LINCOLN'S GENERALS

Edited by Gabor S. Boritt, October 1994, 256 p., Oxford University, $22

 

The American Civil War. The most significant war in America's history. The war that defined the United States as a nation. Unwilling to allow the South to secede from the Union, Lincoln raised a mighty army and logistical support base to wage war against the Confederacy. Unfortunately, about the only thing Lincoln found lacking for a number of years was a commander to aggressively lead this mighty force.

 

Gabor Boritt's Lincoln’s Generals is a fine collection of essays that focus' on the individual relationship between Lincoln and five of his leading commanders: McClellan, Hooker, Meade, Sherman and Grant. Written by Sears, Neely, Boritt, Fellman and Simon respectively, each essay explores the interaction between Lincoln and these generals.

After reviewing this book, it was interesting to note how far we have come since those trying days as a military subject to relatively arbitrary civilian authority. By our current standards of military conduct, professionalism and doctrine, one could make the case that none of these five officers would be a general officer in today's Army for each created serious problems for his Commander-in-Chief that would not be currently tolerated.  

 

In the spring of 1862, McClellan, as the first commander of the Army of the Potomac, publicly issued without the President's approval a proclamation to the people of western Virginia pledging no interference with slavery. As the third commander of the Army of the Potomac, 'Fighting Joe' Hooker proved to be very outspoken and critical of his superiors and was even so bold as to claim that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Meade, the fourth and final commander of the Army of the Potomac, was less disrespectful and insubordinate but more hesitant to fight. Despite being ordered by the President to attack Lee immediately after his defeat at Gettysburg -- and being absolved of any responsibility should he be defeated -- Meade failed to attack and thus lost the greatest opportunity to bring the war to an end more than a year and a half earlier than it actually did.

 

Lincoln's problems were not just with his Army of the Potomac commanders. In the southwest, Sherman proved to be the most antagonistic and actively insubordinate of them all. The most overtly racist of all Lincoln's generals, Sherman despised American democracy, fantasized about a military dictatorship and felt at the start of the war that "[t]he current war effort was unworthy of him, as were the American people, and he would bide his time."

 

'Unconditional Surrender' Grant, was the fourth, and final, overall commander of the Union armies. Architect of the Union's first major victory at Fort Donelson, Grant accepted overall command from Lincoln in 1864 and began a coordinated strategic assault on the Confederacy. A series of events, though, almost proved to be Grant's undoing. Incompetence and timidity on the part of the Union Army cost the Army of the Potomac its momentum, thus forcing Grant to lay siege to Petersburg. Then, underestimating a Confederate threat to Washington, DC, Grant tardily dispatched troops to man the capital's defenses just in time to prevent an assault on the city. Soon, thereafter, a golden opportunity to carry the fortifications around Petersburg was lost during the Battle of the Crater. Lincoln's concern that Grant had been "McClellanized" led to a personal rebuke from the Commander-in-Chief and actual consideration by Lincoln to relieve Grant of command.

 

As I read this work, two main themes stood out. The first was Lincoln's 'on-the-job' ability to grasp the operational and strategic art of war while attempting to politically survive and maintain the Union's focus of reuniting the country. Fellman, while discussing Sherman, states that Lincoln's attempts during the war "amounted more to demoralizing meddling than to coherent strategizing on Lincoln's part." These essays lead me to believe differently. In terms of grand strategy, Lincoln had a clearer grasp of strategic concepts and offensive necessity than most, if not all, of his commanders. Based upon overwhelming numbers and strength, he envisioned nearly from the start that to successfully prosecute this war, the Union would have to force the Confederacy to fight simultaneously on a number of fronts through a coordinated effort that negated the Confederacy's strength of interior lines. He pressed for the offense -- "I say 'try'; if we never try, we shall never succeed." He understood the nature of war as a function of 'the awful arithmetic' and even understood the aspects of 'the germ theory of disease' before it became an acknowledged theory:

 

· .. if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to the last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone, and peace would be won at a smaller cost of life than it will be if the week of lost battles must be dragged out through yet another year of camps and marches, and of deaths in hospitals rather than upon the field.

 

And while the north nearly panicked when Lee invaded Pennsylvania in June 1863, Lincoln had the vision to see Lee's vulnerability and to predict a great Union victory.

 

Contrary to how I've viewed his five generals from these essays, to judge Lincoln's efforts by today's standards does him a great disservice. In Neely's own words, "By standards of comparison with his international peers, Lincoln performed reasonably well." From the perspective of the 1860's, I believe that is an understatement. Given the young age of the nation and its lack of military skill and tradition relative to that of Great Britain, France, Prussia or Russia, these essays support the contention that Lincoln performed exceptionally well. Boritt's work brings to light more clearly how Lincoln had to strike a fine line between political reality and military practicality when dealing with his generals. To keep all of the warring factions both inside and outside of the federal government focused on the successful prosecution of the war was an exceptionally tremendous feat that may not have been able to be accomplished at that time by anyone other than the federal Commander-in-Chief. The Civil War saw the rebirth of a nation, and its father was Abraham Lincoln.

 

The second theme that struck me as I read was in the form of a question. Why were all of the commanders of the Army of the Potomac so slow to respond or so fearful to engage Robert E. Lee? Were Sherman and Grant so successful because they did not have to face Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia first, as did McClellan, Hooker and Meade? Was Lee a common thread throughout Union command failure? While McClellan's, Hooker's, and Meade's failures are well documented, Fellman and Simon note that Sherman and Grant also had their own personal setbacks on the southwestern front. Sherman's initial command was routed in its first action. Despite this defeat, he was promoted and eventually assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland only to fall into a deep, clinical depression. Relieved of command and sent home in disgrace, Sherman would not have been rehabilitated and reinstated in the Union Army without the efforts and political connections of his wife. Even Grant had his near failure as it took Lincoln's intervention after the battle of Shiloh to prevent Grant's removal from command.

 

If Sherman's and Grant's baptism of fire had been against Lee, would their results have been any different than those of McClellan at Antietam, Hooker at Chancellorsville, or Meade at Gettysburg? Sherman never did face Lee, but as noted, one can see that he had a number of significant failures early in his career even without having engaged the South's greatest commander. Grant, on the other hand, did have an opportunity later in the war to engage Lee. Even with overwhelming combat power, though, Grant still had a number of significant failures against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia -- the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg -- and Lincoln, as mentioned previously, was inclined to relieve him of command based upon a series of poor performances versus Lee.

 

Why then, despite their failures, were Sherman and Grant not relieved? Could it have been that the southwestern front was of secondary importance to the northern press and to the Union capital, in particular, for it was less threatening? Failure then, especially initial failure, as a commander in the southwest may not have been perceived as critical, as the failure of the commander of the Army of the Potomac facing Lee. Thus, unlike their Army of the Potomac peers, southwestern commanders such as Sherman and Grant seem to have had a greater opportunity to gain the experience and personal confidence necessary to be a successful commander.

 

Lincoln's Generals is an excellent addition to one's Civil War library. Carefully researched and documented, each essay provides the reader with a greater understanding of Lincoln and his generals. If there is a shortcoming, it is one of omission. Just bringing these five essays together was not enough. There is a wealth of material available in them to explore further.

Reviewed: May '95

ARMY