Lincoln As Commander In Chief

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On July 27, 1848, a tall, raw-boned Whig congressman from Illinois rose in the House of Representatives to challenge the Mexican War policies of President James K. Polk. An opponent of what he considered an unjust war, Abraham Lincoln mocked his own meager record as a militia captain who had seen no action in the Black Hawk War of 1832. “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero?” asked Lincoln. “Yes, sir . . . I fought, bled, and came away” after “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many struggles with the musketoes.”

Lincoln might not have indulged his famous sense of humor in this fashion had he known that 13 years later he would become commander in chief in a war that turned out to be 47 times more lethal for American soldiers than that with Mexico. On his way to Washington in February 1861 as president-elect of a disintegrating nation, he spoke far more gravely. He looked back on another war, which had given birth to the nation that now seemed in danger of perishing from the Earth. In a speech to the New Jersey legislature at Trenton, Lincoln recalled the story of George Washington and his tiny army, which had crossed the ice-choked Delaware River in a driving sleet storm on Christmas night of 1776 to surprise the Hessians in Trenton. “There must have been something more than common that those men struggled for,” said the president-elect. “Something even more than National Independence . . . something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world for all time to come. I am exceedingly anxious that the Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made.”

Lincoln faced a steep learning curve as supreme commander in the war that broke out less than two months after he spoke at Trenton. He was also painfully aware that his adversary, Jefferson Davis, was much better prepared. A West Point graduate, Davis had fought bravely as colonel of a Mississippi regiment in Mexico and also served as an excellent secretary of war from 1853 to 1857—while Lincoln’s only military experience was his combat with mosquitoes in 1832. Lincoln possessed a keen analytical mind, however, and a fierce determination to master any subject to which he applied himself, a trait that can be traced to his childhood.

“Among my earliest recollections,” Lincoln told an acquaintance in 1860, “I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand.” He recalled “going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep . . . when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it. . . . This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me.” Later in life he mastered Euclidean geometry on his own for mental exercise. As a largely self-taught lawyer, he further honed these qualities of mind. He was not a quick study but a thorough one.

Several contemporaries testified to the slow but tenacious qualities of Lincoln’s mind. The mercurial editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, noted that Lincoln’s intellect worked “not quickly nor brilliantly, but exhaustively.” Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon sometimes expressed impatience with Lincoln’s deliberate manner of researching or arguing a case, but conceded that his partner “not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fiber of it.” Lincoln also focused intently on a case’s central issue,  refusing to be distracted by secondary questions. Another lawyer noted that Lincoln would concede nonessential points to an opponent in the courtroom, lulling him into complacency. But “by giving away six points and carrying the seventh he carried his case . . . the whole case hanging on the seventh. . . . Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”

As commander in chief, Lincoln sought to master the intricacies of military strategy in the same way that he had tried to penetrate the meaning of mysterious adult conversations as a boy. His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard the president walking back and forth in his bedroom at midnight as he digested books on the science of war. “He gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation,” Hay later wrote. “He read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge and the keen intelligence of his questions.” By 1862 Lincoln’s grasp of strategy and operations was firm enough almost to justify historian T. Harry Williams’s assertion that “Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.”

This encomium is misleading in one respect: Lincoln was not a “natural strategist.” He worked hard to master the subject, just as he had done to become a lawyer. He had to learn the functions of a commander in chief on the job. The Constitution and the course of American history before 1861 did not offer much guidance. Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution states simply: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the States.” But the Constitution nowhere defines the powers of the president as commander in chief.