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Lincoln’s Impact on Military Operations

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, a color lithograph by Currier & Ives; (SCALA/Art Resource)

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln and McClellan

In class, we’ve been discussing how the decisions of the two commanders-in-chief during the American Civil War impacted events at the operational level. Modern scholars have challenged the notion that Lincoln simply stayed involved in military details until he found the right general (Grant). Eliot Cohen posits that’s “Lincoln exercised a constant oversight of the war effort from beginning to end.”(1) This intense interest in providing direction can be seen as early as the events surrounding the attack on Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s order of the nonviolent resupply of the fort, which caused the Confederates to fire the first shot and thus initiate the war, demonstrates Lincoln’s willingness to go against the advice of senior commanders. Equally important, it showed his considerable ability at playing the game of strategy. Cohen summed it up well by calling Lincoln’s move “characteristically cunning” and revealing of “a steely willingness to accept the hazards of war.”(2)

Lincoln continued to immerse himself in operational details, stepping back only to a degree when General Grant became General-in-chief but certainly not completely. Lincoln carefully reviewed dispatches and, as has been well documented, literally camped in the telegraph office during battles. In fact, he qualified as a micro-manager to some degree. As such, one of the ways in which his leadership impacted operation was by his dismissal of generals who didn’t perform. “By comparison with our recent presidents, Lincoln was an exceptionally unforgiving boss.”(3) He also took considerable personal interest in the technological advancements that took place prior to and during the war. His personal influence could make things happen as it did with the development of river canon, which helped to win control by the Union of the Mississippi River and southern ports.

General Grant

C. A. Dana

Lincoln was so intent upon staying informed of field activities that he installed journalist Charles Dana as, effectively, a spy in Grant’s camp while he was assigned in the west. Dana, who even had his own cipher for sending reports back to Stanton, was also dispatched to observe and report back on the command abilities of General Rosecrans. Lincoln put Dana back in Grant’s camp later in the war even after Grant had demonstrated success and earned Lincoln’s trust. This fact further dispels the notion that Lincoln simply turned over the war’s higher direction to Grant.(4) In fact, Cohen posits that “Lincoln did not merely find his generals; he controlled them. He molded the war to its last days, and he intended to dominate the making of peace at its end.” (5)

(1)  Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, (London: Free Press, 2002), 19.
(2)  Ibid., 20.
(3)  Ibid., 24.
(4)  Ibid., 51.
(5)  Ibid., 21.