Excerpts from Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, Eliot A. Cohen's superb study on the tensions between political and military leaders. Cohen examined how Abraham Lincoln and three other statesmen successfully exercised control over their armed forces during wars that threatened the very existence of their countries:
On 30 April 1864 Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Ulysses S. Grant, his newly selected general in chief, soon to embark on the campaign that would, during a single bloody year, crush the Confederacy:
Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, please with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know. And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.
Like so many of Lincoln's letters, this one has achieved fame for its eloquent simplicity. And like the man himself it is utterly deceptive in that regard, for Lincoln's letters to his generals reflected the workings of a subtle and cunning mind. In studying them, and the man behind them, one sees an example of war leadership that departs very far from the seeming detachment from military details that he promised -- but did not always deliver -- to Grant.* * * * *In an unintentionally patronizing passage, [Lincoln historian] T. Harry Williams says that Lincoln's "strategic thinking was sound and for a rank amateur astonishingly good," but that "he was willing to discard his judgment of what was good strategy and take the opinion of any general whom he considered to be able. He was willing to yield the power to direct strategic operations to any general who could demonstrate that he was competent to frame and execute strategy." This is, in some ways, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations applied to history: a political leader who won a war by defining objectives, mobilizing the public, picking the right leader, and handing the war over to him.
More recent authors have challenged this version of Lincoln's tenure as commander in chief. Indeed, the more closely one examines the record, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the thesis that the problem of high command in the Civil War boiled down to the problem of merely finding a general, as opposed to guiding and directing the one Lincoln found. Hence the need to carefully read these missives -- some powerfully clear, others equally misleading. In this particular case, for example, Lincoln sent this message to Grant only after the general had spent two months in the capital, not far from the president, who must have had some notion of what he was about. Furthermore, within a week of composing this letter disclaiming any wish to know Grant's plans, Lincoln sent a special emissary to report back regularly -- daily, in some cases -- on what Grant was doing.* * * * *Lincoln's qualifications to serve as commander in chief were, on paper, infinitely inferior to those of his antagonist, Jefferson Davis. . . . Few would deny, however, that Lincoln was easier the greater war leader. Davis -- unbending in his attitudes and stiff in his manners -- did not have the reservoirs of humor, of patience, and of sympathy that allowed his opponents to put up with the misbehavior and failures of military commanders. . . .
Lincoln had the art, which he shared with the greatest of all Civil War field commanders, Robert E. Lee, of making use of able but flawed subordinates who could not abide one another. Lee managed to create an efficient team of the fanatical Stonewall Jackson, the dour James Longstreet, the flamboyant J.E.B. Stuart, and others, all united only by a common devotion to their commanding general and the larger cause. Lincoln managed an even more difficult task, harnessing the energies not only of a wide variety of military officers but of his wily and manipulative secretary of state, William Seward, his abrasive secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, and other members of a Cabinet that included his political enemies and rivals as well as his friends. Seward, who had intended to serve as de facto prime minister to the gawky Western president, became instead his most devoted servant; Stanton, who had mocked Lincoln as president -- and in his previous career, treated him shabbily in the legal profession -- became his chosen instrument; Salmon P. Chase, who had his own presidential aspirations, found himself maneuvered from the Cabinet to the Supreme Court, but only after ably managing the finances of the war. It is an easy thing for a politician to find docile, second-rate subordinates who will serve him loyally; it is a far more impressive achievement to mold fractious, ambitious, even disloyal but first-rate subordinates.* * * * *Despite Lincoln's humility he not only tolerated but fostered the ruthlessness needed to wage a total war. His injunction to the dogged Grant in the late summer of 1864 to "hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible," was but one indication of the same resolve that manifested itself in an insistent demand to his commanders that they close with and destroy the enemy. It was manifested as well in General Orders 252, which declared that for every Union soldier executed by the Confederates one rebel prisoner would be killed by the Northerners, and for every Negro Union soldier enslaved, one Southerner would be put to hard labor.
Lincoln brought to war leadership a thoroughly disciplined and educated mind. Though not formally educated, he had mastered not only the texts of his legal profession but Shakespeare and, to a lesser extent, the language of the Bible. A moment's reflection will recall that both are steeped in military knowledge -- of the agonies of warfare, of the character of warriors, and of the choices war leaders must make. He borrowed books from the Library of Congress to learn about war, just how much he read remains a matter of dispute. Unlike many autodidacts, Lincoln had not merely a powerful intellect but an extraordinarily orderly and balanced one. More important yet, it had a quality invaluable to anyone who must lead in difficult circumstances: one of his more important subordinates, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, described it as a mind with the remarkable peculiarity that it had no illusions. "He had no freakish notions that things were so, or might be so, when they were not so. All his thinking and reasoning, all his mind, in short, was based continually upon facts of which, as I said, he saw the essence."
PHOTOS (From the top): Lincoln meets with General McClellan at Antietam; Grant; Davis; Lee; Seward; Stanton; Chase.