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Lincoln at War

The first part of this review dealt with Abraham Lincoln’s gift for collaborating with his cabinet. But a cabinet chosen by a politically canny and well-informed leader will develop its own routine; and in periods of relative tranquillity, a policy can be executed by any of a number of agents. War, which crushes, tears up, and redirects government with a ferocity the most sanguine leaders can never predict, makes for a different kind of test. No routine can be looked for here. The diligence and the capacity for responsive change in a leader are on the line at every moment. The joke sometimes attributed to Lincoln, that if he knew what brand of whiskey Grant used he would send it to his other generals, may be apocryphal but it catches an appropriate mood of gallows humor. The Union’s greatest impediment from the start of the war had been its lack of military competence at the top.

Some fascinating pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals are taken up by the perplexity Lincoln faced in dealing with General George McClellan, the Union general in chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. A West Point patrician with an acquired affection for Southern interests, McClellan was personally indifferent to slavery; yet he went beyond the call of duty in an opposite direction from the abolitionist generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter, who gave their own emancipation orders against Lincoln’s early counsel of restraint. McClellan assured the people of western Virginia—before it joined the Union as a state—that he had no intention of ever disturbing their institutions in any way. He forbade the singing of abolition songs and always gave a ready audience to Peace Democrats. His need for ever-enlarging complements of troops before he would move against the rebel army; his anxiety to mark out secure lines of retreat before plotting an advance; his arrogance and isolation and dilatoriness—all these were a legend in the War Department and in Congress after a year of war. Yet McClellan, handsome, young, already laden with honors, and singled out, as he thought, by destiny, was loved by the Union troops. He was, Lincoln recognized, the best possible organizer of drills and preparations; only he would not fight. McClellan had “the slows.” He was an engineer whose engine was stationary.

All of Lincoln’s wit and all his ingenuity show in his protracted effort to understand this man, to grapple honestly with his weaknesses, to sympathize if possible, and finally to rouse him. “I will hold McClellan’s horse,” he said in the early days when he almost believed the general’s predictions, “if he will only bring us success.” His later messages take a more skeptical turn:

I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?

None of it was made easier by the fact that the radicals in Congress had their own reasons for getting rid of McClellan.

Goodwin catches this secondary drama of the inside war. She also offers glimpses of McClellan’s character from his correspondence with an adoring wife who was spared no boast of his genius and his purity of heart. When Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, ordered the taking of Norfolk and oversaw the action from Fort Monroe, and the first shelling prodded the Confederate troops to decamp, McClellan announced that Norfolk “is in ourpossession…the result of my movements.” The leading marks of his character were self-delusion and hypochondria, middling vices that added up, with perhaps one tinge of baser alloy: “I must not unnecessarily risk my life—for the fate of my army depends upon me & they all know it.” In his mind, he was the inspirational head of the republic, a genius who must secrete himself behind the lines because the country depended on him. His self-conceit was more incorrigible than that of Salmon Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, and his loyalty more questionable.

Admittedly, political intrigue had stripped McClellan of the supporting troops he wanted in 1862; yet his delays were never the result of numbers alone. It was thoroughly in character for him to fix the blame on Stanton for his own failure in the Peninsula campaign, fought from March to July 1862 in southeastern Virginia. He called Stanton “the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew.” True, Stanton was no less political and calculating a man, but he was an able and vigilant secretary of war, and he did his job. Goodwin’s picture of Stanton minding the telegraph through the nights in the War Department makes an unforgettable contrast with McClellan letting the secretary of war and the President cool their heels in his waiting room while he dealt with higher matters.

McClellan considered Lincoln his inferior in class, intellect, military knowledge, and political sophistication, and referred to him as a “gorilla.” Lincoln came to look on McClellan as a man who could not admit failure and would not take responsibility for his actions. What turned him against McClellan irreversibly was the “Harrison’s Landing letter”—named after the headquarters in Virginia where Lincoln paid him a personal visit in July 1862. McClellan there set out to Lincoln the terms on which he would continue to serve. He asked for a limited war, not at all “upon population” and solicitous to protect slaves as property. Lincoln read it silently in the general’s presence, and said he was obliged. The letter confirmed everything he had long suspected; indeed, it confirmed the worst (short of treason) that the radicals had urged against McClellan. Lincoln chose now to appoint Henry W. Halleck as general in chief, a desk job of obscure import that put somebody anyway over McClellan. Meanwhile, to relieve Stanton of the blame for the Peninsula campaign that McClellan ignobly had laid at his door, Lincoln took the blame himself.

There was a last act to be played. For McClellan, though shorn of supreme command, was still relied on to protect the capital and engage the enemy where possible. His final exhibition of “the slows” came with his delay in sending troops to relieve General John Pope at the second battle of Bull Run in Virginia on August 29 and 30, 1862. From that moment, Stanton joined the radicals in accounting McClellan a traitor. He asked Halleck for his opinion of the delay and was told that an order given on August 3 and not followed for weeks, if considered alongside McClellan’s remark that Pope should “get out of his own scrape,” suggested a standard of conduct below military propriety. Even so, Lincoln ordered McClellan to stay on—an apparent failure of nerve that drove a rift between himself and Stanton; yet Lincoln’s gamble paid off when on September 17 McClellan gave the Union a victory at Antietam. The advantage was undercut by McClellan’s usual failure to pursue the enemy; but Lincoln had resolved to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as Lee was driven out of Maryland: that much, at least, was done. On September 22, he read his cabinet the preliminary declaration. “My word is out to these people,” he would say later, referring to the slaves, “and I can’t take it back.” As for McClellan, an explicit order had come from Halleck to “move now while the roads are good,” before the autumn rains, but McClellan declined to move. Lincoln would comment to his secretary John Hay: “I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test. If he let them get away I would remove him. He did so & I relieved him.”

Throughout the McClellan ordeal, one notes an extraordinary deliberateness in Lincoln. The radicals, such as Chase and the abolitionist senator from Ohio, Benjamin Wade, had wanted to oust McClellan early on: with them, emancipation was always an overt goal of the war. Yet McClellan was popular, the other generals in the east were hardly faring better, and Lincoln waited to fire the charismatic officer until he had crossed the line of insubordination. He let him gain a victory first, and used the moment to announce his plan of emancipation. Only when McClellan scuttled a visible chance to end the war did Lincoln let him go. Three generals later, disappointed by Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg, by Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, and by George C. Meade in the unbudging aftermath of Gettysburg, he found in Grant a commander who would fight. The war was to be won, both realized, by a method that had not before been fully understood. Lincoln had done the “awful arithmetic” after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862. The Union forces there crossed the Rappahannock and captured the town itself, but were moved down as they charged the Confederate guns on the opposite hillside, so that Fredericksburg was more a massacre than a defeat: 13,000 Federal casualties against 5,000 Confederate. Calculation showed that if subsequent battles ended in a defeat of the same proportions, the Union still would win, because it had more soldiers to sacrifice.

This knowledge informed Grant’s strategy through 1864. Yet nothing less than the victories of the late summer and autumn of that year, culminating in the capture of Mobile Bay and the fall of Atlanta, could have assured the reelection of Lincoln. He chose not to go on the stump after his second nomination; and from then until his death he spoke only as president, almost a hundred times but with generally “modest remarks,” as Richard Carwardine puts it, “often unscripted.”

On emancipation, Lincoln’s restraint met with greater success than can be imagined for any swifter policy. His tolerance of neutrality on the issue, in turn, led the border states Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to send to the Union army three times the numbers they gave to the Confederacy; and against contrary advice, he endured as well the neutrality of Great Britain under Palmerston, though he was capable of acknowledging in an eloquent letter the boycott of Southern goods by the working men of Manchester: an act, Lincoln said, of “sublime Christian heroism.” The language of that public letter, however, brings up a larger question. Lincoln did evidently believe in the moral sublimity of certain actions. He once wrote a “Meditation on the Divine Will.” And he speaks freely of God in a number of his speeches and letters. What religious beliefs did he hold?

Richard Carwardine—a professor of American history at Oxford whose earlier books dealt with evangelical Christianity—comes to this question armed with much relevant knowledge. His attempt at an answer takes up most of a chapter and several digressions, and the results are only a little tendentious. Thus Carwardine speaks of Lincoln as a churchgoing man: true, if it means he went to church from time to time. John Scripps’s campaign biography of 1860, in the same vein, described Lincoln as “a pew-holder and liberal supporter of the Presbyterian church in Springfield”—a reassuring testimonial that actually says very little.

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