Lincoln As Commander In Chief


In the realm of military strategy and operations, Lincoln initially deferred to Gen.-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. But Scott’s advanced age, poor health, and lack of energy made it clear that he could not run this war. His successor, George B. McClellan, proved an even greater disappointment. Nor did Henry W. Halleck, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker, or William S. Rosecrans measure up to initial expectations. Their shortcomings compelled Lincoln to become in effect his own general in chief during key campaigns. Lincoln sometimes even became involved in operations planning and offered astute suggestions to which his generals should perhaps have paid more heed.


Even after Ulysses S. Grant became general in chief in March 1864, Lincoln maintained a significant degree of strategic oversight—especially concerning events in the Shenandoah Valley during the late summer of 1864. The president did not become directly involved at the tactical level—though he was sorely tempted to do so when George G. Meade failed to attack the Army of Northern Virginia, trapped with its back to the Potomac River after Gettysburg. At all levels of policy, strategy, and operations, however, he was a hands-on commander in chief who persisted through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments to final triumph—and tragedy.


Adapted from Tried by War by James M. McPherson. ©2008. Reprinted

 by arrangement with The Penguin Press.