Tried by war abraham lin.., p.1
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, p.1James M. McPherson
TRIED BY WAR
ALSO BY JAMES M. MCPHERSON
The Struggle for Equality
The Negro’s Civil War
The Abolitionist Legacy
Ordeal by Fire
Battle Cry of Freedom
Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution
What They Fought For, 1861–1865
Drawn with the Sword
For Cause and Comrades
Crossroads of Freedom
This Mighty Scourge
TRIED BY WAR
James M. McPherson
THE PENGUIN PRESS
THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2008 by The Penguin Press,
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Copyright © James M. McPherson, 2008
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McPherson, James M.
Tried by war: Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief / James M. McPherson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809–1865—Military leadership. 2. United States—History—Civil War, 1861–1865. 3. United States—Politics and government—1861–1865. 4. Executive power—United States—History—19th century. 5. Presidents—United States—Biography.
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To Pat, for fifty years of
marriage and history
The insurgent leader…does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He can not voluntarily reaccept the Union; we can not voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory.
—Lincoln’s annual message to Congress, December 6, 1864
1. The Quest for a Strategy, 1861
2. The Bottom Is Out of the Tub
3. You Must Act
4. A Question of Legs
5. Destroy the Rebel Army, If Possible
6. The Promise Must Now Be Kept
7. Lee’s Army, and Not Richmond, Is Your True Objective Point
8. The Heaviest Blow Yet Dealt to the Rebellion
9. If It Takes Three Years More
10. No Peace Without Victory
ABRAHAM LINCOLN was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war. On the day he took office the first document placed on his desk was a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, informing him that the garrison there must be withdrawn or resupplied at the risk of war. Lincoln chose to take that risk. Four years later he was assassinated, five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox but while several Confederate armies were still in the field.
During those four years military matters required more of Lincoln’s time and energy than anything else. He spent more time in the War Department telegraph office sending and receiving messages to and from his generals than anywhere else except the White House or his summer residence in the Soldiers’ Home at the northern edge of Washington. The president rarely left Washington except to visit the Army of the Potomac at the front, which he did eleven times for a total of forty-two days. Not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duties as commander in chief.
In the vast literature on our sixteenth president, however, the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander in chief is disproportionately far smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task. On the 175th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1984, Gettysburg College hosted a conference on recent Lincoln scholarship. There were three sessions on psychobiography, two on the assassination, two on Lincoln’s image in photographs and popular prints, and one each on his economic ideas, humor, Indian policy, and slavery. But there were no sessions on Lincoln as commander in chief—a remarkable irony, given the site of the conference. Of the seventeen collected essays on Lincoln published in 1987 by the late Don E. Fehrenbacher, one of the foremost Lincoln scholars of his time, not one dealt with the president as a military leader. In 1994 the historian Merrill Peterson published a splendid book on Lincoln’s image in history and memory. There are chapters on Lincoln and the South, religion, politics, Reconstruction, civil rights, and several other themes, but no chapter on Lincoln and the army.1
Perhaps it is time to recognize the truth expressed by Lincoln himself in his second inaugural address, when the Civil War had been raging for almost four years: On “the progress of our arms…all else chiefly depends.”2 “All else” included many of the questions and developments that historians consider important: the fate of slavery; the definition of freedom; the destruction of the Old South’s socioeconomic system and the triumph of entrepreneurial free-labor capitalism as the national norm; a new definition of American nationalism; the origins of a new system of race relations; the very survival of the United States in a manner that laid the foundations for the nation’s emergence as a world power.
It was the commander in chief who was held mainly responsible for “the progress of our arms”—or the lack thereof. This book offers a narrative and analysis of how—and how well—Lincoln met this challenge, which was unquestionably the chief challenge of his life and of the life of the nation.
NOTE ON QUOTATIONS
Original spellings and punctuation have been preserved in quotations without inserting the intrusive “[sic].”
TRIED BY WAR
ON JULY 27, 1848, a tall, rawboned Whig congressman from Illinois rose in the House of Representatives to challenge the Mexican War policies of President James K. Polk. An opponent of what he considered an unjust war, Abraham Lincoln mocked his own meager record as a militia captain who saw no action in the Black Hawk War of 1832. “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero?” said Lincoln. “Yes, sir…I fought, bled, and came away” after “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many struggles with the musketoes.”1
Lincoln might not have indulged his famous sense of humor in this fashion if he had known that thirteen years later he would become commander in chief of the U.S. Army in a war that turned out to be forty-seven times more lethal for American soldiers than the Mexican War. On his way to Washington in February 1861 as president-elect of a broken nation, Lincoln spoke in a far more serious manner. He looked back on another war, which had given birth to the nation that now seemed in danger of perishing from the earth. In a speech to the New Jersey legislature in Trenton, Lincoln recalled the story of George Washington and his tiny army, which crossed the ice-choked Delaware River in a driving sleet storm on Christmas night in 1776 to attack the Hessian garrison in Trenton. “There must have been something more than common that those men struggled for,” said the president-elect. “Something even more than National Independence…something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world for all time to come. I am exceedingly anxious that the Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made.”2
Lincoln faced a steep learning curve as commander in chief in the war that began less than two months after that speech at Trenton. He was also painfully aware that his adversary, Jefferson Davis, was much better prepared for that daunting task. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Davis had fought courageously as a colonel of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War and had served as an excellent secretary of war from 1853 to 1857—while Lincoln’s only military experience was his combat with mosquitoes in 1832. Lincoln possessed a keen analytical mind, however, and a fierce determination to master any subject to which he applied himself. This determination went back to his childhood. “Among my earliest recollections,” Lincoln told an acquaintance in 1860, “I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand.” Lincoln recalled “going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep…when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it…. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me.” Later in life Lincoln mastered Euclidean geometry on his own for mental exercise. As a largely self-taught lawyer, he honed this quality of mind. He was not a quick study but a thorough one. “I am never easy,” he said, “when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West.”3
Several contemporaries testified to the slow but tenacious qualities of Lincoln’s mind. The mercurial editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, noted that Lincoln’s intellect worked “not quickly nor brilliantly, but exhaustively.” Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon sometimes expressed impatience with Lincoln’s deliberate manner of researching or arguing a case. But Herndon conceded that his partner “not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fibre of it.”4 Lincoln also focused intently on the central issue in a legal case and refused to be distracted by secondary questions. Another fellow lawyer noted that Lincoln would concede nonessential points to an opponent in the courtroom, lulling him into a sense of complacency. But “by giving away six points and carrying the seventh he carried his case…the whole case hanging on the seventh…. Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”5
As commander in chief Lincoln sought to master the intricacies of military strategy in the same way he had tried to penetrate the meaning of mysterious adult conversations when he was a boy. His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard the president walking back and forth in his bedroom at midnight as he digested books on military strategy. “He gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation,” Hay later wrote. “He 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 generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge and the keen intelligence of his questions.” Some of those generals, like Lincoln’s courtroom adversaries, eventually found themselves on their backs in a ditch. By 1862 Lincoln’s grasp of military strategy and operations was firm enough almost to justify the assertion of the historian T. Harry Williams: “Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.”6
This encomium is misleading in one respect: Lincoln was not a “natural strategist.” He worked hard to master this subject, just as he had done to become a lawyer. He had to learn the functions of commander in chief on the job. The Constitution and the course of American history before 1861 did not offer much guidance. Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution states simply: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” But the Constitution nowhere defines the powers of the president as commander in chief. In Federalist No. 69, Alexander Hamilton tried to reassure opponents of the Constitution, who feared executive tyranny, that the commander-in-chief power “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military forces, as first General and Admiral” of the nation.
Hamilton’s phrase “supreme command and direction” seems quite forceful, but it lacks specificity. Nor did the precedents created by Presidents James Madison and James K. Polk in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War provide Lincoln with much guidance in a far greater conflict that combined the most dangerous aspects of an internal war and a war against another nation. In a case growing out of the Mexican War, the Supreme Court ruled that the president as commander in chief was authorized to employ the army and navy “in the manner he may deem most effectual to harass and conquer and subdue the enemy.” But the Court did not define “most effectual” and seemed to limit the president’s power by stating that it must be confined to “purely military matters.”7
The vagueness of these definitions and precedents meant that Lincoln would have to establish most of the powers of commander in chief for himself. He proved to be a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president. He performed or oversaw five wartime functions in this capacity, in diminishing order of personal involvement: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. Neither Lincoln nor anyone else defined these functions in a systematic way during the Civil War. If they had, their definitions might have looked something like the following: Policy refers to war aims—the political goals of the nation in time of war. National strategy refers to mobilization of the political, economic, diplomatic, and psychological as well as military resources of the nation to achieve these war aims. Military strategy concerns plans for the employment of armed forces to win the war and fulfill the goals of policy. Operations concerns the management and movements of armies in particular campaigns to carry out the purposes of military strategy. Tactics refers to the formations and handling of an army in actual battle.
As president and leader of his party as well as commander in chief, Lincoln was principally responsible for shaping and defining policy. From first to last that policy was preservation of the United States as one nation, indivisible
Lincoln’s frequent statements of this policy were themselves distinct and inflexible. And policy was closely tied to national strategy. Indeed, in a civil war whose origins lay in a political conflict over the future of slavery and a political decision by certain states to secede, policy could never be separated from national strategy. The president shared with Congress and key cabinet members the tasks of raising, organizing, and sustaining an army and navy, preventing foreign intervention in the conflict, and maintaining public support for the war—all of which depended on the public’s support of the purpose for which the war was fought. And neither policy nor national strategy could be separated from military strategy. Although Lincoln never read Carl von Clausewitz’s famous treatise On War (Vom Kriege), his actions were a consummate expression of Clausewitz’s central argument: “The political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose…. Therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.”10
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