Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War

By Michael S. Green | Go to book overview

7
The Paradox of Power:
Republicans and the Military

ON 26 January 1863, with Union armies mired in the winter muck on the Potomac and the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln wrote one of his most famous letters. It followed General Joseph Hooker's appointment to lead the Army of the Potomac. As a corps commander, Hooker had been critical of his superiors, George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside. For this and his anti-slavery views, Hooker won support from congressional radicals who pressured generals, especially McClellan, whose commitment to the party's interlocking causes of freedom, union, and power seemed lacking. When Lincoln chose Hooker to succeed Burnside, he told him, "I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."1

As have most of his writings, Lincoln's letter won attention for literary grace and, in addressing the possibility of dictatorship, for his belief in democracy and civil governance. All of that is correct. It also captures the party's ideology as it concerned the military. While their Democratic and Whig background included generals turned politicians such as Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, and Zachary Taylor, and while their first presidential candidate had been army explorer John C. Frémont, most Republicans feared the military. They saw it as aristocratic and undemocratic, even antidemocratic, and a threat to freedom; sympathetic toward the South and its way of life, and a threat to the Union; and potentially unwilling to accept civilian authority, and a threat to federal power. For Hooker to speak openly enough about dictatorship for Lincoln to have heard about it symbolized, if not necessarily for the general's Republican supporters, the arrogance that the

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