What do you think of this?
 
Aug 2011
7,045
Texas
#10
Good thread DIVUS. Some thoughts of mine, presented in somewhat random order...

To start, I think Lincoln was very cognizant of the fact that he was an amateur. Having said that, he didn't initially let this get in his way of telling McDowell to embark on the First Manassas campaign, and Union problems in 1861 aren't really his fault. It's certainly debatable whether he should have done this, but Lincoln was absolutely correct that the Confederates were just as green. Only the failure of Union forces in the Valley, something Lincoln couldn't have counted on, causes the ultimate failure at First Manassas. Out west too, Nathaniel Lyon's bullheadedness (mixed with the ineptitude of Franz Sigel) is what causes Wilson's Creek to become a minor disaster, again, not really Lincoln's fault.

1862 becomes a much more interesting year for Lincoln. By this time he's appointed McClellan as the commander-in-chief, and grows impatient with McClellan's reluctance to take the offensive through early 1862. McClellan's ludicrous estimates of Confederate numbers hardly inspired confidence either. Don Carlos Buell displays similar sloth further west, and he and Henry Halleck constantly bicker. Here we begin to see what I think is a real problem with Lincoln; even when he does have the correct strategic insight, he doesn't actually impose it on his generals and insist they get something done. Instead he and McClellan just snipe at each other behind the other's back, counter-productively in both of their cases. He shows extraordinary tolerance for McClellan's terrible attitude towards his civilian superiors, hoping McClellan's military talents will overcome his personal defects.

When McClellan finally gets moving, Lincoln demonstrates what is another defect for some time in the war; major paranoia about D.C.'s safety. McClellan's counting of the forces actually defending Washington was rather liberal, yes, and he should have reached a firm understanding with Lincoln on the matter, but that's on both of them. D.C. was in no danger with McClellan on the Peninsula, but Lincoln badly overreacts, both to McClellan's liberal counting and to Jackson's noisy diversions in the Valley. That said, using McDowell's corps to spring a trap on Jackson's forces along with the Valley forces and destroy them wasn't at all a bad idea, McDowell simply couldn't out-march Jackson. And realistically, McDowell;s presence with McClellan would have no effect, with McClellan still convinced he was outnumbered 2-1. Still, holding back McDowell's corps was unjustified on Lincoln's part.

Another problem for Lincoln is the continued presence of McClellan's army on the Peninsula after the Seven Days. McClellan's actually in an excellent position where he should be able to threaten Richmond and perhaps use the move that Grant eventually does of descending upon Petersburg. He even suggests this. But McClellan continued to be myopic about Confederate numbers and insist on reinforcements before he will act. If he had gotten more men (somehow,) undoubtedly he would have then claimed the Confederates had been reinforced and requested even more. He wasn't going anywhere. Lincoln's solution to this problem was to form a new army in Northern Virginia under John Pope (a Radical Republican darling) and hope that Pope would accomplish what McClellan would not. When Lee detached troops to contain Pope and McClellan still did nothing as usual, Lincoln ordered the army off the Peninsula to join Pope.

Here I think Lincoln errs. The problem isn't the Army of the Potomac's position, or that Pope lacks men (Lee is only able to move his entire army against Pope once he's sure that McClellan is leaving.) The problem is McClellan's inability to act. Lincoln should have relieved McClellan and appointed someone else who would take action. The problem for Lincoln, which is a real one, is that he doesn't have any convenient replacement immediately on hand perhaps. Still, he wasn't addressing the problem by recalling the AotP, just trying to temporarily work around it by funneling units to Pope, who proved to be a failure.

Lincoln finally does take some more proactive measures around this time, calling Halleck to D.C. to act as general-in-chief, getting rid of Buell and replacing him with the successful Rosecrans, and restoring McClellan to primary command to deal with the Maryland Campaign. For all of McClellan's flaws he was an excellent organizer and Lincoln was probably correct to make use of him after the Second Manassas near-disaster. After he finally relieves McClellan, he forces the command upon Ambrose Burnside, and more or less forces Burnside's hand into suicidal attacks at Fredericksburg even though the campaign had no prospect of success at that point. Burnside is eventually replaced by Hooker after Burnside is unseated by dissent within the army.

Here is Lincoln's most grievous error in the east I think, his meddling with the upper command of the Army of the Potomac. Intentionally or not, he taught the AotP officers that they would be rewarded for intriguing against superiors, particularly Joe Hooker, and actually McClellan himself against Scott. Lincoln plays a major role in creating an absolutely poisonous and politicized command climate in the Eastern theatre that seriously handicaps his generals, encourages intrigue and dissent, and makes the AotP highly dysfunctional and causes high turnover. One of the smartest things Grant did upon taking over was to immediately ban officers from going to D.C. without specific authorization from headquarters. Lincoln's interference was motivated by real strategic insight often, and he was often right over some of his generals, but overall his actions created a major problem in the eastern theatre.

In the west, while Halleck and Lincoln generally do a better job of managing their affairs there, it's worth noting that the apocryphal remark about Lincoln not being able to spare Grant doesn't really reflect his actions. Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant after Shiloh. During Vicksburg he sends multiple spies to report on Grant and authorizes the absolutely idiotic McClernand independent command in Grant's department because he was friends with McClernand. Thankfully, Halleck took quick steps to neutralize that. One of the most underrated aspects of the Vicksburg Campaign is that it guaranteed job security for Grant! Yet Lincoln wasn't quite done with doubts about Grant after that, even following his remarkable letter to Grant at the end of Vicksburg. During Chattanoogsa, David Hunter was sent out to apparently report on Grant. Hunter also reported on Grant's drinking or the lack thereof, although it's possible the puritanical Hunter wasn't actually instructed to do so. In short, Lincoln seriously considers sparing Grant several times, and doesn't really commit to staying the course with Grant until 1864 when he decides to stick with this hand until the end.

And even then, he doesn't exactly give Grant a free hand, which leads to my final major criticism of Lincoln as a commander-in-chief, which is his use of political generals. Now at the start of the war, this can hardly be faulted. But by 1864, any continued political benefit to maintaining them is far outweighed by the military burden they've become on active operations. Yet Grant is stuck with Banks leading a pointless campaign into Louisiana, stealing veteran troops he wants for Sherman and not taking Mobile, and he's stuck with Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler leading his other major armies in the Virginia theatre. Banks to this point hasn't fully demonstrated his ineptitude, but Grant already distrusts him and warns Lincoln, but is ignored. Butler and Sigel's failings are well known, with Halleck in particular harboring a distinct contempt for Sigel. If Lincoln had been willing to fully commit to Grant's campaigns and let him place better men in command of these armies, he could have practically won the war in 1864 and not been in danger for reelection in all likelihood. Instead, these particular political generals that he insisted on using were a major drag on military success in 1864, and in fact majorly contributed to the fact that Lincoln's reelection was in danger at all.

In conclusion, I think Lincoln was faced with a massive and unprecedented challenge, and rose to the occasion perhaps better than anyone in his position could be expected to. But he made some fairly serious errors along the way, there's no doubt.
Dang it! I hate it when i am late to an interesting discussion. By that time, anything interesting worth saying has already been said. All that is left to be said after reading eight highly informative posts is "This" or 1+. I'm so disappointed in myself. :(
 

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