Lincoln As Commander In Chief Had The Vision & Courage His Generals Lacked
LINCOLN WITH GENERAL McCLELLAN AT ANTIETAMAlthough he had no military experience, Abraham Lincoln by necessity became one of the most hands-on commanders in chief in American presidential history. The outcome of the Civil War in all likelihood would have been different had he not cajoled, taken over for and in some cases dismissed the generals who lacked his vision and courage.
By the beginning of 1863 -- the pivotal year in the war -- the Union was poised to take the offensive. By the end of the year, the Confederacy was spent and would launch no more major offensives, while Lincoln finally found a commander in whom he could believe.
In the West, the Union Army was preparing to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last major port not already in Union hands, in order to cut the Confederacy in two. In Tennessee, it was preparing to push the rebels out of middle and eastern Tennessee and into Georgia. In the East, after suffering ignominious defeats in 1862, it was preparing to take the war deeper into Virginia.
Yet as promising as the outlook was at the beginning of the year, most of Lincoln's commanders failed to understand -- sometimes willfully so -- that the primary objective was to defeat the Confederates, not merely occupy their territory.
The president had set the stage for the 1863 offensives when he replaced Major General George B. McClellan with Major General Henry W. Halleck as general in chief of the Union Army, but events soon showed that Halleck was not the aggressive commander that Lincoln thought him to be. After the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, Halleck seemed to lose confidence in his generals and himself, and adopted a style of giving suggestions and advice to his subordinates rather than direct orders.
Lincoln came to view Halleck as "little more than a first rate clerk," and he was forced to take a more active role in military matters, adopting the use of the telegraph, then a relatively new innovation, to communicate directly with commanders, sometimes bypassing their superiors.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant replaced Halleck as the head of the Department of Tennessee, but the campaign to capture Vicksburg bogged down when Confederate cavalry raids on Grant's supply lines forced him to cancel the operation and return to Memphis, where he planned a second effort via the Mississippi River.
In northern Virginia, Major General Ambrose Burnside had led the Army of the Potomac, but because of his crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln lost faith in his abilities and replaced him with Major General Joseph Hooker, about whom he also had doubts.
In central Tennessee, Major General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, had forced the Confederates to retreat at Stones River and was poised to begin a campaign to drive them into Georgia, but he got cold feet and refused to advance. This prompted Halleck -- probably at Lincoln's behest -- to send a telegram to Rosecrans and Grant telling them that they were authorized to award a major generalcy to the first commander who could win an "important, decisive victory."
In two acts of subordination that galled Lincoln, Grant ignored the message while Rosecrans let Halleck and the president know that he was insulted by it.
Back in the East, Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac and by April 1863 it was ready to begin offensive operations, but Lincoln -- who kept an especially vigilant eye on the army because of its close proximity to Washington -- said that "I expect the best, but I am prepared for the worst."
Hooker moved at the end of April and because of a series of clever maneuvers, managed to keep the South in the dark about his intentions and got his army across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and well into Virginia without interference. On May 1, his forces met the army commanded by General Robert E. Lee head on in a region known as the Wilderness and over the next three days a tremendous battle was fought.
Although the Confederate forces were outnumbered by a more than 2-1 margin, Hooker's troops were unable to prevail and the general himself was slightly wounded.
Lincoln knew little about the battle until Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, telegraphed the president that Hooker believed "circumstances . . . make it expedient . . . that he should retire from this position to the north bank of the Rappahannock for his defensible position." Despairing at the prospect of another Union defeat, Lincoln exclaimed: "My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!"
While Grant and Hooker were moving, albeit with different results, Rosecrans continued to refuse to engage the enemy in Tennessee.
By the end of May, Lincoln’s patience with Rosecrans was nearly at an end. Not only did he want Tennessee cleared, he also wanted to ensure that the Confederates were prevented from reinforcing the army facing Grant at Vicksburg. Lincoln telegraphed Rosecrans directly, telling him that "I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost."
Rosecrans responded "Dispatch received. I will attend to it," but continued to stall despite a subsequent admonition from Halleck to get a move on. Rosecrans then replied that he and his commanders had a much different view of events than did Washington and believed that it was not advisable to move until the fate of Vicksburg had been decided.
Finally, on June 23, after much prodding by Lincoln and Halleck, Rosecrans began his much-awaited advance southward. During the next two weeks, through efficient movement but little actual combat, he managed to maneuver the Confederate forces completely out of middle Tennessee. But much to Lincoln’s dismay, Rosecrans missed what should have been the real objective of the campaign, the destruction of the enemy, a failure would come back to haunt him.
In the East, Hooker had intended to launch another campaign against Lee, but the brilliant Confederate general moved first and launched his second invasion of the North in less than a year. Lincoln by then also had lost confidence in Hooker. He offered his resignation, and perhaps to the general's surprise, the president immediately accepted it.
Lincoln promoted Major General George G. Meade to replace Hooker and Halleck informed him that he was "free to act as you may deem proper under circumstances as they arise."
The armies commanded by Meade and Lee met near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1 and fought a horrific three-day battle before the Confederates fell back in a major, if incomplete, victory for the Union.
Meanwhile, Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg made steady progress. His main problem was that he faced two separate Confederate armies in Mississippi. Not wanting these two forces to unite, Grant moved his army between them and they surrendered on July 4.
Following Grant's success, Meade came under pressure to finish off Lee's army before it could retreat back across the Potomac River. Yet again Lincoln had little faith that his orders would be obeyed and he became convinced that Meade would allow the enemy to escape unless he was pressured to attack.
"They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight," the president wearily observed.
Lincoln again proved to be right. In a letter that he composed to Meade but never sent, he wrote that "I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape, he was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our recent successes have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely."
While bitterly disappointed, Lincoln was not ready to give up on Meade and decided to "try him farther."
By August, Meade's army had shrunk to two-thirds the strength it had in July. Several thousand troops had been discharged when their enlistments expired, a division was sent to South Carolina for siege operations, and more than 1,500 men were rushed to New York City to put down draft riots.
Lee mounted a minor offensive against Meade, forcing his troops to fall back from the Rappahannock River toward Washington, but Meade checked this movement and eventually pushed southward again, winning a victory at Rappahannock Station. But aside for minor operations, the Army of the Potomac would do nothing more until the spring of 1864.
During the summer of 1863, Rosecrans once again settled into a secure base in Tennessee and began stockpiling supplies for a vague advance sometime in the future. Lincoln, however, wanted action and once again telegrams flew from Washington to Tennessee in an effort to get the overly deliberate general to move.
Rosecran's army finally began advancing on August 16 and pushed Confederate General Braxton Bragg's army into Georgia. But Rosecrans had bitten off more than his army could chew and belatedly realized that it was overextended. Bragg struck back and Rosecrans retreated to Chattanooga where his army then came under siege.
Lincoln privately remarked that Rosecrans was acting "confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head," and ordered 15,000 reinforcements from Meade's army sent by rail. Because of the Union's efficient railroad system, they arrived quickly and relieved the Army of the Cumberland.
By mid-October, Lincoln had decided that big changes were needed.
He gave Grant authority to retain or relieve Rosecrans. Grant chose the latter, replacing him with Major General George H. Thomas. Grant then proceeded to Chattanooga to take personal command. On October 30, the siege finally was broken and Bragg's army was in full retreat.
By the end of 1863, it was clear to Lincoln that in Grant he had found the aggressive commander he had been seeking since the beginning of the war. In March 1864 Lincoln promoted him to lieutenant general, and appointed him general in chief of the Union armies.
From this point on until the end of the war, Lincoln would no longer have to micro-manage his commanders, but had it not been for his hands-on style and ability to master strategy and tactics, the outcome of the Civil War and American history probably would have been very different.
PHOTOGRAPHS (Top to bottom): McClellan, Halleck, Grant, Burnside, Hooker, Rosecrans, Butterfield, Meade, Thomas.