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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.

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Photo of Lt. General Grant's Fascinating Staff at Center Point, Virginia

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Grants Staff

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)

Sources:

1 The life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and Grant’s Military Secretary, Arthur Caswell Parker, (Buffalo, New York: Buffalo Historical Association, 1919).

2 Grant’s Headquarters, a site maintained by the National Park Service accessed on June 28, 2009 here.

3 William McKee Dunn by William Wesley Woolen, (Knickerbocker Press: New York), 93 – 94, accessed online on Google books here, June 28, 2009.

4 “Particulars of the Death of Gen. T. N. Bowers,” New York Times, March 8, 1866, accessed online here, June 28, 2009.