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…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.