Tuesday, December 23, 2008
A President runs a war.
Here are some comments on the book "Tried by war" about the way President Lincoln run the Civil War, mostly about the military side.
Let's start with Donald Rumsfeld's remark "You make war with the army you have" - yes - and with the President you have. Lincoln didn't have any military experience at all, neither did he have any army. The Federal Army counted just 16,000 troops, deployed on western forts. The General-in-Chief was Winfield Scott, famous hero of the Mexican war, but 75 years old, and frail of health, he didn't help much and retired soon.
An army of 637,000 volunteers was raised, equipped and trained by April 1862, one year after the start of the war. You need also Generals, 583 Generals were commissioned during the war, many by political patronage, a method as good as any. General Grant was sponsored by Elihu B. Washburne, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee and General Sherman by his brother John, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, without it they might have languished in obscurity.
For the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac (the biggest and most important army) Lincolm found the natural, proffesional, candidate 34 year old George B. McClellan, ranked second in his class at West Point, energetic, charismatic, adored by the soldiers, a good organizer, a good trainer of troops. Newspapers at the time called him "Young Napoleon". He was named to his command in July 1861, and soon after (November) General-in-Chief too. The only trouble with him is - he didn't like to fight. He was never ready, he always needed more troops, more horses or something. He never innitialized any battle, and never won one.
In July 1862 Lincoln named Henry W. Hallek General-in-Cheif (McClellan staying with the army of the Potomac). Hallek had written some books and was known as "Old Brains", he had a good administrative ability, but he was indecisive, and lacked the power to take control, impose his way and run things. Lincoln said he was a good clerck, and he needed him, so he kept him to the end of the war. In 1864, General Grant was named General-in-Chief, but Grant prefered to locate his headquartes in the field, near the army, so Hallek stayed on in Washington, as Chief-of-Staff.
It is remarkable how Lincoln couldn't find any military figure to run the war, and had to do it himself, single handed (at least until 1864, when he found Grant).
The problem wasn't solely the incompetece of the generals - there was plenty of that, but it also was much deeper - philisophical - about the aims of the war, the means to acheive them - derived from the aims. Lincoln believed you must seek out the enemy's army, engage it in battle and never let up until you destroy it. McClellan understood it would be an extreemly cruel, bloody enterprise. He had no stomach for such a total war of annihilation against fellow Americans. In the end, as presidential candidate in 1864, McCllelan embraced a settlement with the Confederacy. But Lincoln's aims were clear and firm, and undebatable: no independence to southern states and an end to slavery. He wouldn't settle on anything less, so no settlement was possible, and the bloodbath inevitable.
General Grant pursued the war as Lincoln wanted, not so much with brilliance, but with tenacity. He never rested, never let up, and the results followed - victory, but slowly - he suffered some bad settback at first - and at a terrible cost. Some called Grand a butcher. For example - in one two week period there were 30,000 casualties; in his first two months on the Potomac - some 90,000 (like McClellan suffered in 2 years). At first there weren't many gains to show for all these losses, and the impatient public seemed to sway toward the settlement.
Another interesting point is the question of strategy: the war's aims can, maybe, also be acheived by the indirect approach, by attacking not the enemy's main army, but his soft spots, untill you throw him off balance. This way you can acheive your aims with less losses. General McArthur employed this approach in WW2, he called it "hit them were they ain't". The approach wasn't known, or considered by Lincoln and his Generals, but was employed anyway, thanks to the brilliant initiative of General Sherman, who took an army of 60,000 veterans on a raid from Atalanta, Georgia, 287 miles, to the sea, at Savannah. Sherman raided the heart of the Confederacy hiterland, it's base of supply and economic and moral support. He renounced the securing of supply lines, lived off the country cut off from the Union, destroyed everything in his path. He outmaneuvered and outrun the enemy's army that was trying to stop him, he didn't seek battles, but rather succeded in avoiding them, acheiving his purpose without battles. He suffered almost no losses, but civilians in his path did suffer, mostly material losses. No wonder Sherman was the most intensly hated person in the South (maybe second only to Lincoln). Some say Sherman's raid was the decisive factor in ending the war.
The story of how Lincoln the inexperienced, unprepared politician run the whole war, including the military part, by himself, almost unaided, is fascinating.
What I missed in this book is a more objective approach to Lincoln, pointing out his mistakes, his missjudgements (if any). The Civil War was a very important, fundamental event, possitively: it abolished slavery, and maintained the Union. But it was also a terrible tragedy - more than 600,000 losses, and Lincoln presided over that too.
The book is an easy and absorbing read, it doesn't go into any details of military operations, but shows the events at the intersection between Lincoln and the military.