- Historic Sites
All For The Union
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
Abraham Lincoln understood them only too well. “Destroy the rebel army,” he had told McClellan before the battle, and when the general shrank from doing so, he removed him from command. In “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” one of seven essays included in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and recently published by Oxford University Press ($17.95), James M. McPherson examines Elisha Rhodes’s war from the viewpoint of the man whose national strategy finally won it.
When the fighting began, much fun was made of Lincoln’s ignorance of military matters; he himself had once lampooned it, recalling on the floor of Congress the “charges upon the wild onions … [and the] bloody struggles with the musquetoes” in which he had taken part during the Black Hawk War. Professional soldiers bristled at what they took to be his amateurish meddling, and historians have sometimes criticized his long, stumbling search for a successful commander.
McPherson argues that such studies “are based on too restricted a definition of strategy.” Lincoln’s genius lay not in the details of thrust and counter-thrust on the battlefield but in the subtler realm of politics, of which his mastery is still too little understood. The Civil War was primarily a political struggle. Politics dictated even his choice of commanders; his appointment of generals whose sole qualification was that they were prominent Democrats or Irishmen or Germans may have led to some temporary military reverses, but it also helped guarantee victory in the long run by ensuring that substantial numbers of their otherwise disaffected supporters stuck with the Union.
And it was Lincoln who saw sooner than almost anyone else that the strategy of strictly limited war with which he had begun the struggle—protection of enemy property (including slaves), the seizure of territory rather than the annihilation of armies—would never bring back the rebellious states.
What was needed was what U. S. Grant called “complete conquest,” and to embolden his armies to accomplish that grim goal, Lincoln resolved to “strike at the heart of the rebellion” by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and recruiting blacks for the Army. (Like) a good many white Federals, Elisha Rhodes was appalled at first, then had his mind changed by the new troops’ cool performance under fire. “I have not been much in favor of colored soldiers,” he wrote after one hot day in the Petersburg trenches, but yesterday’s work convinced me that they will fight. So Hurrah for the colored troops!”)
After that, all hope of compromise was gone. Jefferson Davis, Lincoln said, “cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”
To win that victory, Lincoln placed Grant in overall command. “General Grant is a short thick set man and rode his horse like a big of meal,” Elisha Rhodes wrote. “I was a little disappointed in the appearance but I like to look of his eye.” Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Elisha Rhodes was ever disappointed by U. S. Grant once his vast armies began to move.
Rhodes got one more chance to fight in front of the President. Lincoln and his wife were again in attendance outside Petersburg when, on March 25, 1865, Robert E. Lee mounted a desperate assault aimed at lifting the siege. When Fort Stedman fell, the 2d Rhode Island was on the right of the force Grant sent in to take it back. The fighting was savage but decisive. “Our whole line … rushed forward,” Lee had lost another sixteen hundred men. The Union line had held.
Later that day a band of Confederate prisoners watched Lincoln and Grant ride past them toward a divisional review that Lee’s assault had only momentarily postponed. Both men were “seemingly unconcerned … as if nothing had happened,” a prisoner remembered. It was at that moment, he said, that he and his comrades “with one accord agreed that our cause was lost.”
“Well, I have endured this life for nearly four years,” Rhodes wrote five days later, “and I sometimes think that I enjoy it. Great events are to happen in a few days, and I want to be there to see the end. The end of the war will be the end of slavery, and then our land will be ‘The Land of the Free.’”
Thanks to the courage and endurance of Rhodes and his comrades—and to the political skill and implacability of their commander in chief—Appomattox was then just ten days away.