So — a Lincoln saga as yet untold. No mean trick if you can pull it off, and Geoffrey Perret, despite his extravagant subtitle, has solid qualifications as a military biographer.
Mr. Perret’s thesis is that Lincoln, in dealing with the Civil War, created the “war power” in the American presidency — the authority to employ extraordinary measures in time of war despite the fact that such measures are not specifically cited in the Constitution.
The author writes, “It is unlikely that any president before Lincoln would have asserted that he possessed the power to jail people without evidence, to free slaves in rebellious territories, to impose conscription … all in all, to exercise what amounted to dictatorial powers, even during a national emergency.”
This may have been so, but then no earlier president had faced quite the challenge Lincoln faced. None of his predecessors had had to deal with secession and civil war. The qualifications Lincoln brought to the White House were hardly those of a war president. He had been elected captain of a militia company in the Black Hawk War of 1832 but had seen no fighting.
As president, he had to deal with conflicting advice about how to deal with secession. He had to choose between Gen. Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda” strategy, based on blockading and isolating the South, and the more popular strategy of an early drive against Richmond. Mr. Perret believes Lincoln should have done both — rely on Scott’s long-term strategy while meeting the public demand for some move against the enemy capital.
For a time, the president deferred to his military commanders. When Scott approved the July 1861 move against Manassas, Lincoln went along. When Gen. George B. McClellan chose to move against Richmond by water the following year, Lincoln swallowed his misgivings and provided McClellan with as many reinforcements as appeared prudent.
The president read up on military strategy, with mixed results. For much of the war, he was obsessed with capturing Richmond and defending Washington. Only gradually did he come to realize that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army should be the Federal objective and that if Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were destroyed, the rebellion would collapse.
As commander in chief, Lincoln was not the tidy bureaucrat his generals would have preferred. He delighted in flouting the chain of command, encouraging individual commanders to report directly to him. He granted promotions on whim, often for political reasons.
Mr. Perret says Lincoln awarded commissions as general officers to 187 men directly from civilian life. He defends this practice on the traditional ground that it was necessary to preserve political backing for the war. German-Americans, for instance, were strong supporters of the Union and felt entitled to their share of generals (as the song “Ve fights mit Sigel” underscores).
Most of Lincoln’s political generals were duds, and the president can be criticized fairly for putting the lives of his soldiers in the hands of amateurs such as Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks. However, as the author points out, the military professionals available to the Union were not necessarily the cream of the crop.
“McClellan and [Don Carlos] Buell were out of their depth; [John] Pope and [Henry] Halleck were major disappointments.” Ultimately, the president made his appointments by trial and error.
The Union’s war aims at times seemed confused, and for this, Lincoln bears considerable responsibility. The war began as a fight to preserve the Union but gradually morphed into a war to destroy slavery as well, and this transition was opposed by many who fought for the Union. As a result, Lincoln feared that some of his officers were lukewarm supporters of the war. When one of McClellan’s officers spoke in favor of a negotiated peace that would preserve slavery, Lincoln had him dismissed from the service.
The author admires Lincoln in his role as commander in chief but is not blind to his shortcomings. He sees the president’s greatest failing as his preoccupation with capturing Richmond, the second as his failure to bring about unity of command. “The war was fought piecemeal for the first three years,” Mr. Perret writes. “Much of the time it hardly seemed fought at all, for want of a command structure ensuring that the operations in every theater of war were pursued in conjunction with movements elsewhere.”
This statement contradicts in part the author’s thesis that Lincoln somehow created the role of the president as commander in chief. To have done so implies an intent to do so, and there is no evidence that Lincoln sought other than to deal with each crisis as it arose. “I claim not to have controlled events,” the president wrote in April 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
What Lincoln did bring to the Oval Office was a clear vision of his responsibilities, coupled with a remarkable intelligence. Mr. Perret believes Lincoln “never doubted his intellectual superiority over other men” but felt no need to flout it.
This is a thoughtful book, but the author has not proved his thesis. He also gives way at times to breathless prose that serves him badly. One example: “Tossing in his bed by night, forcing himself through the day numb with fatigue, eyes almost shut at times from exhaustion, yet [Lincoln’s] brain teemed with plans and preparations as his troubled spirit darted from one responsibility to another.”
A brain so tossed may not be at its best the following morning.
John M. Taylor lives in McLean. His books on the Civil War period include “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”