Over half a century ago, T. Harry Williams wrote an exceptional work with as major theme that the performance of President Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief during the American Civil War positioning him as the true director of the war efforts of Northern armies and the progenitor of the country’s first modern command system. He shows Lincoln to be an able student of military strategy who ramped up quickly, grasped the end game and generally how to reach it, but struggled to find the right executioner of those plans. That he was even more skilled as a politician meant that he functioned superbly as leader in both political and military spheres throughout the conflict.
This is a work about the challenges of leadership set against what Williams calls the first of the “modern total wars.” (3) Williams chronicles the war from Lincoln’s perspective presenting the strengths and, more notably, the many foibles of the men who served the North in senior military positions. Their relative caliber appears to have been directly correlated to the attention Lincoln had to give them. More attention from and scrutiny by Lincoln was thus not a mark of achievement. Williams’ work reflects that relative attention. For example, he begins his discussion of McClellan in Chapter 2 and does not finish with him until Chapter 8 at which point Lincoln finally dismisses McClellan in disgust. (179) Williams takes his readers through the agonizing months Lincoln spent attempting to manage McClellan and his paranoia regarding enemy troop strength and inability to execute when it would put his men in harm’s way or there was the potential to fail. Grant, by contrast to McClellan, received some but not extensive coverage by Williams reflecting Lincoln’s own confidence that Grant could carry forward Lincoln’s strategic aims effectively. Williams concludes that in the waning months of 1864, Lincoln had sufficient trust in Grant to intervene little in the war’s management. That is not to say that Lincoln shrugged off any responsibility in setting strategic direction or in monitoring closely “and sometimes anxiously” the conduct of the war. (336) He was quick to reset direction when required.
Williams’ organization of the book is driven largely by the order of his encounters with senior military leaders. He begins with the infamous but corpulent and declining General Winfield Scott. We are given images of Lincoln chatting by the fire in Scott’s drawing room about daily reports and strategic options. Lincoln begins to reveal his own nascent military strategies and to measure those proposed by the militarist Scott against civilian and political realities. Lincoln also demonstrates an important resolve to make and stand by decisions even if they go against those of senior military advisors. Williams provides illustration of this by pointing to Lincoln’s grasping of the strategic golden nugget within Scott’s Anaconda Plan of control of the Mississippi but Lincoln’s rejection of its execution because it risked a drawn out and uncertain resolution.
Regular army man Irvin McDowell is then tagged by Lincoln to take command of the swelling number of troops in and around Washington, a number that by the summer of 1861 exceeded 30,000 men. Lincoln pushes McDowell, of course, into an offensive movement at Manassas to disastrous results. While the mark against McDowell’s mediocre reputation is severe, Williams allows us to see that Lincoln is willing to bear some of the blame.
The scene is thus set for the summoning of McClellan to Washington. This begins Lincoln’s relationship with “the problem child of the Civil War.” (25) Williams chronicles the early months of McClellan’s experiences in the East, his messianic complex, disrespect for Lincoln and others with whom he had to deal, and the efforts that Lincoln had to make to manage a man who held such promise but failed to deliver. It is clear that Lincoln, to this credit, attempted many different techniques in his efforts to supervise McClellan.
John C. Fremont, McClellan’s peer in the Western Department and a political appointment made by Lincoln himself, proves disastrous in his mismanagement of Missouri and a bitter disappointment. Williams captures well the odd quirks of both Fremont and the Blair family, his patrons, and the lengths to which Lincoln had to go to remove him.
Halleck is portrayed as only marginally effective and jealous enough of Grant’s successes in the field to take credit for them. (61) His self-directed shift to subordinate role as coordinator and communicator between Lincoln and his staff is fascinating.
Other commanders are mentioned primarily for their lack-luster performances including Rosecrans, Buell, Thomas, Banks, and Butler to name a few. Williams’ provides an excellent summary of each man including physical characteristics, approach to command, reputation, and personality traits. He often reveals the quirks or failings that made them less than acceptable as senior command candidates. For example, he describes Benjamin F. Butler as “ingenious, resourceful, and colorful, but …no field general.” (188) Williams’ description of Rosecrans reveals a well researched sum of the man from his “intensified Roman nose” to his “good strategic sense and aggressive instincts.” (186-187) But he is thorough enough to point to Rosecrans weaknesses including a lack of “balance and poise that a great commander should have” which revealed a man unable to “control himself and the situation.” (187)
Clearly apparent in this history is that Lincoln, while climbing a steep learning curve, became an astute war strategist. In fact, Williams contends that the notion of “total war” as a means of destroying the Confederate Army was identified earliest and most enthusiastically as a strategic plank by Lincoln who “saw the big picture” better than most of his commanders and staff. (7) He further asserts that no one in the military leadership of either side had the experience to wage war at the scale that would be America’s Civil War. Both sides shared an equal innocence of the knowledge war making. (4) That said, Lincoln’s performance when viewed against that of Davis is all the more impressive.
Williams points out that Lincoln exhibited many good qualities as a leader. By example, he was not quick to claim credit for the successes of Sherman, even though he would have been justified to do so given the strategic direction he provided. Rather, Lincoln showered praise on men whose efforts were successful. He seemed to simply want vigilance and self-reliance from his commanders, both qualities he saw in Grant. (315)
Williams’ use of primary sources is impressive and adds credibility to his conclusions. Many citations were from actual correspondence or official records of exchanges between Lincoln and his team or Halleck and the field commanders. This depth of research adds much to the work.
At the time of publication, this book was the only one to fully examine Lincoln’s performance as commander in chief and stood as such for many years. Interestingly, in 2009, historian James McPherson visited the same topic and drew much from Williams’ foundation in his work, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. While good, I find it no better and in many ways a rehashing of Williams’ work, one that continues to stand on strong scholarship and goes far toward explaining Lincoln’s brilliance as both politician and military strategist.
Each July we bring out the film Gettysburg and watch it in a couple of sittings. (My husband can’t wait for the four plus hour epic to come out in Blu-ray.)
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s more than a bit hokey here and there but the scene of the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment is always a highlight.
My current reading for class discusses the legacy of bayonet charges from the Mexican War and the debate over the frequency of their use during the American Civil War still goes on. Undebatable is the inspired use of a downhill bayonet charge by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and its standing on the list of well-known actions at Gettysburg.
I’ve been enjoying the perspectives of several ACW bloggers on their top ten books on Gettysburg which Brett over a TOCWOC has nicely organized for us here.
From class reading several weeks ago, I thought I would share a fascinating quote from T. Harry Williams and his 1952 work Lincoln and His Generals discussing the military preparedness of both sides to wage the war between the states.
“All of them were unready for war in 1861, and in that year and even later were not able to furnish field commanders with the technical information or advice or supplies which they were suddenly called on to provide. One of the most ironic examples of American military unreadiness was the spectacle of Northern – and Southern – generals fighting in their own country and not knowing where they were going or how to get there. Before the war the government had collected no topographical information about neighboring countries or even the United States, except for the West. No accurate maps existed. General Henry W. Halleck was running a campaign in the western theater in 1862 with maps he got from a book store.”
By the way, I highly recommend the David Rumsey Map Collection site available here. Outstanding collection of maps and the user interface is superb!
I ran across this excellent photo of Grant’s staff pictured below in City Point, Virginia on the Army Heritage Collection Online site. According to the writing on the matting, included are: 1st Lieut. William McKee Dunn, Jr. (seated left), Lt. Col. E. S. Parker (larger man seated to left of door), and Lt. Col. Theodore Shelton Bowers (standing to right of door). That accounts for only three of the eight men pictured although it’s unclear whether all of the men are in the military. A very similar photo appearing in the book, The Life of General Ely S. Parker, indicates that the building pictured was the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and was taken in 1864 by legendary Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady. (1) This would have been one of 22 log cabins that were built to house Grant and his staff and formed the headquarters on the James River. Originally quartered in tents, as the siege of Petersburg extended and the weather deteriorated, Grant had the cabins erected. His cabin had two rooms, one in the front for carrying on war matters and a room at the rear for his quarters. I am unsure whether this is Grant’s cabin. The town is known today as Hopewell. (2)
William McKee Dunn, Jr.: Undoubtedly the youngest of the men pictured, Dunn joined the army at age 18 as a private and became an aid-de-camp to General Sullivan in March of 1863 and then to Grant in October of the same year. He served with Grant through the rest of the war eventually being promoted to captain. Sources indicate that he had occasional charge of Grant’s son Jesse. (3)
Ely Samuel Parker: A highly educated Seneca Indian, Parker was refused entry to the bar and initially entry to the Union Army because of he was not considered an American citizen. He was trained as an engineer and became friends with Grant prior to the war. Grant brought him to his staff at Vicksburg. On August 30 1864, he was officially appointed as Grant’s private secretary by General Order No. 249. Parker eventually rose to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General. He was frequently referred to as simply “the Indian.” (1) His biography is available on Google Books here.
Theodore. Shelton Bowers: On March 8, 1866, the New York Times reported the horrific death of then General T. S. Bowers in an accident while attempting to jump on to the rail car carrying Grant after the party dropped Grant’s son at West Point. You can read that account here. (4)
His point that the Industrial Revolution had the “immediate consequence of making the Northern generals less inclined to deal out destruction” was an epiphany. So much of what I’ve read until now points to the advantages of the North because of more and better “everything.” That this affluence in war-making capacity contributed to the early lack of engagement of the North’s generals now makes perfect sense.
“They could secure material so easily that they refused to move until they had received more than they needed — after which they were often so heavily laden the could not move.” (Williams, 50 – 51)
Likewise, the “poverty of Southern resources” explains the scrappy nature of the generals of the Confederacy.
The lesson is timeless and as important to business – my field of battle – as the military.
This sample of the telling of the Battle of Corinth…
“[Brigadier General Martin] Green ordered the men forward. ‘With a wild shout,’ the Mississippians leaped across a railroad cut with the rest of the brigade. A command came to charge at the the ‘double-quick.’
It was the last order that could be heard, as at least fifty Federal guns opened fire on them. the trembling thunder of artillery was joined by the shrieking, concussive outbursts of shells and the short, almost muffled spat-spat-spat of Springfield rifles, hammers hitting soft gunpowder, followed by the metallic raking of ramrods. ‘The very atmosphere seemed filled with shot, shell, grape and canister,’ General Green reported.
Suddenly it seemed as if they were in a rainstorm of blood. Horses plunged and caterwauled, and men screamed incoherently. There was something about such a charge that forced the breath from men’s throats, almost reflexively, without their even knowing it. As one Mississippi soldier recorded in his diary, ‘I always said, if I ever went into a charge, I wouldn’t holler. But the very first time I fired off my gun, I hollered as loud as I could, and I hollered every breath until I stopped!” (p. 33)
Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn (Army of West Tennessee) was later court-marshaled for his neglect in taking care of logistical details and forcing his army to march and fight the Battle of Corinth with insufficient water and food. The charges were dropped.
As the creator and first commander of that Army [the Army of the Potomac], he had claims to loyalty which his charisma and the appeal of his Peninsula campaign’s strategy intensified. Even after he had left the command, his position of formal leadership, he continued to exercise great informal influence. This often took the form of the officers of the Army of the Potomac displaying hostility to the secretary of war and an unshakable allegiance to the strategy of the Peninsula campaign. No successor in command could ever displace him as the army’s informal leader, a situation which made it difficult for every subsequent commander and limited the ability of the president ad the general in chief to enjoy any widespread, deep-rooted support.
In like fashion, he suggests that Lee uprooted Johnston’s memory because of the three campaigns he conducted in four months and put Lee in the position of informal and formal leader of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Many of you know that I was pretty excited about my Kindle 2. See all my previous posts on it here. This week, Amazon.com announced that they will release the new Kindle 3 DX this summer which has a larger form factor (9.7-inch diagonal screen). Other key enhancements include the following:
More storage – 3,500 hundred books instead of 1,500 on the Kindle 2
Native PDF reader on board where as the Kindle 2 required conversion
Accelerometer on board which is the technology that causes the screen to move from portrait to landscape when you rotate the device 90 degrees. VERY COOL! I believe Amazon refers to the feature as an “Auto-Rotating Screen.”
The DX using the same electronic-ink technology that prints digitally to the screen and is amazingly readable. Images are even more incredible to view than text. And it uses the super fast Sprint national high-speed (3G) data network that Amazon refers to as Whispernet (at no CHARGE!).
Man I wished I had had this when I was in engineering school. You try carrying a ginormous calculus textbook that covers Calc I, II, and III, physics for engineering book, chemistry, statics, and all the lab books around all over campus in a backpack!
Great for work, school, and pleasure. Highly recommend.
The Founding Fathers are generally considered the most highly regarded Americans in the history of our country; celebrated as the brave and noble group of visionaries who banded together to overthrow the British and bring democracy to the land. Yet what if, contrary to popular belief, these fondly remembered individuals weren’t the great purveyors of freedom for all that we accept them to be?
Taming Democracy devotes much of its pages to the ordinary citizens who protested against the Founding Fathers’ hypocrisy. Common citizens of all back grounds did everything from run for political office to organize political parties and uprisings against what they labeled “united avarice” controlled by “moneyed men.”
It’s worth noting that this book was recipient of the Philip S. Klein Book Prize of the Pennsylvania Historical Association and received Honorable Mention, Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.
Terry Bouton is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and holds a PhD from Duke University. His homepage at the university can be accessed here.