Abraham Lincoln, Commander in Chief, at 200

By Brown, John S. | Army, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln, Commander in Chief, at 200


Brown, John S., Army


February 12th marks the 200th birth- day of Abraham Lincoln. Our revered 16th President assumed office amid cata- strophic civil strife, preserved the Union and died a martyr to this cause. In four years, Lincoln - more so than any single historical figure - defined Americans' conception of their Commander in Chief.

Today we expect our presidents to establish the political and moral legitimacy of force when we choose to use it, to communicate a grand strategic vision and to assert themselves in significant military decisions without displacing the professionals who must work out the details and carry them out. Military inexperience provides reason to seek wise counsel but does not diminish the Commander in Chief's responsibility to fulfill these functions. Lincoln's sole military experience, in the Black Hawk War of 1832, was fleeting and superficial, yet he rose to the tasks required in far more dangerous circumstances 30 years later.

Lincoln called upon his countrymen to fight to preserve the Union. All else was subordinate to this single and singularly defined purpose. Earlier and more thoroughly than most of his generals, he recognized that this effort required total war. Southern leaders, with considerable justification, believed further participation in the Union imperiled a social and economic order they cherished. Their decision to secede was irreversible. Lincoln wisely let them strike the first obvious blow - at Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861 - before mobilizing the outraged nation that remained. Meanwhile, he had been urgently negotiating within the borderline slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky to keep them in the Union.

When war broke out, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and summarily swept 18,000 secessionists within those states into captivity, tipping a political balance that kept them in the Union. This extraordinary act was later repudiated in the court case ex parte Merryman, after the intended effect had already been achieved. In a speech before Congress, Lincoln justified his actions, asking, "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces?" Congress subsequently empowered the suspension of habeas corpus, as ex parte Merryman required.

Slavery was important to Lincoln personally, but subordinate as a war aim. His Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 freed slaves in states in rebellion, not in those that remained loyal. In effect this was economic warfare, encouraging slaves to flee and to cooperate with invading Union armies, undermining the Confederate economy. Lincoln did not shrink from more drastic forms of economic warfare. The devastation inflicted during Sherman's March to the Sea through Georgia in 1864 was in accord with Lincoln's authorization to his generals to target Confederate infrastructure. As costs and battlefield losses mounted, Lincoln affirmed the national purpose and steeled his countrymen for losses yet to come. His iconic 1863 "Gettysburg Address" provides a classic example of establishing political and moral legitimacy. The stakes were no less than ensuring that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In addition to defining the reason to fight, Lincoln developed and communicated a grand strategic vision. Too many of his generals sought to strike a decisive blow in a grand Napoleonic battle. Unfortunately for them, Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson proved considerably more capable in grand Napoleonic maneuver. Lincoln recognized early on that the Confederacy was a major power of continental scope, that it was unlikely to succumb in a single battle, and that the full manpower and industrial might of the Union would have to be brought to bear to defeat it. Even prior to the embarrassing July 1861 debacle at Bull Run, Va., when many Northerners banked on the quick success of 75,000 militiamen called up for three months, Lincoln sought congressional authorization for 400,000 three-year volunteers. …

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