For any modern American military officer, the position and role of the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief is as close to an absolute as one might find in the military profession. No matter what party the president may come from, no matter any officer’s personal views, the Commander-in-Chief receives their automatic respect and they execute the policies of the president to the utmost of their ability. This concept is ingrained in every young officer from the first day they take the oath and wear the uniform. In fact, along with the concept of defending the Constitution, the role of Commander-in-Chief acts as, perhaps, the single most important element underlying the foundation of the American military profession.
Naturally, therefore, anyone serving as Commander-in-Chief is expected to play a critical part in developing and executing American military policy, especially in time of war. That they need and require ready access to the latest information on military actions, strategy, and plans is virtually a fact of life. However, it was not always this way. In 1861, as the nation moved irrevocably to civil war, the concept of the president as Commander-in-Chief was fuzzy, obscure, and, frankly, not even considered terribly relevant to the duties of the military in time of war. To be sure, the basic idea was to be found in the Constitution, but it was not clearly defined. Officers of that era would certainly have agreed that they were subordinate to the civilian authority of the government as symbolized by the president and the secretaries of the War and Navy Departments. However, beyond that, the precise role and integration of the Commander-in-Chief and the entire Executive Branch in war strategy and policy was murky at best.
Within weeks of entering office, Abraham Lincoln found himself and the nation going to war, and going to war with itself. In many ways, based simply on prior experience and education, no man could have been more ill-equipped to act as a wartime Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln’s sole experience in the military was a few weeks in the militia during the Blackhawk War, an episode he often liked to tell humorous stories about. So, how exactly would this man take on the role of Commander-in-Chief? He certainly was not going to don a uniform and lead the army as President Washington had done during the Whiskey Rebellion. He was, however, going to approach it with the same common sense and analytical style he used on hundreds of legal and political issues. He wanted to be informed, to be involved, and, most of all, to learn. As a result, he would play a critical role in developing the strategy that eventually defeated the South, evolve into the role of Commander-in-Chief and, in doing so, he would define it, forever altering the American system of command and the American military culture.
Given the magnitude of this accomplishment and its long-standing impact, it is somewhat surprising that it has received so little study and attention. The first historian to examine Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief was the venerable T. Harry Williams, a professor of history at LSU. In 1952, he authored a ground-breaking book, “Lincoln and His Generals,” which, among other things, would alter the very face of Civil War historiography. For the first time, a historian was not examining a battle, a campaign, or even a general. Rather, he was dissecting the civil-military relationship as it evolved during the Civil War, and demonstrating how much it changed under Lincoln’s leadership. While Williams may have given Lincoln too much credit as a “natural strategist,” his book laid the foundation for what should have been a major area of study related to both Lincoln and the war. However, while Civil War historians have examined this aspect of the war within the community itself, there have been few published works on this subject, and, in fact, it is only in the last two years that there has been any significant work in this area. Perhaps fueled by the approach of the Lincoln Bicentennial and renewed interest in Lincoln, there have been two noteworthy books published on this subject: Geoffrey Perret’s “Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander-in-Chief” and James McPherson’s masterful study, “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.”
Now, let me get back on point and discuss how Lincoln evolved into the nation’s first true Commander-in-Chief. Importantly, this evolution was not one Lincoln set out to achieve. Rather, it was a natural part of his drive to obtain victory over the Confederacy and restore the Union. Therefore, the evolutionary process was certainly neither formal nor precise. In fact, it can be fairly stated that Lincoln groped, sometimes blindly, in the search for a path to victory and restoration of the Union. he studied military matters with the intensity he had always employed when learning about anything he saw as important, whether it was law, politics, or Euclidian geometry. As he learned, he anxiously sought a strategy, a winning approach that would quickly bring victory, and, perhaps more so, a commander who could execute that strategy. As a part of that process and the process of finding the right commander, he also was seeking to establish an effective command relationship with the military.
At first, this was, indeed, a difficult proposition. When the war began, Lincoln requested current military information, regular briefings, immediate access to telegraph reports from the field, and updates on plans and strategies. While we might view that as normal and expected, it was viewed by Lincoln’s military officers as entirely intrusive. To be fair to the officers and the military culture of the time, this view was largely the product of military geography, practicality, and technology. The officers who made up the U.S. Army in the early 1860s were used to conducting their operations in relative obscurity, mostly on the frontier, far from the political leadership in Washington. For them, military operations were planned and executed based upon broad policies and directives from Washington, which were received via written dispatches that often took weeks or months to arrive. Further, many of those in command had fought a war in Mexico as young officers in which their commanding generals, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, conducted major military operations without regular, timely communications from Washington. They planned and developed strategies and defeated another nation’s army with little guidance and almost no direct contact with the civilian leadership of the Polk administration. Therefore, Lincoln’s requests and the relationship he was trying to create seemed entirely unreasonable.
However, unlike the Mexican War or the conflicts with Native American tribes and nations, this war was not being fought two thousand miles away, or even on the distant frontier. It was being fought within miles of Washington D.C. and within days of other American cities and towns, all of which had political officials and members of Congress who wanted to know what the military was doing. Further, the advent of the telegraph and its highly effective use by the U.S. Army, made the information that Lincoln and the political leadership desired readily available. Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that the military would have to deal with direct involvement by the civilian leadership in the conduct of the war.
As Lincoln tried to find the right commander, he was learning much about war and about being Commander-in-Chief. His most unpleasant, trying, but valuable experience came as a result of his relationship with General George B. McClellan. It is no accident that T. Harry Williams devoted six chapters of his book to Lincoln’s troubled relationship with the general called “Little Mac” by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan exemplified the worst of the American military culture of the times. He was arrogant, effete, and patrician. Like others, he saw war as the exclusive domain of the military, to include its politics.
McClellan refused to share plans or communicate intentions to the President unless directly confronted, but, at the same time, he saw fit to lecture the Commander-in-Chief on the political goals he should be pursuing. On more than one occasion, he openly displayed his lack of respect for Lincoln and for his office. McClellan disliked Lincoln, despised abolitionists, and wanted to execute a polite conflict wherein the South would be brought back to the Union via a series of relative wrist slaps. Because he disagreed with the politics of the administration, he saw no reason to devise a strategy based upon them. Further, he created an atmosphere of conspiracy and distrust with the Lincoln administration in which he constantly blamed a lack of resources and support for his defeats in the field.
McClellan taught Lincoln that his commander must execute a strategy designed to the achieve the nation’s war aims and that he, as Commander-in-Chief, must clearly communicate those aims. Further, Lincoln was learning strategy himself and coming to see what it would take to win the war. He began to realize that merely seizing places would not end the war, and that the enemy’s armies must be the targets of the Union’s military forces. Only their destruction would bring victory and restore the Union. So, he had to find a general who would see that fact as well, would focus on achieving Lincoln’s war aims, and who would fight tirelessly to achieve them. Ulysses S. Grant would be that general.
A seemingly ordinary man who had previously failed in a military career, Grant would prove that he was an officer of great determination who possessed both common sense and a remarkable ability to learn from his military successes and failures. He rose to command in the West, demonstrating he was as tenacious as he was innovative. He developed joint operations tactics with the Navy that led to the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson and, later, positioned Union forces to seize the vital city of Vicksburg. Then, in the final campaign to capture that city, Grant executed one of the most brilliant campaigns in military history, moving his army quickly to cut off the city while abandoning his own lines of communication. His actions baffled his opponents and allowed him to take an army of 30,000 Southern troops out of the war.
But, it was through the hard fighting in the West that Grant also came to see that only a complete defeat of the South would bring victory and that only an uncompromising, total war against all the South’s resources would achieve that end. When Lincoln, who had been carefully watching Grant from afar, elevated Grant to the position of General-in-Chief with the rank of Lieutenant General, the process of command system and strategy would be set in place.
While Lincoln and Grant would never see eye-to-eye, they operated effectively as a team. Each appreciated the other’s talents and they strove to accommodate one another. Unlike some of his predecessors, Grant clearly saw his role as carrying out the aims of the government. He would develop and execute the military strategy, while the president provided political direction and policy--the former would seek to achieve the latter. To facilitate communications between himself and the president, Grant chose to assign the former General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, as his Chief of Staff. In this seemingly unlikely arrangement, Grant would command from the field with the Army of the Potomac, while Halleck attended to administrative matters in Washington and, importantly, facilitated communications with Lincoln.
The system worked smoothly for the most part and Grant’s instincts were the correct ones. While Lincoln had never been pleased with Halleck’s approach to the job of General-in-Chief, he did admire his mind and Halleck was able to effectively explain military operations to the president. In turn, Halleck could offer explanations of Lincoln’s desires and his policies to Grant, which would help him understand Washington’s views. Plus, Halleck was able to relieve Grant of many administrative duties, freeing him to focus on military operations in the field. The system was groundbreaking and would establish the model for the American command systems of the future. More than that, however, Lincoln’s interaction with Grant would establish once and for all the relationship between the President of the United States and his military commander.
However, Lincoln would also move the position of Commander-in-Chief beyond those facets directly related to interaction with military commanders and strategy and into the realm of policy based upon the “war powers” inherent to the position. In Lincoln's case, he would use those powers to free millions of Americans via the Emancipation Proclamation. From the outset, Lincoln deepest desire was to end the institution of slavery in the United States. He not only considered it a mandate expressed in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, he also saw it as clearly embodied in what he called the “ancient faith” passed down in the Declaration of Independence. Further, he had long harbored an intense and very personal abhorrence of the practice. But, when the war began and he was urged by abolitionists to simply pick up the pen on his desk and end slavery, Lincoln hesitated.
Alexis de Tocqueville stated that virtually every political question in this nation eventually becomes “a judicial question.” Clearly, as a lawyer, Lincoln was very aware of this fact. As a result, his desire to free the slaves was muted by deep legal concerns. In his first inaugural, he addressed the issue stating that he had no legal grounds to impede or interfere with the South’s peculiar institution, despite his clear and unambiguous record on the issue, which, at that very moment, was tearing the country apart. Lincoln faced a Supreme Court still led by the pro-slavery chief justice, Roger Taney, a southerner who had issued the infamous Dred Scott decision, and the man with whom Lincoln was soon engaged in a legal conflict over the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Lincoln realized that any policy he might issue with regard to emancipation must be capable of withstanding a challenge in the Taney court. However, even early in the war, Lincoln realized there was a potential avenue for emancipation based on the his ability to invoke the Law of War as Commander-in-Chief. At the time of Lincoln's presidency, there was no formal international protocol governing the conduct of warfare, and, thus, the Law of War was a hazy, undefined legal framework based upon nothing more than the concept of the generally accepted behavior of civilized nations. However, in American jurisprudence and policy, the Law of War had solid roots, planted by men like John Quincy Adams, which, on several occasions, had been successfully tested in the Supreme Court, including the court led by Chief Justice Taney. Nevertheless, the Law of War applied only to belligerents and, as the war began, few in the Lincoln administration wished to accord the Confederate States that status, as it might amount to tacit admission that the Southern Confederacy was actually a sovereign state and not a collection of rebellious states who still were legally part of the Union.
Therefore, the path to emancipation via the Law of War was initially blocked by the issue of whether the Union was pursuing a war or a countering a criminal conspiracy. In the meantime, Congress passed a series of Confiscation Acts, which allowed the seizure and use of slaves as “contraband” property. However, these laws punished slave owners more than they offered freedom to slaves. Further, Lincoln wanted to do more than merely seize or deny access to “property.” The South’s status would eventually evolve toward belligerent status simply because the practicalities of executing the war demanded it. The best example of this process was the status of Confederate prisoners of war. As soon as the first battles occurred, Union field commanders asked Lincoln and his War Department what they were to do with captive Confederate soldiers. Were they criminals to be turned over to Federal Marshals, or military prisoners of war to be treated according to strict army regulations covering that status? Practicality quickly dictated the latter course, with proactive, enterprising Union officers having already made such moves before official policy was finally issued. Before long, the official system of paroles and exchanges between the Federal authorities and the Confederate government was in place. Combined with a host of other issues, this led to the South’s treatment as a belligerent.
Therefore, with the South’s treatment as a belligerent, Lincoln moved to craft a proclamation emancipating the slaves in a legal context based on the Law of War. Lincoln would create a document that served as a weapon of war employed by the Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln’s basis was that the Constitution “invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war in time of war,” a principle that even the Chief Justice Taney had previously recognized. As such, Lincoln could invoke all means to prosecute the war, short of those universally recognized as being cruel or inhumane. Therefore, he could emancipate the slaves held in the South, denying his enemy a valuable resource, and also allowing those now freed the opportunity to fight their oppressors, There was no emphasis on the slaves as property, but, rather, there was now a vision of them as an oppressed people for whom the war offered a chance, as Lincoln wrote, to be “forever free.” At the same time, by articulating the proclamation as both a strategic weapon of war and a national war aim, Lincoln was acting well within the boundaries of his constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief.
It was a visionary tactic with implications that even Lincoln probably did not see, as the eventual product of the proclamation went beyond the Civil War and freedom for only Americans. Once the proclamation was in place, under the leadership of Dr Francis Lieber of Columbia College, the U.S. Army adopted General Order 100 in 1863. This order, in essence, stated it was now the codified Law of War within the U.S. Army that American military force would be used to liberate slaves and place such persons under their protection wherever they might operate. This far-reaching policy would continue as Army guidance on the Law of War well into the twentieth century. As one historian has noted, “Now freedom would follow the flag.” Therefore, Lincoln’s use of war powers as Commander-in-Chief did far more than free Americans in slavery--future tenets of American foreign policy would be built upon its foundation and freeing the oppressed would become a legitimate American policy objective.
There is, however, one more aspect of Lincoln’s performance as Commander-in-Chief that I believe bears mentioning, and it is one that, perhaps, few of his successors have shared. One has to only look at Lincoln’s wartime portraits, at the deep lines and furrows on his face, to see that he carried the suffering caused by the war on his shoulders, and he probably felt that it was his duty as Commander-in-Chief to do so. He never shielded himself from the pain and tragedy the war produced. Lincoln felt that the nation, as symbolized in the president, owed its soldiers and their families as much as the soldier gave to his country. Therefore, he was constantly visiting the wounded, not only in the many military hospitals operating in Washington DC, but also whenever he journeyed to the field to hold discussions with his commanders. He would offer these men his humor, his quiet reassurances, and his courage. His closest advisors wished that he would spare himself the emotional weight brought on by seeing first-hand the price the war was exacting in mangled limbs and broken spirits. But, what they did not understand about Lincoln was that, first, he saw this as simply the right thing to do and a moral obligation. Second, however, they also could not foresee that, rather than weakening his resolve as Commander-in-Chief, taking on this pain and suffering actually steeled Lincoln to finish the war, and to not only achieve victory and restoration of the Union, but to also find “a new birth of freedom.”