On Lincoln as Commander of Commanders

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Abraham LincolnMackubin Thomas Owen, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, provides one of the best descriptions I’ve found of Lincoln’s approach as a commander of a military at war. He called Lincoln “an activist commander-in-chief who frequently ‘interfered’ with his generals. [Lincoln] intuitively understood that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices, because war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. He realized that what appears to be the case at the outset of the war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means.” (1)

Grant

This was the essence of Lincoln’s genius and ultimate success. He was above all intensely engaged. With that engagement came openness to learning and adaptation. Lincoln also brought objectivity and with it the ability to make fact-based decisions. His capacity for overlooking personal affronts was not only a strength, but a clear differentiator between himself and Jefferson Davis. Owen said well that “Lincoln never let sentiment or his personal opinion of an officer get in the way of his assessment of the officer’s military potential.” (2)

In management vernacular, Lincoln was a “facilitative manager;” that is to say a man who treated his senior commanders somewhat differently based on their respective personalities and the circumstances at hand. If micromanagement was required, as was the case with McClellan, this he did.

Lincoln and McClellan

U.S. Grant

Grant

If he had confidence in a general’s ability to execute a strategy, as was more the case with Grant in the latter half of the war, Lincoln stepped back, never completely but back non-the-less. His skill at facilitative management did not mean that his expectations were not high. Lincoln’s demonstrated decisiveness in releasing generals who did not perform reflected his high standards along with an ability to make tough calls. In my view, he was more than generous in allowing a man time to show his command abilities. The nation needed and Lincoln demanded action and victories and those who delivered rose to the top.
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(1) Mackubin Thomas Owen, “Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime,” Accessed online, December 28, 2009, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200902.owens.lincolnleadershipwartime.html.
(2) Michael Korda, Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, (New York: Eminent Lives, 2004) ), 154.

Informal Leadership and Civil War Command

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I’m reading the second half of Archer Jones’ Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory And Defeat this weekend. He makes an interesting point about the power of informal leadership over formal leadership positing that people find informal leaders just as they create informal organizations. He suggests that George McClellan provides one of the best examples.

McClellancroppedAs 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.

Peninsular Campaign Map

Source: PBS: http://www.pbs.org/civilwar/war/map3.html#

LeecroppedIn 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.

Do you agree with his assessment?

CivilWarCommand&StrategyArcher Jones, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory And Defeat, (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 126.

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Stewards of Civil War Railroads – Part III

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This post completes the series, Stewards of Civil War Railroads. Read Part I here and Part II here.

Group of the Construction Corps U.S. Military Railroads with working tools, etc., Chattanooga, Tennessee

Above: Group of the Construction Corps U.S. Mil. R. Rds., with working tools, etc., Chattanooga, Tennessee
Courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-62364

Millett and Maslowski posit that President Abraham Lincoln did not have Jefferson Davis’ sensitivity about government interference with railroads. The evidence supports the point and also suggests that Davis’ hands-off approach expanded to other areas under his purview including signals and communications. Whether he was afflicted with chronic indecisiveness or was bowing to the perceived whims of a public unreceptive to “big government” is open for discussion but as in many things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Regardless, it is clear that rational military considerations were not the sole concern in shaping the South’s military policies and programs. Had they been so, military needs would have received higher priority and the events of the war may have flowed differently.

Above: Lincoln and McClellan

The impact of the decision making processes in the Lincoln and Davis administrations and the respective Congresses as regards those issues impacting the military is indeed a fascinating one and worthy of continued analysis and review. Clearly the social, economic, and political nuances of the North versus the South had much to do with the directions taken within each section. But one is left to wonder whether the leadership qualities of Lincoln and Davis, including the ability to be decisive, allowed the North to more frequently follow a path guided by rational military reason.

The engine

Above: The engine “Firefly” on a trestle of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
 

service

Lee's Failure to Entrench

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“Lee took longer to learn from his experience that the frontal assault contributed only to attrition without victory than any other field commander in the Civil War.”[i]

Lee

Edward Hagerman covers in detail the practices of the Federal and Confederate armies as it relates to entrenchment. McClellan and his successors employed it masterfully. Lee and his generals came to the practice slowly. Hagerman suggests that the reason may have been that, unlike McClellan, Lee lacked a peer group from the Corps of Engineers in the Army of Northern Virginia. [ii] Lee also graduated from West Point before Dennis Mahan (see post here) arrived to instruct cadets on the benefits and “how to” of entrenchment.

An example, despite having the time and equipment to entrench at Antietam (see photo below), Lee did not. According to Hagerman, “his failure to do so suggests that he may have identified with an extreme tendency in American tactical thought opposing all fortifications on the open field of battle, on the grounds that they made green volunteer troops overcautious and destroyed discipline and the will to fight.” [iii]

Burnside Bridge (below) taken from the Confederate viewpoint on the
west side of Antietam Creek looking east.

Burnside

Likewise at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Lee assumed “a tactical defense where doctrine called for fortification of his front,” Lee again failed to entrench. “He had his troops construct only a few minor earthworks at scattered positions. This despite Antietam and despite the fact that the rifled musket, with its greatly increased range and accuracy, was now in general use in the eastern theater.” [iv]

 

Longstreet (above) finally broke the tactical pattern, not Lee.

“Although he occupied one of the strongest natural positions in the Confederate line, Longstreet ordered ditches, stone walls, and railroad cuts occupied and strengthened with rifle tranches and abatis. The Federal assaults against his positions on Marye’s Heights never got within a hundred yards of the stone wall. Behind the wall were four lines of infantry armed with rifled muskets, supported by sharpshooters in rifle trench, and entrenched artillery that directly covered and enfiladed the wall from the two terraces that rose behind it. Their fire cost the Union troops 3,500 dead to their own loses of 800 men.” [v]

Watching the battle with Longstreet, Lee (finally) ordered fatigue parties to entrench the heights as soon as the fighting stopped. [vi]

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[i, ii] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 123.
[iii] Ibid., 116.
[iv, v, vi] Ibid., 122

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Jomini on the Nature of War – Part VII – Jomini's Impact on Civil War Leadership

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jomini-cropped.jpgThis post continues the series of “Jomini on the Nature of War.” Part I: Introduction is available here, Part II: The Burgeoning Military Theorist here, Part III: The Founder of Modern Strategy here, Part IV: The Basics here, Part V: Lines of Operation here, and Part VI – The Conduct of War here.

Returning to Baron Antoine de Jomini (right), I wanted to explore the extent to which his strategies influenced those who held leadership positions during the American Civil War. A modest survey of the literature revealed some disagreement. 

Historian James L. Morrison, Jr. in his article “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 - 1861,″ pointed out that exposure to Jomini came during “Professor Dennis H. Mahan’s [pictured below] course, Civil and Military Engineering and the Science of War which all First Classmen studied daily.”[i]

Dennis Mahan

Dennis H. Mahan
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

But only nine hours were given to the study of the science of war and Morrison contends that this was entirely too brief an exposure to have had any lasting impact. That said, he acknowledges that some alumni of the military academy studied Jomini thoroughly including Beauregard, Lee, Halleck, and McClellan.

“…The same cannot be said for the great majority of their colleagues who had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to continue their strategic studies after graduation. Probably Sherman was more representative of the typical graduate when he denied that Jomini had affected his thoughts or actions in the war.” [ii]

 I’ll discuss some additional viewpoints in the next post.

A word on Dennis H. Mahan. A military theorist in his own right, Mahan was instrumental in developing the engineering-focused curriculum at West Point. Some may recall that he was the father of naval strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. The elder’s obituary, which appeared on September 17, 1871 in New York Times here, reveals that Professor Mahan committed suicide by jumping in the Hudson River from the deck of the steamboat Mary Powell in such a way that he was hit by the wheel. He was apparently despondant about being forced to retire. A sad end to a remarkable career. Professor Mahan’s memoir is available online here.

Powell Photo
Mary Powell, Queen of the Hudson

[i, ii] James L. Morrison, Jr., “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 – 1861,” Military Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Oct., 1974), pp. 109.

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