James McPherson won a Pulitzer Prize for his Battle Cry of Freedom; The Civil War Era published a decade ago. Nevertheless he admits that he and other Civil War historians have neglected Abraham Lincoln’s role as Commander in Chief of the Union armies. This book is intended to remedy that lacuna.
President Lincoln was rushed into the Commander in Chief’s job. The firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor occurred just as he was assuming office. Not having graduated from West Point; he had to read up on military strategies and tactics.
The anti-bellum American army numbered 16,000; Congress immediately authorized an enlistment of 500,000. That meant a greatly expanded officer corps. Out of patriotism and ambition many of the officer class who had resigned their commissions after the Mexican War reenlisted. There were also many new commissions given out. McPherson notes that one of the difficulties Lincoln faced as Commander in Chief was Congressional interference in the appointment of the army leadership, hence the numerous “political generals.”
The author recounts the coming and going of commanders, particularly in the Army of the Potomac. The longest serving was George McClellan. He had West Point credentials. So for McClellan, everything had to be West-Point-like, battle-ready. He never had enough horses, or men, or provisions. The troops were tired, disorganized, the rains heavy. The moves that Commander in Chief Lincoln proposed were too risky. However McClellan was concerned about the enormous casualties of Civil War battles and this partly explains his caution. McPherson gives McClellan little credit for his accomplishments and agrees with Lincoln that he needed to pursue and defeat Confederate forces rather than occupying territory.
Robert E. Lee had far fewer men and resources and lots of territory to defend. By necessity he was more risk-taking. Lincoln urged his generals to take advantage of Lee’s gambles, his leading the Army of Virginia into Maryland (Antietam) in 1862 and Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) in1863. Antietam was McClellan’s victory; Gettysburg was George Meade’s. But neither general followed up their decisive victories to attack Lee’s extended supply lines.
The ability of Lincoln to look over his general’s shoulders was due to both the proximity of the fighting to Washington and also the telegraphs in the War Office. Those who study the changing nature of warfare always site the telegraph and the more centralized command structure that it allowed. The Union also had a better rail network that allowed rapid deployment of forces and matériel. The Civil War was a war of movement, until the very last few months of the Richmond-Petersburg perimeter. But Lincoln could never get his generals and their armies to move, to continue pressing the retreating enemy.
Early on Lincoln’s war aims were straight-forward. The Confederate states must agree to surrender and then re-enter the United States under Union terms. But after 1863 and his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln added the immediate end of slavery. But the South would never agree to this additional condition. Jefferson Davis’s strategy was to hold out until after the Northern Presidential elections of November 1864 and the possible defeat of Lincoln. General McClellan, the Democratic candidate, was less insistent on emancipation. Lincoln was, however, reelected.
One of Lincoln’s arguments for his Emancipation Proclamation was that he had authorized the recruitment of former slaves into the Union army. Confederates casually executed black prisoners of war if they had been slaves. Lincoln stopped the exchange of prisoners to keep them from being recycled back into the Confederate army but also to obtain a Confederate agreement to treat black soldiers like other prisoners of war. This the Confederacy refused to do, the numbers of prisoners increased rapidly, and hence the tragedy at Andersonville and other prisoner- of-war camps, South and North, in the last years of the war.
McPherson describes the many morale crises plaguing the Union and its armies. There were, however, successes particularly Philip Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 and William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive March to the Sea in the fall of 1864 after the fall of Atlanta. It was from Savannah that Sherman sent to President Lincoln one of the world’s most famous telegrams: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also 25,000 bales of cotton.”
But perhaps the best news of all was Ulysses S. Grant’s generalship. In the spring of 1864, Grant continuously decimated Confederate armies in the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. This relentless giving battle had been the Commander in Chief’s strategy from the beginning.