Editor's note: James M.
McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'Battle Cry of
Freedom' amongst other Civil War books spoke at The Western Reserve
Historical Society in April, 2000. This report on McPherson's
talk by then Roundtable President William Vodrey, was
originally published in The Charger in the Fall of that same year.
"No one deserves more credit than
Abraham Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, for the victory of the
United States" in the Civil War, said James M. McPherson. The
Princeton University history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning
author spoke at the Western Reserve Historical Society on April
29, 2000. His topic was "Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief."
James M. McPherson
McPherson believes that, despite
the explosion of scholarship and writing on Lincoln in recent
decades, many have lost sight of the outstanding military skills and
leadership of the 16th President. Only five percent of the text of
Mark E. Neely Jr.'s recent edition of the Abraham Lincoln
Encyclopedia is devoted to military matters; at a recent Gettysburg
conference on Lincoln, none of the dozens of sessions focused on
Lincoln as commander-in-chief. Instead, recent studies of Lincoln
have focused on politics, economics, and slavery.
But McPherson said that virtually
all of Lincoln's distinction arose from war: the Gettysburg Address,
the Emancipation Proclamation, both inaugural addresses, even his
assassination and virtual martyrdom - all stemmed from his role as a
wartime leader. Lincoln himself recognized this, writing to a
friend, "On the progress of our arms, all else chiefly depends." Had
there been no Civil War at all, McPherson said, Lincoln might be
"lost in obscurity with William Henry Harrison and Franklin Pierce."
Had Lincoln actually lost the war, he would have been regarded as a
failure, probably the worst in the history of the presidency.
No one could have predicted
Lincoln's success as a military leader. Jefferson Davis, after all,
was a graduate of West Point, had served with distinction in the
Mexican War, and had been a U.S. senator and a very capable and
innovative secretary of war. Lincoln had been elected a captain of
Illinois volunteers during the Black Hawk War (an election triumph
which gave him more pleasure than any other, he later said), but
admitted that he'd killed more mosquitoes than Indians. He had less
than a year of formal education, and served a single, unremarkable
term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Early in the Civil War, knowing his
own limitations, President Lincoln deferred to Gens. Buell and
Halleck in the west, and Scott and McClellan in the east, but soon
came to see that he had to do more. Early U.S. military policy
reflected the widespread belief that there was a silent majority of
Unionists in the South, and that a limited war would soon bring back
the errant Southern states. But after the early battles, it became
clear that this was wishful thinking. Lincoln underwent a "cram
course in military strategy but didn't have the tunnel vision of
most West Point graduates," McPherson said. Foremost among these was
Gen. George B. McClellan, about whom McPherson had little good to
say. Lincoln had to constantly urge McClellan to attack,
particularly during the Seven Days campaign before the gates of
Richmond, and later for a month after the half-victory at Antietam.
Lincoln found McClellan, as he put it, "an auger too dull to take
Lincoln was an active, hands-on
commander-in-chief, visiting the Army of the Potomac eleven times
during the war, spending over 42 days in the field. Although
self-taught and prone to mistakes early on, Lincoln in time became
"a better strategist than any of his generals," McPherson said.
Lincoln intuitively understood Clausewitz's maxim that war is the
continuation of politics by other means. He shared power with his
generals and, to a lesser degree, with Congress, but still remained
firmly in charge. He ignored Secretary of State William H. Seward's
early power grab, embodied in Seward's April, 1861 letter proposing
that the Secretary act as a quasi-prime minister to guide the
Unionís war effort, and was careful to preserve presidential
prerogatives in fighting the war.
President Lincoln rescinded Gen.
John C. Fremont's western emancipation order in late 1861 to keep
wavering border states in the Union; he did the same with Gen. David
Hunter's emancipation order in early 1862 in the southern Atlantic
coastal regions. However, Lincoln left himself the option of issuing
an emancipation order, as he did when, after Antietam, the political
time was right. The Emancipation Proclamation hinged on his war
powers, and struck a serious blow against slavery under the aegis of
military necessity. Slavery was "the heart of the rebellion,"
Lincoln wrote, and a major bulwark of the Confederate government. He
meant to see it mortally wounded, and in time ended, to win the war.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later described the Emancipation Proclamation
as "the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy," a view with which
When Lincoln brought Grant east in
early 1864, he at last had found a general who not only shared his
views, but would vigorously implement them as battlefield policy.
"Grant is my man, and I am his, for the rest of the war," Lincoln
told a friend. To Grant's critics, he said simply, "I can't spare
this man - he fights." McPherson said one of Lincoln's greatest
contributions to the Northern victory was in simply standing by
Grant when many wanted him fired. At one time or another, many
thought Grant was either "a drunk, a fool, or a butcher," McPherson
said, but "in time virtually the whole country came to share
Lincoln's opinion of Grant."
By June, 1862, the Union held over
50,000 square miles of Confederate territory, but was no closer to
victory than it had been a year before. McPherson said that Lincoln
came to understand that, in modern military terms, the Confederacy
had the advantage of concentration in space (defending a perimeter,
with shorter, internal lines of communication and resupply), so that
the U.S. would have to exploit its advantage of concentration in
time (drawing on its superior resources to attack simultaneously in
several places). He eventually decided that the goal must be to
destroy the Southern economy, morale, and political will, with
Confederate armies the primary target, and not to simply seize land.
"Lincoln grasped that truth sooner than most of his generals,"
In response to an audience question
afterward, McPherson said Gen. George G. Meade didn't do enough in
the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg to win a decisive victory
over Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia,
satisfying himself with forcing Lee and his army from the North.
Meade could have thrown the virtually-unbloodied Sixth Corps against
Lee's battered army, McPherson said. He said he understood Meade's
hesitancy, the general having only been in command of the Army of
the Potomac for a few days at the time he cautiously guided it to
victory over Lee. "But Grant or Sheridan, in Meade's position, would
have done more," McPherson said, and thereby possibly shortened the
war by months or years. (Shelby Foote, it should be noted, disagreed
with McPherson on this point when he spoke from the same podium on
Sept. 13, 2000).
With victory in sight by late 1864,
Lincoln planned to "bind up the nation's wounds" and bring the
seceding states back into the Union as quickly and smoothly as
possible. In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln described the
"mighty scourge of war" and saw God's justice for the nation's
wrongs, primarily the suffering caused by centuries of slavery.
McPherson said that, for the
terrible war and the brief peace over which Abraham Lincoln
presided, he remains deserving of his reputation as one of the
greatest leaders the nation has ever had.