Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War

By Edward W. Bonekemper III
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: Edward H. Bonekemper is the author of several Civil War books. This article is an excerpt from the introduction to his latest book, Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War, and appears here through the courtesy of the author.

In the course of writing two earlier books, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius and Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian, I discovered the increasingly close working relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant as the Union moved toward victory in the Civil War. Astounded to discover that there has been no book-length treatment exclusively about their significant relationship, I decided to examine their backgrounds, experiences and wartime interactions in order to demonstrate how these two men, working together, won the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln

This book is the result. It is not intended to be a thorough biography of either man but instead a sufficient study of their lives and Civil War activities to understand and appreciate their extraordinary individual and collaborative achievements. It examines Lincoln and Grant’s similarities, and differences, and describes how their relationship grew into one of the most significant in American history. It terminates with Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865.

The relationship of the president as commander in chief with his generals in uniform had been and remains a critical issue in American government. In doing little more than designating the president as commander in chief and giving congress the power to declare war, the U.S. Constitution does not provide any real guidance. The War of 1812 lacked national military organization or coordination on the part of the United States. The Mexican-American War saw President James K. Polk first appoint Zachary Taylor as his leading general to keep Winfield Scott out of the limelight and then replace Taylor with Scott after Taylor’s military successes – all primarily for political reasons.

Ulysses S. Grant

Therefore, Lincoln was treading in essentially uncharted territory as he undertook a gigantic war and experimented with civilian-military relations. As discussed in this book, Lincoln’s relationship with generals in chief Scott, George B. McClellan and Henry Halleck were less than satisfactory. Between the terms of the latter two, he and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton even tried running the war without a designated general in chief. It was only with the elevation of Grant to that position in March 1864 and the quickly-developing cooperation between Lincoln and Grant that an effective civilian-military relationship became a reality. Their development of a civilian-controlled, militarily effective relationship, with virtually no precedent upon which to build, was astounding and provided a model for future American wars.

Lincoln and Grant’s positive relationship was enhanced by many similarities in their personalities and life experiences. Both were born in modest circumstances west of the Appalachian Mountains in what was regarded in the early nineteenth century as the American frontier. They were men of the river – born near the Ohio and understanding the uses and value of the nation’s inland river systems. They were humble, self-effacing individuals who worked their ways from the bottom to the top of American society. Both battled internal demons but stubbornly pursued the critical goals of their lives. They overcame numerous obstacles and eventually prevailed as two of America’s greatest leaders at a time when the nation needed them most.

Parallel experiences in their personal lives included marriages into slave-owning families, distracting interferences in their lives from other relatives (Lincoln’s wife and Grant’s father and father-in-law), their self-taught mastery of the English language, and their different but effective inter-personal skills.

They also shared some personality traits. James M. McPherson described Grant: “shy with strangers, uncomfortable in the limelight, notoriously taciturn, Grant earned a reputation as ‘the American Sphinx.’ Yet wherever he went, things got done–quietly, efficiently, quickly, with no wasted motion. In crisis situations during combat, Grant remained calm. He did not panic. He persevered and never accepted defeat even when he appeared to be beaten.” Although Lincoln was more retrospective than shy, much of this description could be applied to him as well; he faced his own forms of combat.

Significantly, some of Lincoln’s and Grant’s positive attributes contrasted with, and complemented, those of the other. For example, Lincoln was a political genius while Grant had military acumen. Unlike the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis, Lincoln did not insist on micro-managing the war. In fact, Lincoln delegated more and more military authority to Grant as the general earned the president’s confidence. For his part, Grant yielded to Lincoln’s political expertise on most significant issues, including the movement toward emancipation and the use of black soldiers. Grant also deferred to Lincoln on most major military strategic issues – a demonstration that Lincoln indeed was the senior partner in their successful partnership.

Grant and Lincoln were men of the new American West, an area far removed in miles and milieu from the original thirteen colonies of the Eastern Seaboard. Today’s Midwest was the West of antebellum America. Lincoln was born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana, and established his permanent home in Illinois. Grant was born in Ohio, married and lived in Missouri, and moved to Illinois. Although Lincoln was a long-term resident of Illinois, Grant had arrived there less than a year before the Civil War erupted – in just enough time to benefit from his Illinois political connections.

Elihu B. Washburne

Grant’s most effective congressional political supporter was Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, a Galena, Illinois neighbor and the senior Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had been a friend and political associate of Lincoln since the 1840s. Washburne was a loyal supporter of both Lincoln and Grant throughout the war. Most significantly, the congressman had earned Lincoln’s trust and used that relationship to protect Grant against vicious attacks from reporters, jealous military competitors, and others seeking to advance their own interests.

Their shared Illinois and Midwestern heritage enhanced Lincoln and Grant’s relationship. One astute analyst commented, “A man of the border state, Lincoln could see all sides, could feel the Civil War and all of its issues founded on race and place in his very bones.” Lincoln’s 1862 annual report to Congress provided insights into his view of the adverse impact of Southern secession on the Upper West, which he described as the “great interior region, bounded east by the Alleghanies [sic], north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets . . . .”

After discussing that area’s great potential for population growth and agricultural production, he explained the effect of secession: “As part of one nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to South America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco. But separate our common country into two nations, as designed by the present rebellion, and every man of this great interior region is thereby cut off from some one or more of these outlets, not perhaps, by a physical barrier, but by embarrassing and onerous trade regulations. . . . These outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting, and to inhabit, this vast interior region.”

The vital importance of the Mississippi River to the Midwest was a clear implication of Lincoln’s words. In mid-1863, Union army chaplain John Eaton related Lincoln’s mid-war interest in the Mississippi: “He was eager for details of Vicksburg, and his references to the Mississippi River proved that his memories of it had stayed by him, filling his mind with the significance of the commercial influence of the great waterway, and of its effect not only upon the country at large, but particularly upon the Negro population, which, now that the Mississippi was open from the source to its mouth, would swarm to the river as a channel of escape into the North.” Clearly, Grant’s successful 1862-63 efforts to gain Union control over the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers reflected a Westerner’s geographic awareness that meshed perfectly with Lincoln’s conception of the significance of those rivers to the nation as a whole.

Grant’s increasing value to Lincoln and Lincoln’s support and protection of Grant during the Civil War are reflected in two widely reported apocryphal tales. There are many reports that Lincoln, when confronted with rumors and false reports of Grant’s heavy drinking and drunkenness, stated that he wanted to know what whiskey Grant consumed so that he could provide a barrel to each of his generals. In response to recommendations that Grant be removed from command (particularly after the bloody April 1862 Battle of Shiloh), Lincoln is reputed to have said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.” The reason these unverified stories have received such credence is that they appear to reflect Lincoln’s actual attitude toward Grant.

McPherson described Lincoln’s primary leadership role: “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, and as a republic based on majority rule. . . . At all levels of policy, strategy, and operations . . . Lincoln was a hands-on commander in chief who persisted through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments to final triumph – and tragedy – at the end.”

The late Russell F. Weigley, one of America’s foremost military historians, proclaimed Grant’s uniqueness as a military commander in his willingness to perform under civilian (i.e., Lincoln’s) control: “A straightforward man with few pretensions of any kind, Grant certainly did not claim to be a military scholar. His genius for command was a product mainly of clear-eyed native intelligence, even of common sense, not primarily of more specialized professional attainments. He was, therefore, glad to communicate with his civilian superiors with candor and without condescension. But Grant was almost sui generis.”

Not only was Grant willing to work with Lincoln, but the president also was willing to concede much, but not all, military decision-making to Grant when he became general in chief. Lincoln had tried that approach unsuccessfully with Major General George B. McClellan. Next he was effectively his own general in chief both before he appointed Major General Henry W. Halleck to that position in July 1862 and later when it became clear that Halleck was unwilling or unable to assume the responsibilities of that position. By the time Grant was named general in chief in March 1864, Lincoln and Grant both believed “that only the utter military defeat of the Confederacy would suffice to reunite the nation.” Their shared non-conciliatory approach and Lincoln’s confidence in Grant’s military judgment enabled the president to reduce, but not eliminate, his military activity. Lincoln stayed involved as commander in chief while Grant effectively performed his role as general in chief.

The most significant force that bound together Lincoln and Grant was their shared belief in the necessity to pro-actively use appropriate and aggressive force to carry the North’s burden of winning the Civil War. Daniel Sutherland concluded that General John Pope’s harsh mid-1862 anti-Confederate pronouncements (blessed by Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton) and concurrent Union confiscation laws cleared the way for Grant’s aggressive, “total war” campaigns of 1864-65. He stated, “Grant benefitted [sic] enormously from the fact that a precedent for waging total war had already been set, the legal machinery erected, and the philosophy accepted. Lincoln knew what had to be done, and ultimately, in the persons of Grant and Sherman, he had the right men to do the job.” Although “total war” overstates the hard war practiced by Grant and Sherman because they did not deliberately kill civilians, Sutherland’s point about precedents is valid.

Well before 1864, however, Grant had demonstrated his propensity for aggressively pursuing and taking enemy armies out of action. He had captured enemy armies at Fort Donelson in 1862 (14,000 captured) and Vicksburg in 1863 (almost 30,000 captured). Grant’s aggressiveness had paid dividends by repelling a major Confederate attack and saving his army at Shiloh (April 1862) and dealing a crushing blow to Confederate forces at Chattanooga (November 1863).

Beginning with his September 22, 1862 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the president increasingly encouraged utilization of Negroes as a vital part of the Union war effort. He pushed for their use in the Union army (about 180,000 served) and navy (about 20,000) and wreaked havoc on the South as blacks abandoned plantations to seek freedom with the advancing Union armies. Unlike George McClellan (who fiercely opposed emancipation) and William T. Sherman (who never outgrew his racism), Grant fully supported Lincoln’s emancipation and black soldier policies.

After Lincoln had brought Grant to the East as general in chief and before the 1864 Overland Campaign, the president summarized his reaction to Grant in a conversation with his Third Secretary William O. Stoddard: “Well, I hardly know what to think of him, altogether, I never saw him, myself, till he came here to take the command. He’s the quietest little fellow you ever saw. . . . The only evidence you have that he’s in any place is that he makes things git! Wherever he is, things move!”

Working in tandem with the president, Grant certainly would “make things git” on a sustained basis for the first time in the Eastern Theater. His unrelenting 1864-65 moves against Lee’s army, exactly what Lincoln wanted him to do, almost won the war in two months and did win it in less than a year. Just as significantly, Grant, with Lincoln’s blessing, entrusted Sherman with adequate troops and discretion to threaten and capture Atlanta, a significant victory that virtually ensured Lincoln’s reelection and then to march through Georgia in late 1864 and the Carolinas in early 1865, movements that destroyed Confederate morale, caused thousands of Rebel soldiers to desert, and ensured the doom of Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia.

In summary, Grant and Lincoln shared a frontier American heritage, as well as common sense and dogged determination. This book describes how each man developed those and other key traits during their childhoods, early lives, the Mexican War (at home and abroad), and their rough-and-tumble economic and political trials of the 1850s.

The bulk of this book, however, describes most of the separate, and then later coordinated, activities of Lincoln and Grant during the Civil War. Their exciting successes and dismaying failures in the military and political arenas brought them closer to each other and ultimately evolved into the critical partnership that won the Civil War.

Throughout this chronological study, you should be alert to some underlying themes that are fully summarized in my final chapter. One thread tying these two men together was their critical similar personality traits (specifically humility, decisiveness, clarity of communication, moral courage and perseverance). Beyond those shared characteristics, Lincoln and Grant developed an increasing mutual respect for each other, which then grew into an unshakeable loyalty to each other. Their common traits, respect and loyalty made them victorious.

They developed a working relationship in which each was comfortable with his and the other’s role. The critical areas governed by this relationship were national policy, military strategy, military operations and tactics, and military personnel decision-making. As described in some detail in the concluding chapter, I conclude that:

  • As to national policies, Lincoln made the decisions, and Grant accommodated and implemented them.
  • As to military strategy, although Lincoln and Grant usually agreed on it, Lincoln was in charge and Grant understood that fact and accepted it.
  • As to military tactics, the president generally left Grant free to conduct military operations with tactics of his own choosing.
  • As to the murkier area of military operations, particularly in the East, Lincoln did intervene on several occasions, and Grant generally deferred to the president’s suggestions and responded to his concerns.
  • As to military personnel decisions concerning manpower in the field, their relations were marked by cooperation regarding manpower numbers, recruiting and using black soldiers, and prisoner-of-war exchange policies.
  • As to military personnel decisions regarding the appointment and retention of general officers, Grant recognized and deferred to the president’s political needs while using face-saving organizational changes to accomplish his military goals, and they successfully cooperated on issues relating to promotion, retention and assignment of generals.

In conclusion, these two Westerners employed their critical shared traits and mutual trust to form an effective partnership that resulted in relentless pursuit and destruction of the enemy, effectively used black soldiers, and ultimately proved decisive in the Civil War. Their successful working relationship reached its peak when Lincoln as commander in chief and Grant as general in chief brought the war to a successful conclusion within little more than a year after Grant assumed his new position.

Edward Bonekemper is the author of five books and many published articles on the Civil War. His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, the American Bar Association Journal and the Journal of Afro-American History. Mr. Bonekemper has lectured or served as an adjunct professor of history at Muhlenberg College, George Mason University and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and has made over 250 appearances as a speaker on the Civil War to groups at the Smithsonian Institution, the NYC Military Affairs Symposium, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, as well as to Civil War Roundtables in California, Washington State, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, and all the Mid-Atlantic states from New York to Virginia.

Mr. Bonekemper is a graduate of Yale Law School and was awarded an M.A. in history by Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA and a B.A. in American History by Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA. He worked as a U.S. Government attorney for 34 years for the United States Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation and is now retired. He lives in Willow Street, PA.

Edward Bonekemper’s books are:

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