Learning Lincoln On-line


Topic Forty-eight:  Lincoln as a Military Commander






This page goes with Part Five of the "Lincoln Commander & Chief


READ THE N.Y. ARTICLE: "Lincolnís Do-Nothing Generals"


"An Excerpt"

        "The Civil Warís first year was one marked by inactivity and battlefield frustration. There was just one major battle, at Bull Run, and only a handful of minor engagements, most of them semi-guerrilla fighting in and around Missouri.

        Yet as the leading Union generals in the field refused to directly engage Confederate troops, President Lincoln began to display an almost intuitive understanding of the aggressive military strategy that would win the war, a wisdom that would lead him to bring in new generals and push for more aggressive engagements in 1862. How did Lincoln, a lawyer by training with no military background to speak of ó get the nature of the conflict so right, and his seasoned generals get it so wrong?"






1.   The Civil War was a West Point war. Even though the academyís alumni made up a tiny fraction of the Unionís fighting force, West Point graduates dominated the general staff from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.  Given how rapidly and large the two armies grew, the dominance by West Point graduates of the top leadership positions is striking.


2.  In 1860, the Army numbered just over 16,000 men, a quarter of whom would soon resign. No wartime American army had ever exceeded 14,000.  The First Bull Run Battle had 30,000 troops, being the largest U.S. Army ever assembled.


3.  The influence of Napoleonic style campaigns was obvious, their relevance to the Civil War was not.  West Point Military Academy taught mostly math and science.  Any warfare was of the old style European armies (Napoleonic).


4.  A one-time member of the Napoleon Club, McClellan saw the conflict as one with limited objectives, minimal focus on the enemy army and battles never fought far from his supply base. He believed that the war could be won through quick battles and territorial expansion, leaving Southern civilians and property unmolested.

5.  (President Lincoln) had his work cut out for him. When he took office there wasnít just an absent system of command, but there had been no planning whatsoever by the previous administrations for war.   There was no preparatory memos or regular briefings by the top brass awaited him.  Lincoln was ignored.  As the new President, he was placed in a void from his military.

6.  But Lincoln ó whose military experience was limited to a short and uneventful stint in the Black Hawk War ó actively filled the void, soaking up military texts and regularly visiting with advisers, including General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. Scott became a particularly important influence in Lincolnís military education.

7.  Probably the clearest expression of Lincolnís views came in a letter to Buell and Halleck as he prodded the generals to move: ďI state my general idea of this war to be, that we have the greater numbers Ö that we must fail unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time.Ē


8.  Lincoln recognized:  a. The governmentís core policy (total defeat of the rebellion);  b. The size of the conflict (unlimited, across two theaters); c. The Southís keystone center of gravity (its army); and d. the Unionís inherent advantage (manpower and industrial production)


9.  (All Southern factors considered (Pt. #8), Lincoln divined (came up with) a simple strategy:      a.  Directly engaging Southern armies repeatedly; and b. Ignoring the alluring prize of rebel cities in favor of seizing strategic points like railroad hubs and lines of communication.


10.  Lincoln would have preferred his generals to dictate effective military strategy. They couldnít, and he performed well as an unofficial general-in-chief until he was able to find generals who could. In so doing, he supplanted the old army and built a modern force.


As McClellan, Buell and Halleck floundered in the field, the prospect of victory appeared remote in 1861. But just as McClellan began to shape the plans for his doomed Peninsula plan, Ulysses Grant won Forts Henry and Donelson. The great general who shared Lincolnís strategic outlook and understood unlimited war was emerging just as 1862 began.


Highlights from a N.Y. Times Article

Lincolnís Do-Nothing Generals



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