Lincoln in Control


By Stephen Haas


The American Civil War was the world’s first true modern war. Finally, in man’s history,  the size,  accuracy and speed of delivery of weaponry had reached the point where whole populations of people could be devastated. Railroads and steam engines had made it possible to make war much more than a localized event, and telegraph had made it possible to coordinate vast numbers of men over a very large area.

At this, the arrival of the modern age of warfare, the United States was totally unprepared. The army of the United States was quite small, there were only two men who had led large numbers of soldiers in battle, Major General Winfield Scott, and General Wool, both of whom were in their eighties and incapable of leading troops in the field. There were many officers who had participated in the Mexican war of 1848, but this was a small war against a foe that was not a capable component against a European-trained army with modern weapons and tactics.

  1. Harry Williams, in his book “Lincoln Finds a General” describes the rise of President Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest war leaders in American History. From a background completely devoid of military experience, Lincoln learned the military trade quickly enough to begin lecturing his generals on strategy, come up with his own strategic and tactical plans and, eventually, organize one of the world’s first true modern command system, the birth of truly modern warfare. William’s thesis is that Lincoln had a better grasp of strategy than any one of his generals,  and did more than Grant or any of his other general to win the war[i]. He contends that the  command system Lincoln devised was born with the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to the position of commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States during the winter of 1863-1864[ii].

From the first, Lincoln sought to find people who understood his conception of how a war should be fought to lead his armies. His first chief of staff was General Winfield Scott, an aged veteran of the war of 1812 and the Mexican War. Scott was very much wedded in old theories of warfare, and his strategic plan (called, derisively, the “Anaconda Plan”)  called for an encirclement and a slow economic starvation of the Confederacy.  Lincoln had other ideas, and a few days after the Federal defeat at Manassas, in the summer of 1861, Lincoln presented  “Memoranda on Military policy Suggested by the Bull Run Defeat”[iii] to General Scott. This plan was much more far-reaching than the plan previously presented by General Scott,  in that it saw the war in terms of military victory instead of the slow economic starvation of General Scott’s plan.

To prosecute this kind of war, Lincoln needed a general to lead the main army in the East,  a General  who had a winning attitude. Lincoln sought out a General who had some success in West Virginia, General George Brinton McClellan. General McClellan was so impressive in organizing the Eastern army, and General Scott was so obviously unable to perform his duties, due to his health, that Lincoln eventually  replaced General Scott as Lincoln’s chief of staff with General McClellan; McClellan was to coordinate the war throughout the country, and command the main Eastern army at the same time.  McClellan, unfortunately,  also did not have the breadth of conception for which Lincoln was looking . The strategic plan he proposed[iv] was nothing short of fantasy, calling for more troops than the North could raise, putting them in positions where they could not possibly have been supplied, and turning to foreign policy issues with which he should not have been dealing. Tactically, McClellan was also a failure, using intelligence that grossly overestimated the strength of the enemy to justify not attacking the enemy. His final mistake was not aggressively pursuing the Confederate army after its defeat at Antietam, in September of 1862. Lincoln removed McClellan as Commander in Chief of the armies, in March of 1862, and eventually replaced him as field commander  in September 1862

From the time of the removal  of McClellan as supreme commander,  in March of 1862, until July of 1862,  Lincoln did not made an appointment to fill the position of commander in chief, vacated by  McClellan’s dismissal. Lincoln had not yet found the right man for the job and had been excersizing the functions of supreme commander himself.  Lincoln had enough self-confidence to realize, however,  that he was not a military man, and some of the decisions he was forced to make went beyond his expertise. So Lincoln looked around for someone else to function as commander-in-chief. He settled on General Henry Halleck, a general who seemed to have been successful in the West, and had a reputation within military circles for his military writings. Halleck, unfortunately, did not work out either. A timid man, his victories in the West were in fact won by subordinates, chiefly General Ulysses Grant, who had won in spite of General Halleck, not because of him. By late 1862, Halleck had himself reduced his position to that of forwarding Lincoln’s orders to the generals in the field; he refused to take responsibility for decisions himself. Lincoln still found him useful, as Halleck was able to translate Lincoln’s desires in terms that the generals could understand, and serve as effective liaison between Lincoln and the generals. He was not defining policy and running the war, which is what Lincoln was looking for in a Chief of Staff.

Besides his troubles finding an overall army commander, Lincoln was having severe troubles finding aggressive, competent, winning military men to run his armies throughout the country. One consistent criterion for choosing higher army commanders seemed to be success, and he usually chose people who had been successful in the past. At the beginning of the war  this was not too valid a criterion, as there were not too many successes from which to choose. Lincoln started the war by appointing John Fremont to command the Western sector of the country, McClellan’s Western counterpart. Fremont was a well-known Western frontiersman, famous for his many expeditions exploring routes to the West. However,  Fremont could not present Lincoln with a good strategic plan, and could not give Lincoln the military victories for which Lincoln was looking. So Lincoln replaced Fremont with General Henry Halleck,  and appointed General Don Carlos Buell as commander of the Middle section of the country. Halleck seemed to win victories,  and was brought back East to advise Lincoln (see above), though Lincoln probably knew that it was Halleck’s subordinate, Ulysses S. Grant who was actually achieving the victories. Buell did not work out at all. He was slow, and did not win. Lincoln replaced Buell with William Rosecrans,  in October of 1862, while Halleck was effectively replaced by Grant.

The situation at the end of 1862 was this.  General Ambrose Burnsides, General McClellan’s replacement, was in charge of the Army of the Potomac, the main army in the East. General Rosecrans is in charge of the middle department, and General Grant is in charge of the Western department. General Halleck was the commander in chief. On paper, this is exactly what Lincoln wanted and needed, the true, modern command system, one that could effectively control a modern army, with its problems of supply and movement, over large amounts of territory. On paper, Lincoln’s problems were solved.

In reality, Lincoln was to face another year of headaches. The reason was related more to the people than the organization that had grown. General Halleck effectively stopped doing his job as Commander in Chief in August of 1862. Almost none of the army commanders Lincoln had appointed were able to translate the economic and military power of the North into victory. Time after time their timidity led them into defeat by a Southern army that was not as worried about supplies, supply lines and material as the Northern armies were. Thus, Burnsides in the East managed to suffer one of the most lopsided losses suffered by army during the war at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December of 1862. Burnsides’s replacement in the East, Joseph Hooker, started off well, but suffered a defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, in May of 1863. Hooker’s replacement, George Meade managed to defeat the Southern army at Gettysburg in July of 1863, but was too slow to finish the Confederates off during the pursuit, even when the Confederates had their back to the river.

In the West, Rosecrans managed not to lose the Battle of Murfreesboro, in December of 1862. While Lincoln was grateful for the victory,  Rosecrans frittered away the best days of 1863, finally suffering a humiliating defeat at Chickamauga in August of 1863,  almost losing Chattanooga and throwing a scare into the Northern War effort

The only bright spot was in the far West,  where Ulysses S. Grant was successfully campaigning against the Confederates. Given a hard nut to crack, the seizure of the Mississippi river, specifically  capture of the strategic town of Vicksburg, Grant continued in a methodical way to do just that. Lincoln had already noted Grant as one of the generals who was an aggressive winner. Grant was one of the few not to disappoint Lincoln. In July of 1863, Grant presented Lincoln with the city of Vicksburg, in a campaign that has gone down as one of the most brilliant during the war. Lincoln then sent Grant to see what Grant could do about relieving the siege of Chattanooga, caused by Rosecran’s defeat at Chickamauga. Grant moved in, saw what had to be done, and within a month had managed to get supply into the city, relieve the siege and send the Confederates flying in utter rout and defeat. This made Lincoln sit up and take notice. It looked as if Lincoln had finally found the man he needed to prosecute the war. Since Halleck was obviously not the right choice for Commander in Chief, Lincoln proposed to place Ulysses Grant in that position, with the newly resurrected rank of Major General, allowing Grant to outrank all the other generals in the army. Grant was the type of man who could see Lincoln’s broad view of what had to be done to achieve victory in the war. Though Grant’s first plan, presented to Lincoln, did not have the breadth and scope that Lincoln saw, soon Grant and Lincoln were working as a team, and Lincoln felt comfortable enough with Grant to leave the running of the war to him. Finally, Lincoln had his developed command system in place, found them men to run it,  and could continue on to prosecute the war to its end.

One can not argue with William’s thesis that Lincoln understood the way this war should be prosecuted better than any other man. Lincoln was firmly in control of the war effort from the very beginning of the war. There was no one else in the North who had the same vision how to fight a modern war.  The strategy that won the war was purely Lincoln’s,  and Lincoln rejected general after general who proposed much weaker strategies until he found someone in Ulysses Grant who understood what Lincoln understood, and could work with Lincoln’s conception.

One can quibble, however,  and it is only a quibble,  with the basics of William’s thesis that the command structure that won the war was instituted in 1864, when Grant was appointed overall commander of the American armies. Lincoln was aware of the type of structure he needed well before Grant came on the scene. The structure was in place at least as early as the winter of 1862,  and Lincoln was trying to formulate the same structure even earlier. The difference between the command structure of 1862 and 1863 was the man in charge,  Halleck in 1862, Grant in late 1863, and that Grant had the strength of will, the rank and the confidence of the President to make decisions and make the decisions stick. For instance, Grant quickly saw that if he did not personally control the main Eastern army,  the army would never be able to defeat the Confederates.  Also, Grant was able to appoint his capable subordinate General William Sherman to oversee the Western operations, and approve of his plans.

This is not to detract from Lincoln’s accomplishment, or to suggest that the command structure was not important. Without Grant, however, the command structure would have been irrelevant. Though the book is about Lincoln, Williams does downplay the contribution of others to the successful completion of the war.

[i]T. Harry Williams, “Lincoln and His Generals,” pg vii
[ii]ibid, pg 291
[iii]ibid, pg 23
[iv]ibid, pg 30

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