Lincoln and the Army: A Model Civil-Military Partnership

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Lincoln and the Army: A Model Civil-Military Partnership


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


History is replete with examples of chief executives making important adjustments before determining the best military team to lead the nation's armed forces in time of war. In recent months, historians have remarked on the political sagacity of President Barack Obama borrowing a page from one of his most illustrious predecessors in forming a "team of rivals'' as he begins presidency. As did Abraham Lincoln before him. President Obama has included a number of prominent political adversaries in his administration as he assumes the nation's highest-elected office in the midst of a major war. On the occasion of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the current Commander in Chief might profit by reflecting on the challenges encountered by our 16th President during the Civil War, before he settled on Ulysses S. Grant to serve as the "general in chief" of the Union armies.

In his assessment of the Lincoln presidency. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James M. McPherson states that "Abraham Lincoln was the only President in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war." From the day he took the inaugural oath until his assassination four years later, Lincoln's predominant task was to win the Civil War. Accordingly, he established policy objectives, articulated war aims and searched for a team of commanders, whose principal chore was to develop a military strategy to implement Lincoln's political objectives.

Not surprisingly, Lincoln articulated his intent to crush the armies of the newly formed Confederate States of America. In repeated messages to his army commanders, Lincoln stressed that the destruction of armies, not the capture of cities, was the surest path to winning the war. Finding the right commanders who shared this vision was a more formidable challenge.

The generals best positioned to implement Lincoln's goals during the first year of the conflict were Commanding General of the U.S. Army Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott and his immediate successor, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Scott, the aged veteran of the War of 1812 and the hero of the Mexican-American War, devised the Anaconda Plan to slowly strangle the Confederacy. Maritime strategies by their nature are long-term strategies, and, with enemy armies on the outskirts of the federal capital, Lincoln required a far quicker solution. Following the failure of Union forces at First Manassas /Bull Run in July 1861, Lincoln summoned McClellan, fresh from his victories in western Virginia, and entrusted him with command of the newly formed Army of the Potomac. A few months later, McClellan was appointed general in chief of all Union armies. Despite constant urging from Lincoln, McClellan simply would not fight. Lincoln finally relieved McClellan of command in November 1862 because of the general's inactivity following the Battle of Antietam.

Among the series of commanders of the Army of the Potomac who followed McClellan, including Major Generals Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker and George Meade, Lincoln repeatedly reiterated his desire to seek a decisive engagement over Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Nosthern Virginia. In each case, the military commanders failed to interpret Lincoln's command intent. Burnside initially moved quickly but squandered an opportunity to attack Lee before Lee was able to concentrate his entire force at Fredericksburg, Va. Then Burnside horribly mishandled the Army in a series of ill-fated attacks against Lee's army, which was entrenched in an impregnable position.

Lincoln thought he had found a solution in Hooker, whom he appointed commanding general of the Army of the Potomac despite his personal reservations over Hooker's claim that the country needed a dictator. Lincoln wrote to Hooker: "It was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. . . . What I now ask of you is military success. ... I shall assist you, as far as I can. ... Go forward, and give us victories. …

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