Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Letters of Counsel to His Generals
When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, he took the helm of a nation in crisis. Seven slave-holding Southern states had already proclaimed their independence from the United States, a step the new president was determined would not stand. And that meant civil war.
In 1860 there were only 16,000 men in the entire United States Army. When the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 more. By the end of the war in 1865 US forces would number more than a million.
Lincoln Inherited an Army With Practically No Generals
This rapid, almost explosive growth created a need to greatly expand the nation’s officer corps. At the beginning of the war, there were only five generals in the whole army. Two of them would defect to the Confederates. The remaining three were relatively old men at the time, and none of them would play any significant operational role in the war. So, Lincoln had to start from scratch. Men with prior military experience, even at the level of a Major or Captain, would soon find themselves newly minted generals with responsibility for thousands of recruits.
Inevitably, this influx of inexperienced general officers caused problems. Big problems. One of the biggest and most lamentable was the frequency with which some of the new generals demonstrated that their egos far outweighed their military skills.
Using letters to mentor generals
President Lincoln well knew that he had no choice but to work with the material at hand. An important part of his task as Commander In Chief was to guide and train his corps of generals, even as he sifted through the mass of undistinguished officers looking for the few diamonds who would eventually help him win the war.
Historian David Work on why Lincoln needed new generals
A major way in which the president exercised his responsibility to guide and train his generals was through the letters he wrote them. To me these letters offer a dramatic window into the knotty issues Lincoln was forced to deal with, as he sorted through the various personalities and egos of the men upon whom the military fortunes of the nation depended.
Here are four examples of President Lincoln’s letters to his generals in which he offered them practical wisdom, encouragement, and as necessary, rebuke. Those who received and acted on his counsel became much more effective in their roles. Those who didn’t eventually fell by the wayside.
1. Major General David Hunter, December 31, 1861
David Hunter was a West Point graduate and army Major who, because of his strong anti-slavery views, became a friend of Abraham Lincoln before the war. In fact, when Lincoln was elected president, he invited Hunter to accompany him on his inaugural train ride from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington.
Once the war began, Hunter’s friendship with Lincoln served him well. He was appointed in quick succession a colonel, brigadier general, and finally major general of volunteers in the U. S. Army.
But Hunter wasn’t satisfied. He thought he deserved more, and sent Lincoln a testy letter on December 23, 1861 crying that he felt “very deeply mortified, humiliated, insulted, and disgraced.”
His complaint? He was assigned to a command at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas consisting of only 3000 men, while Don Carlos Buell, a Brigadier General and therefore of lower rank, commanded 100,000 in Kentucky. Hunter fumed that he had been “deprived of a command suitable to my rank,” and complained that the Kentucky assignment should have been given to him instead of Buell.
Under intense pressure as he attempted to organize an unprepared North to effectively fight the war, this rather childish outburst was almost more than Lincoln could bear. His reply to Hunter was a masterpiece of supportive, but straightforward and candid advice. In essence Lincoln told him: shut your mouth and get on with the job!
DEAR SIR:--Yours of the 23d is received, and I am constrained to say it is difficult to answer so ugly a letter in good temper. I am, as you intimate, losing much of the great confidence I placed in you, not from any act or omission of yours touching the public service, up to the time you were sent to Leavenworth, but from the flood of grumbling dispatches and letters I have seen from you since…
I aver that with as tender a regard for your honor and your sensibilities as I had for my own, it never occurred to me that you were being "humiliated, insulted, and disgraced"; nor have I, up to this day, heard an intimation that you have been wronged, coming from any one but yourself…
I have been, and am sincerely your friend; and if, as such, I dare to make a suggestion, I would say you are adopting the best possible way to ruin yourself.
"Act well your part, there all the honor lies." He who does something at the head of one regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.
Your friend, as ever,
This was not the only rebuke Hunter suffered at Lincoln’s hands. In 1862 Hunter was in command of the Department of the South, comprising the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. He issued an order emancipating all the slaves in those states, and began enlisting them into the Union Army. Lincoln, knowing that the Northern public was not yet ready for emancipation, immediately rescinded Hunter’s order.
Yet Hunter took Lincoln’s rebukes in good spirit, and never lost his regard for the President. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hunter served in the honor guard at the funeral. And in a reversal of the trip he had taken with Lincoln four years earlier, he accompanied the body of the martyred President on the train that carried it back to Springfield.
2. Major General George McClellan, April 9, 1862
George B. McClellan was one of the most enigmatic figures of the Civil War. He was at first considered (most of all by himself) a military genius. Given overall command of Union armies at the young age of 34, he did a masterful job of organizing and training the main Union force, the Army of the Potomac.
But as a general McClellan had a fatal flaw – he wouldn’t fight. He habitually wildly overestimated the number of Confederate troops arrayed against him, and spent more time calling for reinforcements than in actually confronting his outnumbered foe in battle.
By the Spring of 1862, McClellan’s lack of battlefield results had become glaringly apparent to both politicians and the public in the North, and it soon became clear that patience with the "Young Napoleon" was running thin.
As McClellan began what was supposed to be a major advance against Confederate forces and toward Richmond (the Peninsula Campaign), President Lincoln suddenly decided to retain one of McClellan’s army corps in Washington to insure that the nation’s capital would not be left defenseless. McClellan was incensed, and with the campaign just getting started, blamed Lincoln for the defeat he was sure would ensue.
The President, who recognized McClellan’s qualities as a brilliant organizer of troops, and had for that reason been extremely patient with him, now felt compelled to write him a letter making it clear that McClellan’s excuses could no longer help him.
My dear Sir.
Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much…
After you left, I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field battery, were all you designed to be left for the defence of Washington… My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected…
And once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted, that going down the Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty -- that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, entrenchments, at either place. The country will not fail to note -- is now noting -- that the present hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated.
I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.
Yours very truly
But McClellan didn’t act. He continued to be extremely cautious on the battlefield. Although he won a strategic victory against Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the battle of Antietam in September 1862, his failure to follow up his advantage by vigorously pursing as Lee retreated was the final straw for the president. In November of 1862 Lincoln finally replaced him. Humiliated, McClellan tried to take his revenge by running against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864. He lost in a landslide.
Were Lincoln's letters effective in mentoring his generals?
3. Major General Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863
“Fighting Joe” Hooker was nothing if not self confident. As a subordinate general in the Army of the Potomac under its commander, Ambrose Burnside, Hooker publicly critiqued and complained about Burnside’s decisions, with a very evident desire to take his place.
When Burnside himself asked to be relieved of the command, Hooker got his wish. President Lincoln appointed Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. But he wanted Hooker to know that his backstabbing was known and not appreciated. If he was to be effective as a commander, Hooker needed to change his ways.
Major General Hooker:
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.
I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.
I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
The government will support you to the utmost of it's ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
Yours very truly
Unlike McClellan, Hooker actually appreciated Lincoln’s counsel. He later told a reporter, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
But Hooker didn’t win victories. He was stampeded by Robert E. Lee into a humiliating and unnecessary retreat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, lamenting later, “For once I lost confidence in Hooker.” Lincoln replaced him with George Meade in late June of 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.
4. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, August 3, 1864
In Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln finally found the general he had been looking for from the beginning of the war. Grant was a fighter, and had mounted brilliant campaigns at Vicksburg and Chattanooga that caught the imagination of the Northern public. In 1864 Lincoln appointed him General-In-Chief over all the Union armies.
Grant and Lincoln were on the same wavelength concerning what it would take to win the war, and Lincoln almost always approved Grant’s strategic plans. But he also recognized that Grant, coming from the Western theater of the war, where he was accustomed to having his orders immediately and competently obeyed, might not understand just how bureaucratically calcified the Washington military establishment was.
So, when Grant directed that the army’s chief of staff, General Henry Halleck, put Philip Sheridan in command of a Union army in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with orders to track down and destroy the Confederate forces threatening Washington from that direction, Lincoln sent Grant a letter (by telegraph) of wise counsel concerning what it took to get things done in Washington.
I have seen your dispatch in which you say “I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.” This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move.
But please look over the dispatches you may have received from here, ever since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of “putting our army South of the enemy” or of “following him to the death” in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.
Grant, who was with the Army of the Potomac just outside Richmond, got the message. He replied, “I start in two hours for Washington.”
The Power of a Letter
Lincoln’s confidence in Grant was not misplaced. Grant showed himself eager to follow the counsel he received in several letters Lincoln sent him. The result was that although it took longer than either at first hoped it would, the two of them working together, along with the excellent cadre of subordinate leaders that finally emerged through Lincoln's appointments, were finally able to strangle the Confederacy and win the war.
And that victory, when it came, was due in no small part to wise and fatherly counsel Abraham Lincoln provided in his letters to his generals.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin