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Towards Reassessing A. Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief

Many people like to point to Abraham Lincoln as a model commander-in-chief. Scholars have celebrated him as an instinctive strategist who had to put up with a series of inferior generals until he finally assembled the team that went out and won the war. At most, he comes under some criticism for appointing some generals based primarily upon their political value instead of their military skill, but even this practice has been defended as a necessary step towards winning the war.

I happen to think that while Lincoln was on the whole an able commander-in-chief, some of the aspects of his management of that position call for reassessment. It really doesn’t help us to present Lincoln as a model commander-in-chief if the model itself is flawed in construction. What follows, then, are some suggestions on how Lincoln may not have been a model commander-in-chief, at least in his relations with subordinates.

First, Lincoln meddled with his commanders in significant ways. Let’s set aside for the purposes of this discussion how McClellan and he disagreed over McClellan’s plans on how to invade Virginia in 1862. I’ll even be kind and pass by his appointment of corps commanders for the Army of the Potomac, although one can understand why McClellan might have been unhappy with the way in which this was done and the result. Rather, one might look to Lincoln’s visits to the front after the Seven Days, after Antietam, and after Chancellorsville, when he interviewed corps commanders and sought information from them that caused him to question the army commander. After mid-1862 corps and division commanders learned that they could always bypass their army commanders and go directly to Lincoln, and they did, especially after Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Both Joseph Hooker (Antietam) and Daniel Sickles (Gettysburg) took advantage of battle wounds that sent them to the rear to share their own version of events with the president. Nor need one limit this criticism to the Army of the Potomac, as Lincoln’s interaction with John A. McClernand illustrates. One way in which Ulysses S. Grant was better than many of his eastern counterparts was in his ability to deal with this interference: no sooner had he become general-in-chief in 1864 than he stopped the practice of going to Washington without permission from headquarters.

Second, Lincoln was not above badmouthing his generals to others. We may now see such comments as funny or folksy, but they should also be seen as unprofessional. Scholars habitually wack McClellan for referring to Lincoln in derogatory fashion, but they think it’s okay for Lincoln to compare his generals to stunned ducks (Rosecrans) or old women shooing geese away (Meade). When it came to McClellan, he gave as good as he got, and did not confine his comments to letters to his wife.

Third, one can imagine today the fury with which the press might respond if it was learned that a president had sought to place his son in a cushy staff job out of harm’s way. And yet this is exactly what Lincoln did in early 1865 when it came to his son Robert. He asked Grant to find a place for him, and Grant generously did. One always hears of how Lincoln sought this as a solution to assuage Mary Lincoln’s concerns while giving Robert his long-awaited chance to serve, and yet there are other ways to see this. Not that Lincoln was alone in this regard: Grant had his brother-in-law on his staff, and Meade had his son on his, to give two examples.

Now, this is not the opening salvo in what will become a full-scale bombardment designed to bring down the Lincoln Memorial. But I think most historians have been too busily celebrating Lincoln as commander-in-chief to assess his performance dispassionately. There have been dissenting voices, but they tend to come from scholars who want to defend a particular general, and in many cases the voices have been drowned out in a chorus of mostly untempered praise. Sometimes the Lincoln myth actually does a disservice to Lincoln, as in the oft-told tale of his supposedly constant support of Ulysses S. Grant. Better, I think, to admit that Grant’s performance at times could have called into question his qualifications as a commander. It all depends on whether we look to understand Lincoln as the bicentennial of his birth approaches, or whether we merely want to deify him yet again.

Comments (5) to “Towards Reassessing A. Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief”

  1. A powerful politician using his influence to secure a cushy staff job for his son. Was there no Air National Guard back then?

  2. I only disagree strongly with your third point. Just as the Brits didn’t want Harry in harms way, I can understand why a President would not wish his/her kids at the front. It would place an even larger burden on an already burdened President. Wasn’t Roosevelt’s sons well out of danger in WWII? I believe they all four still in active service.

  3. James, Elliott, John, and FDR Jr. saw action.

  4. I think a look at Lincoln as C-in-C is fine, because he did have some faux pas in 1862 especially, but I think a re-assessment will end up with the same conclusion: he was a remarkable warleader, an inate, home-grown stratagist. He wasn’t perfect, that’s the point. He made a number of mistakes as part of his learning curve, and these mistakes of course cost the lives of men in blue. The point of any re-assessment would be to emphasize the lack of perfection while not losing sight of the overall quality of his leadership. (Brooks, this might be a good subject for a book of essays.)

    I’m not inclined to beat him up over Robert’s serving on Grant’s staff. I accept the conventional story that the culprit here is Mary. IOW, if not for Mary’s fears, Robert could have and would have served “conventionally” a lot sooner. Mary simply did not have FDR’s political sense on this point; I’m sure Abe did.

  5. Brooks,
    I agree with the direction you’re going here. I’ll pass on the “children in the military” issue, but I think this issue illustrates Lincoln’s maturation as CinC. In 1861 and 1862 he was learning and felt it necessary to be hands-on. I think his poor showing when he and Stanton tried to plan & implement strategy in spring of 1862 led him to realize it was too much for the president to micro-manage the war, and that he needed someone he could trust as, to borrow a current phrase, “war czar.”. He thought that was Halleck, and eventually found it in Grant, but his role as CinC before then was marred by the aspects you mentioned.