Posted: February 3, 2005
emocratic governance is difficult under any circumstances, but never more so than in wartime. President George W. Bush confronts this reality in our war against radical Islamic terrorists. But President Bush has it easy compared to Abraham Lincoln, who, as Geoffrey Perret reminds us in Lincoln's War, had more or less to define the president's war power. Unlike his successors, Lincoln had no reliable precedents to guide him.
As president, Lincoln employed broad emergency powers that he argued the Constitution had vested in the executive branch. He called out the militia, authorized increases in the size of the regular army and navy, expended funds for military purchases, deployed military forces, blockaded Southern ports, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in certain areas, authorized arbitrary arrests, and empanelled military tribunals to try civilians in occupied or contested areas. Moreover, he took these steps without congressional authorization, although he subsequently explained his action to Congress once it convened in July 1861. Later he authorized conscription and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. All the while, Lincoln contributed to the development of Union war strategy and took the lead in finding the generals to implement it.
Surprisingly, Lincoln's War is the first book to examine Lincoln's overall performance as commander-in-chief (James McPherson is rumored to be at work on the topic as well). One reason for this is that the Lost Cause interpretation, which believes Lincoln's contribution to Union victory was minimal given the relative power of the North, has long dominated Civil War historiography.
A variation of this view holds that Lincoln's main contribution to Union victory was to find the right general—Ulysses S. Grant (see, for example, Kenneth P. Williams's five-volume Lincoln Finds a General, and T. Harry Williams's Lincoln and His Generals). But Perret, an award-winning presidential biographer and military historian, demonstrates that Lincoln went far beyond choosing generals. He skillfully managed his cabinet, his generals, and even Congress, where he had to maintain a working majority if the war was to be won. He did not hesitate to overrule his advisers, both military and civilian. And recently, historians have come to acknowledge that the Union's material advantage was not sufficient in itself to ensure victory. Lincoln still had to make the decisions that translated this advantage into military and political success.
Overall, Perret does a fairly good job of telling Lincoln's story as war president. Unfortunately, however, Lincoln's War is deeply flawed, marred in the first place by numerous factual errors, large and small. For example, Perret has John Bell Hood commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee during Sherman's advance on Atlanta. In fact, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston commanded that army until Atlanta was nearly taken, at which point he was relieved by Hood. Perret has the Union forces under George Thomas attacking during the battle of Franklin and destroying Hood's army. In fact, at Franklin, Hood attacked a Union force under Maj. Gen. John Schofield and was bloodily repulsed. It was at Nashville some two weeks later that Thomas attacked and destroyed Hood's army.
These are the sort of small errors that call into question an author's judgments concerning larger issues of policy and strategy. For instance, Perret repeats the old canard that Lincoln was obsessed by the need to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, rather than to defeat the Confederate armies. But the evidence suggests the reverse. To put it in Clausewitz's terms, Lincoln understood that the rebel armies, not territory or the Confederate capital, constituted the Confederacy's "center of gravity." To break the back of the rebellion, it was necessary to crush the rebel armies. "I think Lee's army and not Richmond, is your true objective point," Lincoln wrote in a telegraph to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as the Gettysburg campaign was beginning. Perret cites this, but as an anomaly; in truth, the president expressed the same sentiment on numerous occasions to his other commanders, including Henry Halleck, George McClellan, George Meade, and George Thomas. Though Lincoln had little in the way of traditional military education, he was a quick learner and possessed an intuitive grasp of the strategy needed to defeat the Confederacy, namely, the simultaneous application of military force at multiple points. In his memoirs, Grant recalled that when he outlined the strategy to Lincoln, the president replied, "Oh, yes! I see that. As we say out West, if a man can't skin he must hold a leg while somebody else does."
* * *
Perret's biggest failure, though, is his discussion of emancipation, which he never fully integrates into his narrative of political-military strategy. The fact is Lincoln understood that emancipation was important because it struck not only at the war-making potential of the Confederacy but also at the heart of the Southern social system. However, Lincoln had to tread carefully for political reasons, because although emancipation was welcomed by abolitionists and their radical Republican allies in Congress, it was denounced by conservative Democrats in the North and loyal slaveholders in the slave states remaining in the Union. Lincoln needed both groups if he was to prosecute the war successfully.
In his magnificent Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Allen Guelzo argued persuasively that Lincoln planned to pursue a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation from the outset of his presidency. Even after the war began, Lincoln believed that he could undermine the Confederacy by getting the loyal slave states to agree to compensated emancipation. He reasoned that this step, combined with success on the battlefield, might lead to the collapse of the rebellion, which had staked its hopes on spreading to the so-called Border States.
But neither condition came to pass. The Border States rejected Lincoln's proposals for compensated emancipation, and the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George McClellan retreated from Richmond after coming close to capturing it. Lincoln concluded that something stronger and more precipitate was needed to bring the war to a successful conclusion, despite the risks of affronting the War Democrats and the Border States. The time had come, he wrote to Cuthbert Bullitt, to stop waging war "with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose-water." Thus, after Lee's invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, that gave the Confederates one hundred days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation.
Democrats, Southern Unionists, and loyal slaveholders charged that Lincoln was "revolutionizing" the war by issuing his proclamation. Lincoln did not disagree, admitting that once the proclamation took effect, "the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination." But, as he wrote to another correspondent, "This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt."
The stronger medicine represented by the Emancipation Proclamation was necessary because the Confederacy was then exerting its maximum effort to mobilize its population for war. To the extent that slaves came under control of Union forces, they could be substituted for soldiers who were required to labor, freeing them up to fight. Thus emancipation had the effect of transferring labor from South to North, increasing the Union's fighting potential while decreasing that of the Confederate armies. Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, recalled that the president called emancipation "a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us."
Militarily, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way to the next logical step in this process of weakening the South while strengthening the North: enrolling blacks as soldiers in the Union army. The manpower boon to the Union would be substantial. Some 180,000 black soldiers eventually served in the Union army. They constituted 120 infantry regiments, twelve regiments of heavy artillery, ten batteries of light artillery, and seven cavalry regiments. At the end of the war, they constituted 12% of the Union's military manpower.
Perret does not seem to grasp how much of a risk Lincoln took by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. It was foremost a political gamble. Those who argue that Lincoln was only "waiting for the right time" to issue it must confront the fact that because of his action, the Republicans paid an enormous price in the 1862 elections. Lincoln put the most highly charged issue of the war before the voters in the midst of the Civil War. Votes for Republicans fell by 16% from 1860. The GOP suffered disastrous setbacks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey.
Emancipation also raised the specter of a military coup. Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union's main army in the east, disagreed with many of Lincoln's policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight—one that would end in a negotiated peace—rather than the one his commander-in-chief wanted him to fight. The behavior of McClellan and his subordinates led Lincoln to conclude that emancipation might trigger an attempt by them to take over the government.
I have long refused to believe the charge leveled by the radical Republicans that McClellan's lack of aggressiveness was the result of a near-treasonous sympathy for the South. But now I am not so sure. There is no question that McClellan's language was often intemperate. McClellan wrote his wife that "I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!" He also wrote her about the possibility of a "coup" after which "everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet."
Nor did McClellan limit the expression of such sentiments to private correspondence with his wife. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put "his sword across the government's policy." McClellan's quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs, expressed concern about "officers of rank" in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of "a march on Washington to 'clear out those fellows.'"
Lincoln understood that he had to take action to remind the army of his constitutional role. He did so after learning that Maj. John Key, aide-de-camp to general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of McClellan's personal aide, had, in response to a query from a brother officer as to "why...the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam]," replied "that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery."
Lincoln dismissed Key from the service, despite pleas for leniency (and the fact that Key's son had been killed at Perryville), writing that "it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is...proved to have done." He remarked "that if there was a 'game' ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game." Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself.
* * *
An antidote to Perret's unsatisfactory treatment of the constitutional issues arising from the war is Daniel Farber'sLincoln's Constitution. As Farber, the Sho Sato Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the McKnight Presidential Professor of Public Law at the University of Minnesota, observes, "to call the Civil War a constitutional crisis is almost a misuse of words, like calling Pearl Harbor a military setback. In the Civil War, the Constitution was placed under pressure that it had never seen before and has not seen since.... [T]he Civil War experience illuminates the deepest, most critical constitutional issues," including the "nature of the Union and the states, the breadth of the president's independent power to pursue the national interest, the scope of civil liberties during national emergencies, and the collision between the imperatives of national survival and the rule of law."
The first half of Lincoln's Constitution deals with the rights and wrongs of secession, a subject that Perret does not treat at all. Looking back to James Madison and earlier debates about the relationship between the states and the Union, Farber vindicates Lincoln's theory of the Union: there was no constitutional right to secession.
Of course, the most controversial element of Lincoln's war presidency is his treatment of civil liberties. Even many defenders of Lincoln argue that he overstepped constitutional bounds by declaring martial law, arbitrarily arresting civilians and trying them by military tribunal, and shutting down opposition newspapers. After the war, the Supreme Court criticized many of these measures in Ex parte Milligan.
Farber rejects this view. Indeed, he is sympathetic to Lincoln's response to some War Democrats in 1863. In a letter to Erastus Corning, Lincoln observed that the Constitution is a remarkable document, but it is not the same document during war that it is during peace.
I can no more be persuaded that the Government can constitutionally take no strong measures in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not lawfully be taken in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good for a well one. Nor am I able to appreciate the danger apprehended by the meeting [of the New York Democrats] that the American people will, by means of military arrest during the Rebellion, lose the right of Public Discussion, the Liberty of Speech and the Press, the Law of Evidence, Trial by Jury, and Habeas Corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future, which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness as to persist in feeding upon them during the remainder of his healthful life.
What can we conclude about Abraham Lincoln as a war president? First and foremost, that he saved the Union. It is hard to imagine that anyone else among his contemporaries could have done what he did. Many were willing to let the Union go to pieces. Who knows how many "confederacies" there would now be on the North American continent had the view of James Buchanan or the Peace Democrats prevailed? Who knows when slavery would have ended? Who knows what would have become of a world without a United States to oppose both the Nazis and the Communists?
Many others, spurred by the fiery purity of the abolitionists, would have pursued policies that lacked any element of consent. As Lincoln remarked on numerous occasions, public sentiment is critically important in a republic. In the absence of public sentiment, legislators cannot pass laws and presidents cannot execute them. Lincoln could have avoided war by making another of the base concessions that politicians had been making for several decades. But that would only have postponed the day of decision, making it unlikely that republican government could survive in North America; and insofar as the United States was the "last, best hope of earth," making it unlikely that republican government could surviveanywhere.
Lincoln set a high standard for leadership in time of war. He called forth the resources of the nation, he appointed the agents of victory, both civilian and military, he set the strategy, he took the necessary steps to restrain those who would cooperate with the disunionists, and he provided a rhetoric that stirred the people. Yet he did these things within a constitutional framework.
At a time when the United States once again faces an adversary intent on nothing less than its destruction, President Bush may correctly take his bearings from Lincoln, whose war presidency teaches us how much may be required of the statesman whose duty is "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."