Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography

By William E. Gienapp | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
FROM LIMITED WAR TO
REVOLUTION

WARS OFTEN TAKE on a momentum of their own that defeats the purposes of leaders. Throughout 1861, Lincoln had struggled to keep the war against the Confederacy within clearly defined bounds. As part of this limited war strategy, he resisted demands from radicals to make emancipation a Union war aim. “In considering the policy to be adopted for suppressing the insurrection,” he explained in his annual message in December, “I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” But with northern impatience growing, this strategy had to end the war quickly if it was to retain popular support. Thus the Union's 1862 military offensive would be the acid test of the concept of a limited war.

STRATEGY IN WARTIME is two-fold. It combines national strategy (war aims and a nation's political goals) with military strategy (the use of armed forces to achieve these goals). In a democracy, military strategy cannot be separated from politics or public opinion, since the support of the home front is both crucial and, ultimately, voluntary. It is the responsibility of the president to keep these two strategies— national and military—in harmony so that they reinforce one another.

Initially, the Union planned to conduct a limited war that would not fundamentally reshape southern society. Proponents of this strategy, led by Generals George McClellan and Don Carlos Buell, who were both proslavery Democrats, argued plausibly that a harsh, vindictive war would inflame southern resistance and make reunion dif

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