Learning Lincoln On-line

FROM-- SET TWO, CIVIL WAR STUDIES

TopicFifty:  Abraham Lincoln Commanding the War

TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR TOPIC FORTY-EIGHT

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How Lincoln Thought

Lincoln's Cabinet Lincoln's "Higher Moral Ground" Holding the Union Together The Slavery Issue
Lincoln, the War and Congressional Oversight Mr. Lincoln's Generals (Finding a Fighting General) Lincoln Learning and Becoming Commander & Chief Lincoln's Political Leadership (the Issues) Post-War Reconstruction Planning Library of Congress Timeline

CONTENTS FOR TOPIC FIFTY

"RUNNING THE MACHINE"


 

An 1864 cartoon featuring Lincoln, William Fessenden, Edwin Stanton, William Seward and Gideon Welles takes a swing at the Lincoln administration

       The war was a source of constant frustration for the president, and it occupied nearly all of his time. Lincoln had a contentious relationship with General George B. McClellan, who became general-in-chief of all the Union armies in the wake of the embarrassing Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run and after the retirement of Winfield Scott in late 1861. Lincoln wished to take an active part in planning the war strategy despite his inexperience in military affairs. Lincoln's strategic priorities were twofold: first, to ensure that Washington, D.C., was well defended; and second, to conduct an aggressive war effort in hopes of ending the war quickly and appeasing the Northern public and press, who pushed for an offensive war. McClellan, a youthful West Point graduate and railroad executive recalled up to military service, took a more cautious approach. McClellan took several months to plan and execute his Peninsula Campaign, which involved capturing Richmond, Virginia by moving the Army of the Potomac by boat to the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. McClellan's delay irritated Lincoln, as did McClellan's insistence that no troops were needed to defend Washington, D.C. Lincoln insisted on holding some of McClellan's troops to defend the capital, a decision McClellan blamed for the ultimate failure of his Peninsula Campaign.

       McClellan, a lifelong Democrat who was temperamentally conservative, was relieved as general-in-chief after releasing his Harrison's Landing Letter, where he offered unsolicited political advice to Lincoln urging caution in the war effort. McClellan's letter incensed Radical Republicans, who successfully pressured Lincoln to appoint fellow Republican John Pope as head of the new Army of Virginia. Pope complied with Lincoln's strategic desire for the Union to move towards Richmond from the north, thus guarding Washington, D.C. However, Pope was soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run during the summer of 1862, forcing the Army of the Potomac back into the defenses of Washington for a second time. Pope was sent to Minnesota to fight the Sioux.

       Panicked by Confederate General Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland, Lincoln restored McClellan to command of all forces around Washington in time for the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. It was the Union victory in that battle that allowed Lincoln to release his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln relieved McClellan of command shortly after the 1862 midterm elections and appointed Republican Ambrose Burnside to head the Army of the Potomac, who promised to follow through on Lincoln's strategic vision for an aggressive offensive against Lee and Richmond. After Burnside was stunningly defeated at Fredericksburg, Joseph Hooker was given command, despite his idle talk about becoming a military strong man. Hooker was routed by Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and relieved of command early in the subsequent Gettysburg Campaign.

       After the Union victory at Gettysburg, Meade's failure to pursue Lee, and months of inactivity for the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln decided to bring in a western general: General Ulysses S. Grant. He had a solid string of victories in the Western Theater, including Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Earlier, reacting to criticism of Grant, Lincoln was quoted as saying, "I cannot spare this man. He fights". Grant waged his bloody Overland Campaign in 1864, using a strategy of a war of attrition, characterized by high Union losses at battles such as the Wilderness and Cold Harbor but by proportionately higher losses in the Confederate army. Grant's aggressive campaign eventually bottled up Lee in the Siege of Petersburg, took Richmond, and brought the war to a close in the spring of 1865.

       Lincoln authorized Grant to destroy the civilian infrastructure that was keeping the Confederacy alive, hoping thereby to destroy the South's morale and weaken its economic ability to continue the war. This allowed Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan to destroy farms and towns in the Shenandoah Valley, Georgia, and South Carolina. The damage in Sherman's March to the Sea through Georgia totaled in excess of $100 million.

       Lincoln had a star-crossed record as a military leader, possessing a keen understanding of strategic points (such as the Mississippi River and the fortress city of Vicksburg) and the importance of defeating the enemy's army, rather than simply capturing cities. However, he had limited success in motivating his commanders to adopt his strategies, until in late 1863 he found in Grant a man who shared his vision of the war. Only then was he able to insist on using black troops and to bring his vision to reality with a relentless pursuit of coordinated offensives in multiple theaters of war.

       Lincoln showed a keen curiosity with military campaigning during the war. He spent hours at the War Department telegraph office, reading dispatches from his generals on many nights. He frequently visited battle sites and seemed fascinated by watching scenes of war. During Jubal A. Early's raid into Washington, D.C., in 1864, Lincoln had to be told to duck his head to avoid being shot while observing the scenes of battle.

       Contrary to widespread public perception of Lincoln's working habits as a wartime commander in chief, he was actually quite committed to taking leisure time with his family, when possible, during the summer months. Most of such time took place about three miles away from the White House, at the Soldiers' Home. Historian Matthew Pinsker, who authored a recent book on the Lincoln's time spent at the Soldiers' Home writes that "there were probably hundreds who passed through the parlor during the first family's three seasons in residence...there were evenings full of the famous anecdotes and even some sentimental ballads...the Lincoln parlor generally embodied a dignified nineteenth-century ideal." In 2000, the Soldiers' Home campus was designated as a national monument by President Clinton. More recently, a private organization restored the property and opened it to the visiting public.


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