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Lincoln As Commander In Chief
Even though he had no military training, Lincoln quickly rose to become one of America’s most talented commanders
Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
Nor did the precedents created by Presidents Madison and Polk in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War provide Lincoln with much guidance in a far greater conflict that combined the most dangerous aspects of an internal war and a war against another nation. In a case arising from the Mexican War, the Supreme Court ruled that the president as commander in chief was authorized to employ the Army and Navy “in the manner he may deem most effectual to harass and conquer and subdue the enemy.” But the Court wisely did not set out to define “most effectual” and seemed to limit the president’s power by stating that it must be confined to “purely military matters.”
The vagueness of these definitions and precedents meant that Lincoln would have to establish most of his war-making powers for himself. He proved to be a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president, performing or overseeing five wartime functions, in diminishing order of personal involvement: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics.
As president and leader of his party as well as commander in chief, Lincoln was principally responsible for shaping and defining policy. From first to last that policy was to preserve the United States as one nation, indivisible, and as a republic based on majority rule. In May 1861 Lincoln explained that “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the majority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.” Secession “is the essence of anarchy,” he said on another occasion, for if one state may secede at will, so may any other until there is no government and no nation. In the Gettysburg Address, he offered his most eloquent statement of policy: the war was a test whether the nation conceived in 1776 “might live” or would “perish from the earth.” The question of national sovereignty over a union of all the states was nonnegotiable. No compromise between a sovereign United States and a separately sovereign Confederacy was possible. This issue “is distinct, simple, and inflexible,” he said in 1864. “It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”
Lincoln’s frequent statements of this policy were themselves distinct and inflexible. And policy was closely tied to national strategy. Indeed, in a civil war, whose origins lay in a political conflict over the future of slavery and a political decision by certain states to secede, policy could never be separated from national strategy. The president shared with Congress and key cabinet members the tasks of raising, organizing, and sustaining an army and navy, preventing foreign intervention, and maintaining public support for the war—all of which depended on his people’s identification with the purpose for which the war was fought. And neither policy nor national strategy could be separated from military strategy.
Some professional Army officers did in fact tend to think of war as “something autonomous,” and they deplored the intrusion of politics into military matters. Soon after he came to Washington as general in chief in August 1862, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck began complaining (privately) about “political wire-pulling in military appointments. . . . I have done everything in my power here to separate military appointments and commands from politics, but really the task is hopeless.” If the “incompetent and corrupt politicians,” he told another general, “would only follow the example of their ancestors, enter a herd of swine, run down some steep bank and drown themselves in the sea, there would be some hope of saving the country.”
But Lincoln could never ignore the political context in which decisions about military strategy were made. Like French premier Georges Clemenceau a half-century later, he knew that war was too important to be left to the generals. In a highly politicized and democratic society where the mobilization of a volunteer army was channeled through state governments, political considerations inevitably shaped the scope and timing of strategy and even of operations. As leader of the party that controlled Congress and most state governments, Lincoln as commander in chief constantly had to juggle the complex interplay of policy with national and military strategy.
The slavery issue exemplified this interplay. The goal of preserving the Union united the Northern people, including border-state Unionists. The issue of slavery and emancipation divided them. To maintain maximum support, Lincoln initially insisted that the contest was solely for preservation of the Union and not a war against slavery. This policy required both a national and a military strategy of leaving slavery alone. But the slaves refused to cooperate, confronting the administration with the problem of what to do with the thousands of “contrabands” who came within Union lines. As it became increasingly clear that slave labor sustained the Confederate economy and the logistics of the Confederate armies, Northern opinion moved toward the idea of making war upon slavery also. By 1862 a national and military strategy that targeted enemy resources—including slavery—emerged as a key weapon in the Union arsenal. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Republican commitment to a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, the policy of war for Union and freedom came into harmony with the national and military strategies of striking against the vital Confederate resource of slave labor. Lincoln’s skillful management of this contentious process was a crucial part of his leadership in the war.