Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime

Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime

In his study of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime leadership, Tried by War (2008), historian James McPherson notes that the amount of attention devoted to Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief in the scholarly literature is disproportionately small considering the actual percentage of time he spent on that task, notwithstanding that he is “the only president whose entire administration was bounded by war.”

While Lincoln’s name is frequently invoked in connection with President Barack Obama, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary president is between Lincoln and George W. Bush. It was Bush, after all, who had to confront a Lincolnesque crisis following the 9/11 attacks. Problems that both Bush and Lincoln faced included the decision to go to war, the balance between “vigilance and responsibility” when it came to security and civil liberties, domestic opposition to the war, and civil-military relations.

Lincoln offers many lessons for wartime presidents, but he himself had to learn as he went. While Bush could look back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln, and while FDR could look back to Lincoln, Lincoln himself had no precedents to which to turn. However, he did have a constitutional framework conveyed to him by the American Founders.


By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven states had separated from the Union and set up the Confederate States of America. A little over five weeks later, rebel gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. In response, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve ninety days. Denouncing the president’s policy of “coercion,” four more states left the Union. The ensuing war, the most costly in American history, would last for four years. When it was over, some 600,000 Americans had died and the South had suffered staggering economic losses.

Entering uncharted waters as he confronted the rebellion, Lincoln claimed broad emergency powers that he argued the Constitution had vested in the executive branch. He called out the militia, authorized increases in the size of the regular army and navy, expended funds for military purchases, deployed military forces, blockaded Southern ports, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in certain areas, authorized arbitrary arrests, and empanelled military tribunals to try civilians in occupied or contested areas. Later he authorized conscription and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln justified these steps as necessary to save the Union and preserve the Constitution. He saw the Constitution principally as a framework for sharing power within a republican government, because only republican government was capable of protecting the liberty of the people. Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of such a government, and the Constitution as the means of implementing it.

Lincoln and the War Power

As Geoffrey Perret has observed, Lincoln created the role of commander-in-chief, but he did not create his war power out of whole cloth. Lincoln believed that the authority he needed to deal with the rebellion was a part of the executive power found in the commander-in-chief clause of the Constitution, the clause of Section II requiring him to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and his presidential oath “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the U.S.” However, Lincoln believed that his prerogative to preserve republican government was limited by the will of the people and that any extraordinary powers were limited to the duration of the emergency.

Lincoln faced a number of dilemmas as war president, including the dual nature of the conflict: it was both a war and a domestic insurrection. Lincoln believed that states could not legally secede and that accordingly, the Confederacy was a fiction. Thus he had to be careful lest the steps he took be construed as recognizing the Confederacy. This applied to his decision to blockade Southern ports, traditionally a measure taken against a belligerent, and confiscation.

Lincoln and Secession

Lincoln could have avoided war, at least for the short run, by doing nothing to prevent the southern states from seceding. That was the course pursued by his predecessor, James Buchanan. But Lincoln believed his constitutional responsibility required him to hold the Union together and convey it to his successor as the Founders intended—one indivisible Union. In this he had the political theory of the Founders behind him, but he had a number of practical concerns as well. The dissolution of the Union would have created something the authors of The Federalist were extremely concerned about: small, weak confederacies, “a prey to discord, jealousy, and mutual injuries.” Alexander Hamilton feared that such confederacies would fall to squabbling among themselves, leading to a militarization of the American continent along the lines of Europe, and vulnerable to the intrigues and machinations of European powers wishing to reestablish their influence in North America.

Indeed, the Confederacy did envision an empire stretching north to the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River and west to the Colorado. It admitted Missouri and Kentucky to statehood despite the lack of a secessionist majority in either state. The Confederate congress initiated treaties with the Indian tribes, dispatched an expedition to conquer the New Mexico Territory, and organized a separate Arizona Territory.

Moreover, had secession been permitted to stand, the further breakup of the Union would have continued. In January 1861, Fernando Wood, the Democratic mayor of New York City, recommended that the city secede from the state of New York and establish itself as a “free city.”

Finally, Lincoln’s constitutional obligations did not permit him to acquiesce in secession unless it was authorized by those who had chosen him to be president. The people, not the Chief Magistrate, can “fix terms for the separation of the States.” The duty of the executive “is to administer the present government, as it came into his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor.”

Lincoln understood the risk associated with the resort to arms; thus the conciliatory tone of his first inaugural address, in which he tried to reassure the South that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln in fact believed that there was Unionist sentiment through much of the South and that if he bided his time, that sentiment would lead the seceded states to come to their sense. But if war came, Lincoln understood the importance of having the South fire the first shot. Hence when the commander of Fort Sumter advised Lincoln that he would not be able to hold out much longer, the president chose to re-provision but not reinforce the fort. The Confederate government did fire on Fort Sumter, with the result that public opinion in the North was galvanized behind the president. Those who criticize Lincoln for “tricking” the Confederacy into firing on Fort Sumter ignore substantial evidence that Southerners desired separation with or without war and that some feared a compromise that would keep them in the Union.

The Domestic Politics of Civil War

Critics who refer to Lincoln as a “dictator” ignore the fact that members of Congress from both parties constantly second-guessed his policies and strategy. Lincoln had to navigate the treacherous waters of partisan politics in order to prosecute the war. To do so, he developed a working coalition comprised primarily of moderate Republicans and War Democrats, while appeasing radical Republicans when he could. There was not much he could do about the “peace” wing of the Democratic Party, the “Copperheads,”  who veered perilously close to crossing the line from dissent to obstruction. Lincoln appointed his four main rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 to cabinet posts: William Seward as Secretary of State; Edward Bates as Attorney-General; Simon Cameron as Secretary of War; and Salmon Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. After initial missteps, Seward became the most loyal cabinet member; Cameron’s integrity was always suspect, and Lincoln soon replaced him with Edwin Stanton, a War Democrat who had been James Buchanan’s attorney-general. Stanton became Lincoln’s real right-hand man during the war.

The tensions that developed in Lincoln’s cabinet were a microcosm of the difficulties the president faced in his conduct of the war as a whole. Lincoln had to constantly hold both the radical Republicans and “Peace Democrats” at bay. The former saw Lincoln’s prudential approach to the war as being too timid; the latter sought a negotiated settlement with the seceded states.

Vigilance and Responsibility: Civil Liberties in Time of War

The most controversial element of Lincoln’s war presidency is his treatment of civil liberties. Even many defenders of Lincoln argue that he overstepped constitutional bounds by declaring martial laws, arbitrarily arresting civilians and trying them by military tribunal, and shutting down opposition newspapers. After the war, the Supreme Court criticized many of these measures in Ex parte Milligan.

Lincoln addressed the dilemma a president faces in time of emergency in his speech to a special session of Congress after Fort Sumter. “Is there,” he asked, “in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” Indeed, throughout the history of the American Republic, there has been a tension between two virtues necessary to sustain republican government: vigilance and responsibility. While vigilance is a necessary virtue, it may, if unchecked, lead to an extremism that incapacitates a government, preventing it from providing for the common defense. Responsibility, on the other hand, is the prudential judgment necessary to permit limited government to fulfill its purposes.

Lincoln’s actions as wartime president reflected his agreement with this principle. Due to the unprecedented nature of the emergency, he believed he had no choice but to exercise broad executive power. He noted that those who wished to destroy the Constitution were relying on the fact that “the government would, in great degree, be restrained by the same Constitution and law from arresting their progress.” If anything, he wrote, he had waited too long to implement emergency measures. “Thoroughly imbued with a reverence for the guaranteed rights of individuals, I was slow to adopt the strong measures which by degree I have been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the Constitution, and as indispensable to the public safety.”

Lincoln’s Military Contribution as Commander-in-Chief

On the surface, Lincoln seemed ill-prepared to meet the military challenges the crisis posed. He had served as a captain of militia during the Black Hawk War, but seen no action. His one term in Congress was lackluster. He gained notoriety for opposing the Mexican War, as did most Whigs. Accordingly, some historians concluded that his contribution to the Union victory was minimal. Given the relative power of the North, goes the argument, Union victory was assured beforehand. A variation of this view holds that Lincoln’s main contribution was finally to find the right general in Ulysses S. Grant.

In recent years, however, historians have begun to give Lincoln more credit as a war leader, pointing out that  he was responsible for establishing Union policy and developing and implementing a strategy to achieve the goals of his policy. He skillfully managed his cabinet, generals, and even Congress. He did not hesitate to overrule his advisers, both military and civilian. He had to make the decisions that translated the North’s advantages into military and political success. He also had to defeat Confederate armies that confounded Union plans on more than one occasion.

Lincoln and Union Strategy

Although Lincoln had no formal military education, he learned quickly and proved to be a competent strategist. He intuitively adhered to the old adage that in war, “the main thing is to make sure that the main thing remains the main thing.” The “main thing” for Lincoln was to preserve the Union. But like any good strategist, Lincoln proved willing to adapt his strategy to the circumstances in order to achieve this goal.

Lincoln understood that the key to victory for the Union was the simultaneous application of military force at multiple points, making it difficult for the Confederacy to defend its territory. Although it was not successfully implemented until 1864, Lincoln articulated the principle early in 1862, when, distressed by the immobility of his armies, he issued his General War Order No. 1, directing Union forces to move in concert on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1862.

He also understood that a successful strategy required Union armies to defeat Confederate armies—that it was the Confederate army, not territory or the Confederate capital, that constituted the Confederacy’s “center of gravity.”

Finally, he understood the importance of the West in Union strategy. In early 1862, Union armies had employed the Tennessee River as the “main line of operations” to penetrate deep into western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Grant’s subsequent victory at Shiloh permitted Union forces to seize major parts of the Confederacy’s one remaining east-west railroad line and opened the way to both Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Chattanooga. The capture of the latter permitted Union forces eventually to penetrate the Appalachian barrier and seize Atlanta.

Emancipation as Political-Military Strategy

Lincoln’s strategy was also a political strategy, the main weapon of which became emancipation at the end of 1862. Emancipation struck at not only the war-making potential of the Confederacy but also the heart of the Southern social system. But Lincoln had to tread carefully for domestic political reasons, because while emancipation was welcomed by abolitionists and their radical Republican allies in Congress, it was denounced by conservative Democrats in the North and loyal slaveholders in the slave states that remained in the Union. Lincoln needed both groups if he was to prosecute the war successfully, but in balancing their needs he was denounced by the conservatives as moving too fast and by the radicals as moving too slowly.

The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s response to the failure of Union arms and the refusal of the loyal slave states to accept gradual, compensated emancipation. After Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that gave the Confederates one hundred days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation. But the Proclamation also reflected Lincoln’s concerns about the legality of other alternatives favored by radical Republicans in Congress, e.g. treatment of fugitive slaves under federal control as “contrabands of war;” confiscation; and emancipation as part of martial law. All, he believed, were unconstitutional and open to legal challenge.

Indeed, it was possible that even after a successful war to subdue the rebellion, a slaveholder whose property had been seized in this manner could sue successfully in federal court. Lincoln did everything he could to keep emancipation out of the federal courts, fearing that if the federal judiciary ever took up emancipation, the court would become in effect the guarantor of slavery, setting back the prospect for all future emancipation just as Dred Scott had set back the effort to prevent the expansion of slavery into the Territories.

The stronger medicine represented by the Emancipation Proclamation was necessary because the Confederacy was exerting its maximum effort to mobilize its population for war. In April 1862, the Confederate congress passed a conscription act and organized its mobilized manpower into field armies. One of these forces, the Army of Tennessee, struck Grant at Shiloh. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia drove McClellan back from the gates of Richmond. Then in the fall of 1862, the former invaded Kentucky and the latter invaded Maryland. To a great extent, the South was able to do this only because slave labor freed white men to fight. Emancipation could undermine the slave labor system of the South, thereby undercutting the Confederate effort to mobilize its military resources.

Militarily, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way to the next logical step in the process of weakening the South while strengthening the North: enrolling blacks as soldiers in the Union army. The manpower boon to the Union was substantial. Some 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army. At the end of the war, they constituted 12 percent of the Union’s military manpower.

While the material contribution of African-Americans to Union victory was substantial, their participation in the war to achieve their own liberty was important for its own sake. Without their participation, the war to save the Union “as it was” could not have been transformed into a war to save the Union “as it should be,” and it is unlikely that African-Americans could ever have achieved full citizenship and equality in the U.S. And Lincoln understood the psychological impact of enlisting black troops in the Union cause. As he wrote to Andrew Johnson, the Unionist governor of Tennessee, “the bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.”

Lincoln took an immense political gamble by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Because of his action, the Republicans paid an enormous price during the 1862 elections. Votes for Republicans fell by 16 percent from 1860, and the Party suffered disastrous setbacks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. Such losses led some to conclude that Lincoln would not issue the final Emancipation. But  he did so for reasons that he made clear in his annual message to Congress for 1862. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

Similar speculation emerged during the dark days of summer 1864, when Lincoln believed he would not be reelected. Most War Democrats and many Republicans saw Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation as an obstacle to peace. The chairman of the Republican National Committee told Lincoln on August 22 that party leaders thought Lincoln would lose. But Lincoln refused to give in.

Lincoln and His Generals

Eliot Cohen has outlined how Lincoln’s presidency was by no means the model of the “normal” theory of civil-military relations, wherein the civilian authority establishes the goals of the war and then permits the generals to implement what they believe to be the best military measures to achieve those goals.1 Lincoln was an activist commander-in-chief who frequently “interfered” with his generals. He intuitively understood that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices, because war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. He realized that what appears to be the case at the outset of the war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means.

Perhaps the most important challenge Lincoln faced in the area of civil-military relations was that early in the war, his generals pursued the war they wanted to fight rather than the one their commander-in-chief wanted them to fight. Gen. George McClellan, who disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies, indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. Lincoln knew that he must take action in order to remind the army of his constitutional role. He did so by disciplining Major John Key, aide-de-camp to general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of McClellan’s aide. Lincoln wrote Key that he had learned Maj. Key had said in response to a query from a fellow officer as to why the rebel army was not bagged immediately after the battle near Antietam that “that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.” Lincoln dismissed Key from the service, writing him that “it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the U.S. to utter such sentiments as Major Key is within proved to have done.” At last recognizing the danger of such loose talk on the part of his officers and soldiers, McClellan issued a general order calling for the subordination of the military to civil authority. “The remedy for political errors, if any are committed, is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”

McClellan’s view of the war was not uncommon during its early phases. Even Lincoln deplored the potential resort to a “remorseless revolutionary struggle” against the South. But by summer 1862, he realized that the Confederacy would not relent unless the character of the war changed. He concluded that the only way to save the Union was to ratchet up the pressure. The successful Union generals were those who adapted to the changing circumstances.

One of Lincoln’s great strengths as commander-in-chief was his decisiveness in relieving failed generals. In 1862, he relieved not only McClellan, but also John Pope after Second Manassas, Don Carlos Buell as commander of the Army of the Ohio (later renamed the Army of the Cumberland) and Ambrose Burnside, McClellan’s successor, after the disaster at Fredericksburg. In 1863, he relieved Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac early in the Gettysburg campaign, and William S. Rosecrans after his Army of the Cumberland was mauled at Chickamauga.

Lincoln never let sentiment or his personal opinion of an officer get in the way of his assessment of the officer’s military potential. He was willing to accept a great deal from his generals if they would give him victory. On one occasion, Lincoln visited McClellan at his headquarters. McClellan was not present when the president arrived, so Lincoln waited. When McClellan returned, he went directly upstairs, although he knew Lincoln was there. Some time later, McClellan sent an orderly to advise Lincoln that the general had retired for the evening. When his secretary, John Hay, criticized the president for permitting such an affront, Lincoln replied that “it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

Prudence and War

As war president, Lincoln saved the Union. It is hard to imagine that anyone else among his contemporaries could have done what he did. Many were willing to let the Union go to pieces. Many others would have pursued policies that lacked any element of consent. As Lincoln remarked on numerous occasions, public sentiment is critically important in a republic. In its absence, legislators cannot pass laws and presidents cannot execute them. Lincoln could have avoided war by making another of the base concessions that politicians had been making for several decades. But that would only have postponed the day of decision, making it unlikely that republican government could survive in North America or anywhere.

Lincoln’s war presidency teaches us that, as important as institutions may be, they do not by themselves save republics when they are threatened. It teaches us the necessity of prudence for successful democratic statesmanship, and that citizens of a democratic republic respond to strong, principled leadership in time of crisis.

Lincoln set a high standard for leadership in time of war. He called forth the resources of the nation, appointed the agents of victory, set the strategy, took the necessary steps to restrain those who would cooperate with the disunionists, and provided the rhetoric that stirred the people. Yet he did these things within a constitutional framework.

In our time, we face issues similar to those that confronted Lincoln. Once again, we face the perennial tension between vigilance and responsibility as the U.S. is the target of those who would destroy it. In all decisions involving trade-offs between two things of value, the costs and benefits of one alternative must be measured against the costs and benefits of the other. At a time when the U.S. once again faced an adversary who wished nothing less than its destruction, President George W. Bush correctly took his bearing from Lincoln, whose war presidency taught that prudence dictates that responsibility trumps vigilance in time of war. If those responsible for the preservation of the Republic are not permitted the measures to save it, there will be nothing left to be vigilant about.

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