Abraham Lincoln was hardly prepared to be commander-in-chief when the Civil War broke out at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.
Until then, Lincoln’s only military experience was serving in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832. He saw no action.
As president, he had to learn on the job.
Pulitzer Prize winning author and Princeton University professor James M. McPherson detailed Lincoln’s wartime strategy and policies in a talk Tuesday night at the Civil War Roundtable of Atlanta.
“He made mistakes and he learned from them,” said McPherson, who received the group’s Richard B. Harwell Book Award for his 2009 work, “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.”
McPherson, who is best known for "Battle Cry of Freedom," said Lincoln’s policies and military strategy evolved during the bloody conflict.
Unshakeable in his belief of a unified, sovereign nation, Lincoln moved from appeasing border states to making them a vital part of Union success.
Of the war, Lincoln wrote, “It is an issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory."
Lincoln, McPherson argued, knew that war is affected by policy and politicians and is not an autonomous effort. Early in the conflict, he appointed political generals to unify the effort. With a few exceptions, including John Logan, many failed.
By 1862, Lincoln relied on the professional generals. “Military patronage had largely served its purpose,” said McPherson.
Lincoln waited for the proper time to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. At the beginning of the war, he was concerned about the reaction to arming black troops. By 1863, he knew they were essential for success.
McPherson also detailed Lincoln’s frustrations with generals who concentrated more on taking territory than defeating Confederate armies and resources.
He disliked the constant “procrastination” of Army of Potomac commander George B. McClellan, who he later fired. “He [Lincoln] became his own general-in-chief as well as commander-in-chief,” said McPherson.
In Grant and Sherman, Lincoln eventually found the final ingredients for crushing the South. They moved troops quickly and targeted forces, using numerical superiority to earn success. Sherman crushed the Deep South’s infrastructure and will of the people.
Even in frustration, Lincoln’s letters to generals and politicians can are fascinating. In November 1862, Lincoln wrote to Union Gen. Nathanial Banks, frustrated at the general’s preoccupation with having everything in place before moving against the enemy.
“MY DEAR GENERAL BANKS:
Early last week you left me in high hope with your assurance that you would be off with your expedition at the end of that week, or early in this. It is now the end of this, and I have just been overwhelmed and confounded with the sight of a requisition made by you which, I am assured, cannot be filled and got off within an hour short of two months. I enclose you a copy of the requisition, in some hope that it is not genuine -- that you have never seen it. My dear General, this expanding and piling up of impedimenta has been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned….”