Tidewater Review - October 2011

Lincoln on War

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Lincoln on War edited by Harold Holzer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 293 pp., $24.95.
Books about Abraham Lincoln probably number in the hundreds – no, make that thousands. I forget the name of the wit who stated that the only books guaranteed to sell are cookbooks, dog books and Lincoln books. For any reader collecting a library devoted to Lincolniana, this new volume is a must-have.
No wonder. Lincoln wrote most of it himself. Historian Holzer chose a brilliant collection of the Civil War’s Commander-in-Chief’s letters and telegrams from his experiences and/or observations during a total of three wars.
His first encounter with military life was in Illinois and was hardly an example of glory. A local uprising of the native American chief Black Hawk stirred up the militia. The years was 1832, Abe was 23 years old and enlisted for a term of 30 days. To his surprise, he was promptly voted into the role of company captain.
He saw no battle, learned nothing about military life that would help him in the future, but his letters reveal that he enjoyed the whole experience. In fact, while his comrades in arms went home after their 30 days, Lincoln re-enlisted twice more with the rank of private.
His second “war story” was simply as a bystander. He railed at what he considered President Polk’s belligerent aggression against Mexico. As time went on, Lincoln gradually agreed with Polk. Andrew Jackson, the hero of that war, was Lincoln’s former political enemy. Jackson was no shrinking violet on the battlefield, a trait that Lincoln found admirable.
An interesting observation emphasized by Holzer is Lincoln’s aptitude for military tactics and strategy. Unlike many of the generals on both sides of the conflict (Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, for example), Lincoln had never studied at West Point. Just as Lincoln’s mastery of the law was largely due to his independent studies, his grasp of military intelligence came from his copious reading. Numerous critics after the war declared him to be a superior military leader, as compared to his generals during the Civil War.
That conflict made Lincoln a keen student of warfare, and he often wrote or telegraphed his officers to suggest a course of action. The advice that is most apparent in these missives is Lincoln’s respect for the officers’ positions. A frequent closing of his letters to them read something like: “This is not an order; as you are on the ground and I am not. I am sure you will choose the best action for success.”
The largest section of the book is devoted to the Civil War years, 1861 through 1865 - obviously the war with which Lincoln is inseparably connected. Like the combatants on both sides, in its early stages he felt certain that the duration of hostilities would be a matter of months, not years.
Confederate states’ victories following their attack on Fort Sumter began a piling-on of the president’s disappointments and worries. As the military losses to the Union continued, the northern states were less and less approving of the course of events.
Not all of his generals fit into their assigned slots and were shifted, praised, cheered on and cajoled to stem the tide. General McClellan was a constant burr under Lincoln’s saddle. Granted, he did a brilliant job of turning raw recruits into a disciplined, well-trained army, but he then refused to take it into battle. Northern newspapers were critical of Lincoln – indeed, they were not uniformly in agreement with the abolitionists either.
In response to a scathing editorial in the New York Tribune that criticized Lincoln’s role as Commander-in-Chief, he replied to its editor, Horace Greeley, with this rebuttal that Holzer describes as his “widely published reply, which has often been quoted over-simplistically to suggest he cared more about Union than freedom.”
“If there be those who would not save the Union unless at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Lincoln wrote, “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
In August of 1862, the Army of the Potomac was still not trouncing The Army of Virginia, and General McClellan was still procrastinating about moving his troops toward Richmond. Out of patience and thoroughly frustrated, Lincoln dismissed him and gave his command to General John Pope.
“In the wake of the Army of the Potomac’s loss under the hapless Pope and the Second Battle of Bull Run,” Holzer writes, “Days later, with few options left, Lincoln reinstated McClellan.”
After this bad news, Lincoln wrote a note to his Assistant Private Secretary, John Hay: “Well John, we are whipped again ... We may as well stop fighting.”
Meanwhile, his critics in Chicago were demanding that he adopt a proclamation of emancipation immediately. Lincoln wrote a long reply, including the terse words: “These are not ... the Days of Miracles.”
All the same, the president wrote a preliminary draft of the slavery issue that gave Confederate slave owners one hundred days to return to the Union and lay down their arms, or else lose their ‘property’ (slaves) forever.
General McClellan had finally won a victory in the Battle of Antietam, the big victory that Lincoln said would give him an opportune time to address the “colored” question.
While Lincoln was grateful for the Antietam victory, he was angry at McClellan for not pursuing Lee’s army when it was on the run. He sent a long letter to the recalcitrant general chiding him for “your over cautiousness.” McClellan’s response was so lame that Lincoln sent him “a brutally frank critique,” Holzer writes.
Lincoln finally relieved McClellan for a second and final time, and named Ambrose E. Burnside to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Sadly, Burnside’s command resulted in a terrific defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862.
In 1863, the tide turned. Lincoln wrote and signed the final Emancipation Proclamation. “Though it applied only to those states in rebellion,” Holzer writes, “and therefore, outside Lincoln’s immediate control, it signalled the transformation of the war from a fight merely to restore the imperfect Union as it was, to a struggle to forge what he would call in his Gettysburg Address ten months later,“A new birth of freedom,” a Union without slavery.
The war was still not one-half over at the start of 1863. “More soldiers on both sides would die in the second half of the war than in the first half. Federal troops on the march began enforcing the proclamation, freeing hundreds of thousands of slaves,” Holzer writes. “And before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, millions of acres of Southern territory were laid in ruin.”
Burnside stumbled in early 1863 and was relieved by General Joseph Hooker. In May, Lee’s army defeated Hooker at Chancellorsville. Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac now had black soldiers, which appalled both the South and many northerners. Lincoln welcomed them but worried about their fate if they were captured by southern troops. His unease came true. Rather than being taken as prisoners of war in the South, they were shot by Confederate soldiers.
Hooker was relieved from his post just before the Battle of Gettysburg and was replaced by General George G. Meade.
Gettysburg seemed like a victorious end of the rebellion, but the war wasn’t over. Still, on July 7, Lincoln was happy to announce to a crowd on the White House lawn that not only was the Gettysburg battle a victory, but General Grant had captured Vicksburg.
In his congratulatory letter to Grant, Lincoln wrote:
“You were right and I was wrong.”
Lincoln also wrote to Meade, a letter he never sent to the general. He remembered chastising McClellan for not pursuing Lee as he fled from the Union victory at Antietam, which seemed to be a fault of Meade after the Gettysburg battle. His letter admonished Meade in the unmailed message: “The misfortune involved in Lee’s escape...”
In November 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery for the fallen soldiers. It is the most famous of all his brilliant, courteous and profound writings during the war.
Sherman continued his sweep through the South, burning Atlanta and devastating crops and plantation houses as he went, winding up at Savannah, where Fort Sumter started the whole wretched war.
(Reviewer’s note: Lincoln had spelled the fort’s name both ways – as Sumter and Sumpter. In quotes from the book I have copied his variants as he used them).
Lincoln won reelection to the presidency, although he feared that he would not. His greatest fear was the election of his rival, McClellan, whom Lincoln was certain would rescind the freedom order. His victory at the polls was decisive.
“The war has come to a close,” Abraham Lincoln said to his wife, Mary, on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 A few hours later, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.
Holzer has done a herculean job of bringing the real Lincoln, not just the icon of school days’ abbreviated teaching, to life in the great man’s words. The choices of quotes reveal the humility as well as the gravity of the national hero who ranks in many scholars’ judgment as equal or superior to George Washington as our greatest leader.
Holzer’s book is a gem to savor for its luster and beauty.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.