By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2000, 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, amongst other Civil War books, spoke at The Western Reserve Historical Society in April 2000. This report on McPherson’s talk by then Roundtable President William Vodrey was originally published in The Charger in the fall of that same year.
“No one deserves more credit than Abraham Lincoln, as commander in chief, for the victory of the United States” in the Civil War,” said James M. McPherson. The Princeton University history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author spoke at the Western Reserve Historical Society on April 29, 2000. His topic was “Lincoln as Commander in Chief.”
McPherson believes that, despite the explosion of scholarship and writing on Lincoln in recent decades, many have lost sight of the outstanding military skills and leadership of the 16th President. Only five percent of the text of Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s recent edition of the Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia is devoted to military matters; at a recent Gettysburg conference on Lincoln, none of the dozens of sessions focused on Lincoln as commander in chief. Instead, recent studies of Lincoln have focused on politics, economics, and slavery.
But McPherson said that virtually all of Lincoln’s distinction arose from war: the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, both inaugural addresses, even his assassination and virtual martyrdom – all stemmed from his role as a wartime leader. Lincoln himself recognized this, writing to a friend, “On the progress of our arms, all else chiefly depends.” Had there been no Civil War at all, McPherson said, Lincoln might be “lost in obscurity with William Henry Harrison and Franklin Pierce.” Had Lincoln actually lost the war, he would have been regarded as a failure, probably the worst in the history of the presidency.
No one could have predicted Lincoln’s success as a military leader. Jefferson Davis, after all, was a graduate of West Point, had served with distinction in the Mexican War, and had been a U.S. senator and a very capable and innovative secretary of war. Lincoln had been elected a captain of Illinois volunteers during the Black Hawk War (an election triumph which gave him more pleasure than any other, he later said), but admitted that he’d killed more mosquitoes than Indians. He had less than a year of formal education, and served a single, unremarkable term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Early in the Civil War, knowing his own limitations, President Lincoln deferred to Gens. Buell and Halleck in the West, and Scott and McClellan in the East, but soon came to see that he had to do more. Early U.S. military policy reflected the widespread belief that there was a silent majority of Unionists in the South, and that a limited war would soon bring back the errant Southern states. But after the early battles, it became clear that this was wishful thinking. Lincoln underwent a “cram course in military strategy but didn’t have the tunnel vision of most West Point graduates,” McPherson said. Foremost among these was Gen. George B. McClellan, about whom McPherson had little good to say. Lincoln had to constantly urge McClellan to attack, particularly during the Seven Days campaign before the gates of Richmond, and later for a month after the half-victory at Antietam. Lincoln found McClellan, as he put it, “an auger too dull to take hold.”
Lincoln was an active, hands-on commander in chief, visiting the Army of the Potomac eleven times during the war, spending over 42 days in the field. Although self-taught and prone to mistakes early on, Lincoln in time became “a better strategist than any of his generals,” McPherson said. Lincoln intuitively understood Clausewitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He shared power with his generals and, to a lesser degree, with Congress, but still remained firmly in charge. He ignored Secretary of State William H. Seward’s early power grab, embodied in Seward’s April 1861 letter proposing that the Secretary act as a quasi-prime minister to guide the Union’s war effort, and was careful to preserve presidential prerogatives in fighting the war.
President Lincoln rescinded Gen. John C. Fremont’s western emancipation order in late 1861 to keep wavering border states in the Union; he did the same with Gen. David Hunter’s emancipation order in early 1862 in the southern Atlantic coastal regions. However, Lincoln left himself the option of issuing an emancipation order, as he did when, after Antietam, the political time was right. The Emancipation Proclamation hinged on his war powers, and struck a serious blow against slavery under the aegis of military necessity. Slavery was “the heart of the rebellion,” Lincoln wrote, and a major bulwark of the Confederate government. He meant to see it mortally wounded, and in time ended, to win the war. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later described the Emancipation Proclamation as “the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy,” a view with which McPherson agrees.
When Lincoln brought Grant east in early 1864, he at last had found a general who not only shared his views, but would vigorously implement them as battlefield policy. “Grant is my man, and I am his, for the rest of the war,” Lincoln told a friend. To Grant’s critics, he said simply, “I can’t spare this man – he fights.” McPherson said one of Lincoln’s greatest contributions to the Northern victory was in simply standing by Grant when many wanted him fired. At one time or another, many thought Grant was either “a drunk, a fool, or a butcher,” McPherson said, but “in time virtually the whole country came to share Lincoln’s opinion of Grant.”
By June 1862, the Union held over 50,000 square miles of Confederate territory, but was no closer to victory than it had been a year before. McPherson said that Lincoln came to understand that, in modern military terms, the Confederacy had the advantage of concentration in space (defending a perimeter, with shorter, internal lines of communication and resupply), so that the U.S. would have to exploit its advantage of concentration in time (drawing on its superior resources to attack simultaneously in several places). He eventually decided that the goal must be to destroy the Southern economy, morale, and political will, with Confederate armies the primary target, and not to simply seize land. “Lincoln grasped that truth sooner than most of his generals,” McPherson said.
In response to an audience question afterward, McPherson said Gen. George G. Meade didn’t do enough in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg to win a decisive victory over Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, satisfying himself with forcing Lee and his army from the North. Meade could have thrown the virtually-unbloodied Sixth Corps against Lee’s battered army, McPherson said. He said he understood Meade’s hesitancy, the general having only been in command of the Army of the Potomac for a few days at the time he cautiously guided it to victory over Lee. “But Grant or Sheridan, in Meade’s position, would have done more,” McPherson said, and thereby possibly shortened the war by months or years. (Shelby Foote, it should be noted, disagreed with McPherson on this point when he spoke from the same podium on Sept. 13, 2000).
With victory in sight by late 1864, Lincoln planned to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and bring the seceding states back into the Union as quickly and smoothly as possible. In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln described the “mighty scourge of war” and saw God’s justice for the nation’s wrongs, primarily the suffering caused by centuries of slavery.
McPherson said that, for the terrible war and the brief peace over which Abraham Lincoln presided, he remains deserving of his reputation as one of the greatest leaders the nation has ever had.