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Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > Unsuccessful Generals

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln and the War The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Freedom for the slaves

Chapter VIII. Unsuccessful Generals

So far Mr. Lincoln's new duties as President had not placed him at any disadvantage with the members of his cabinet. On the old question of slavery he was as well informed and had clearer ideas than they. On the new military questions that had come up since the inauguration, they, like himself, had to rely on the advice of experienced officers of the Army and Navy; and since these differed greatly, Mr. Lincoln's powerful mind was as able to reach true conclusions as were men who had been governors and senators. Yet the idea lingered that because he had never before held high office, and because a large part of his life had been passed in the rude surroundings of the frontier, he must of necessity be lacking in power to govern--be weaker in will, without tact or culture--must in every way be less fitted to cope with the difficult problems so rapidly coming upon the administration.

At the beginning even Secretary Seward shared this view. Mr. Lincoln must have been surprised indeed, when, on the first day of April, exactly four weeks after his inauguration, his Secretary of State, the man he justly looked upon as the chief member of his cabinet, handed him a paper on which were written "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration." It was most grave and dignified in language, but in substance bluntly told Mr. Lincoln that after a month's trial the Administration was without a policy, domestic or foreign, and that this must be remedied at once. It advised shifting the issue at home from slavery to the question of Union or disunion; and counseled the adoption of an attitude toward Europe which could not have failed to rouse the anger of the principal foreign nations. It added that the President or some member of his cabinet must make it his constant duty to pursue and direct whatever policy should be adopted, and hinted very plainly that although he, Mr. Seward, did not seek such responsibility, he was willing to assume it. The interest of this remarkable paper for us lies in the way Mr. Lincoln treated it, and the measure that treatment gives us of his generosity and self-control. An envious or a resentful man could not have wished a better opportunity to put a rival under his feet; but though Mr. Lincoln doubtless thought the incident very strange, it did not for a moment disturb his serenity or his kindly judgment. He answered in a few quiet sentences that showed no trace of passion or even of excitement; and on the central suggestion that some one person must direct the affairs of the government, replied with dignity "if this must be done, I must do it," adding that on affairs of importance he desired and supposed he had a right to have the advice of all the members of his cabinet. This reply ended the matter, and as far as is known, neither of them ever mentioned the subject again. Mr. Lincoln put the papers away in an envelope, and no word of the affair came to the public until years after both men were dead. In one mind at least there was no longer a doubt that the cabinet had a master. Mr. Seward recognized the President's kindly forbearance, and repaid it by devotion and personal friendship until the day of his tragic death.

If, after this experience, the Secretary of State needed any further proof of Mr. Lincoln's ability to rule, it soon came to him, for during the first months of the war matters abroad claimed the attention of the cabinet, and with these also the untried western man showed himself better fitted to deal than his more experienced advisers. Many of the countries of Europe, especially France and England, wished the South to succeed. France because of plans that Emperor Napoleon III had for founding French colonies on American soil, and England because such success would give her free cotton for her mills and factories. England became so friendly toward the rebels that Mr. Seward, much irritated, wrote a despatch on May 21, 1861, to Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister at London, which, if it had been sent as he wrote it, would almost certainly have brought on war between the two countries. It set forth justly and with courage what the United States government would and would not endure from foreign powers during the war with the South, but it had been penned in a heat of indignation, and was so blunt and exasperating as to suggest intentional disrespect. When Mr. Seward read it to the President the latter at once saw this, and taking it from his Secretary of State kept it by him for further consideration. A second reading showed him that his first impression was correct. Thereupon the frontier lawyer, taking his pen, went carefully over the whole dispatch, and by his corrections so changed the work of the trained and experienced statesman as entirely to remove its offensive tone, without in the least altering its force or courage.

Once again during 1861 the country was in serious danger of war with England, and the action of President Lincoln at this time proved not only that he had the will to be just, even when his own people were against him, but had the skill to gain real advantage from what seemed very like defeat. One of the earliest and most serious tasks of the Government had been to blockade the southern ports, in order to prevent supplies from foreign countries reaching the southern people, especially the southern armies. Considering the great length of coast to be patrolled, and the small size of the Navy at the commencement of the struggle, this was done with wonderful quickness, and proved in the main effective, though occasionally a rebel boat managed to slip in or out without being discovered and fired upon by the ships on guard.

In November Captain Charles Wilkes learned that Ex-Senators J. M. Mason and John Slidell, two prominent Confederates bound on an important mission to Europe, had succeeded in reaching Cuba, and from there had taken passage for England on the British mail steamer Trent. He stopped the Trent and took Mason and Slidell prisoners, afterward allowing the steamer to proceed on her way. The affair caused intense excitement both in England and in the United States, and England began instant preparations for war. Lord Lyons, the British Minister at Washington, was instructed to demand the release of the prisoners and a suitable apology within one week, and if this were refused, to close his legation and come home. It was fortunate that Lord Lyons and Mr. Seward were close personal friends, and could, in spite of the excitement of both countries, discuss the matter calmly and without anger. Their conferences were brought to an end by Mr. Lincoln's decision to give up the prisoners. In the North their capture had been greeted with extravagant joy. Newspapers rang with praises of Captain Wilkes; his act was officially approved by the Secretary of the Navy, and the House of Representatives passed a resolution thanking him for his "brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct." In the face of all this it must have been hard indeed for Mr. Lincoln to order that Mason and Slidell be given up; but though he shared the first impulse of rejoicing, he soon became convinced that this must be done. War with England must certainly be avoided; and Captain Wilkes, by allowing the Trent to proceed on her voyage, instead of bringing her into port with the prisoners, had put it out of the power of his Government to prove, under international law, that the capture was justified. Besides all else, the President's quick mind saw, what others failed to note, that by giving up the prisoners as England demanded, the United States would really gain an important diplomatic victory. For many years England had claimed the right to stop and search vessels at sea when she had reason to believe they carried men or goods hostile to her interests. The United States denied the right, and yet this was exactly what Captain Wilkes had done in stopping the Trent. By giving up the prisoners the United States would thus force England to admit that her own claim had been unjust, and bind her in future to respect the rights of other ships at sea. Excited American feeling was grievously disappointed, and harsh criticism of the Administration for thus yielding to a foreign country was not wanting; but American good sense soon saw the justice of the point taken and the wisdom of Mr. Lincoln's course.

"He that is slow to anger," says the proverb, "is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city." Great as was his self-control in other matters, nowhere did Mr. Lincoln's slowness to anger and nobility of spirit show itself more than in his dealings with the generals of the Civil War. He had been elected President. Congress had given him power far exceeding that which any President had ever exercised before. As President he was also Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. By proclamation he could call forth great armies and he could order those armies to go wherever he chose to send them; but even he had no power to make generals with the genius and the training necessary to lead them instantly to success. He had to work with the materials at hand, and one by one he tried the men who seemed best fitted for the task, giving each his fullest trust and every aid in his power. They were as eager for victory and as earnest of purpose as himself, but in every case some misfortune or some fault marred the result, until the country grew weary with waiting; discouragement overshadowed hope, and misgiving almost engulfed his own strong soul. Then, at last, the right men were found, the battles were all fought, and the war was at an end.

His kindness and patience in dealing with the generals who did not succeed is the wonder of all who study the history of the Civil War. The letters he wrote to them show better than whole volumes of description could do the helpful and forbearing spirit in which he sought to aid them. First among these unsuccessful generals was George B. McClellan, who had been called to Washington after the battle of Bull Run and placed in charge of the great new Army of three years' volunteers that was pouring so rapidly into the city. McClellan proved a wonderful organizer. Under his skilful direction the raw recruits went to their camps of instruction, fell without confusion or delay into brigades and divisions, were supplied with equipments, horses and batteries, and put through a routine of drill, tactics and reviews that soon made this Army of the Potomac, as it was called, one of the best prepared armies the world has ever seen--a perfect fighting machine of over 150,000 men and more than 200 guns. General McClellan excelled in getting soldiers ready to fight, but he did not succeed in leading them to fruitful victory. At first the administration had great hopes of him as a commander. He was young, enthusiastic, winning, and on arriving in Washington seemed amazed and deeply touched by the confidence reposed in him. "I find myself," he wrote to his wife, "in a new and strange position here, President, cabinet, General Scott, and all, deferring to me. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land." His rise in military rank had equaled the inventions of fairy tales. He had been only a captain during the Mexican war. Then he resigned. Two months after volunteering for the Civil War he found himself a Major General in the Regular Army. For a short time his zeal and activity seemed to justify this amazing good fortune. In a fortnight however he began to look upon himself as the principal savior of his country. He entered upon a quarrel with General Scott which soon drove that old hero into retirement and out of his pathway. He looked upon the cabinet as a set of "geese," and seeing that the President was kind and unassuming in discussing military affairs, he formed the habit of expressing contempt for him in letters to confidential friends. This feeling grew until it soon reached a mark of open disrespect, but the President's conduct toward him did not change. Mr. Lincoln's nature was too forgiving, and the responsibility that lay upon him was too heavy for personal resentment. For fifteen months he strove to make McClellan succeed even in spite of himself. He gave him help, encouragement, the most timely suggestions. He answered his ever-increasing complaints with unfailing self-control. It was not that he did not see McClellan's faults. He saw them, and felt them keenly. "If Gen. McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it," he said one day, stung by the General's inactivity into a sarcasm he seldom allowed himself to use. But his patience was not exhausted. McClellan had always more soldiers than the enemy, at Antietam nearly double his numbers, yet his constant cry was for re-enforcements. Regiments were sent him that could ill be spared from other points. Even when his fault-finding reached the height of telegraphing to the Secretary of War, "If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this Army, " the President answered him kindly and gently, without a sign of resentment, anxious only to do everything in his power to help on the cause of the war. It was of no avail. Even the great luck of finding a copy of General Lee's orders and knowing exactly what his enemy meant to do, at a time when the Confederate general had only about half as many troops as he had, and these were divided besides, did not help him to success. All he could do even then was to fight the drawn battle of Antietam, and allow Lee to get away safely across the Potomac River into Virginia. After this the President's long-suffering patience was at an end, but he did not remove McClellan until he had visited the Army of the Potomac in person. What he saw on that visit assured him that it could never succeed under such a general. "Do you know what that is ?" he asked a friend, waving his arm towards the white tents of the great Army . "It is the Army of the Potomac, I suppose," was the wondering answer. "So it is called," replied the President, in a tone of suppressed indignation. "But that is a mistake. It is only McClellan's bodyguard." On November 5, 1862, McClellan was relieved from command, and this ended his military career.

There were others almost equally trying. There was General Fremont, who had been the Republican candidate for President in 1856. At the beginning of the war he was given a command at St. Louis and charged with the important duty of organizing the military strength of the northwest, holding the State of Missouri true to the Union, and leading an expedition down the Mississippi River. Instead of accomplishing all that had been hoped for, his pride of opinion and unwillingness to accept help or take advice from those about him, caused serious embarrassment and made unending trouble. The President's kindness and gentleness in dealing with his faults were as marked as they were useless.

There was the long line of commanders who one after the other tried and failed in the tasks allotted to them, while the country waited and lost courage, and even Mr. Lincoln's heart sank. His care and wisdom and sorrow dominated the whole long persistent struggle. That first sleepless night of his after the battle of Bull Run was but the beginning of many nights and days through which he kept unceasing watch. From the time in June, 1861, when he had been called upon to preside over the council of war that decided upon the Bull Run campaign, he devoted every spare moment to the study of such books upon the art of war as would aid him in solving the questions that he must face as Commander-in-Chief of the armies. With his quick mind and unusual power of logic he made rapid progress in learning the fixed and accepted rules on which all military writers agree. His mastery of the difficult science became so thorough, and his understanding of military situations so clear, that he has been called, by persons well fitted to judge, "the ablest strategist of the war." Yet he never thrust his knowledge upon his generals. He recognized that it was their duty, not his, to fight the battles, and since this was so, they ought to be allowed to fight them in their own way. He followed their movements with keenest interest and with a most astonishing amount of knowledge, giving a hint here, and a suggestion there, when he felt that he properly could, but he rarely gave a positive order.

There is not space to quote the many letters in which he showed his military wisdom, or his kindly interest in the welfare and success of the different generals. One of the most remarkable must however be quoted. It is the letter he wrote to General Joseph Hooker on placing him in command of the Army of the Potomac in January, 1863, after McClellan's many failures had been followed by the crushing defeat of the Army under General McClellan's successor, General Burnside, at the battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862.

"I have placed you," he wrote on giving General Hooker the command, "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 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 General Burnside's command of the Army you have taken council 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 a 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 its 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."

Perhaps no other piece of his writing shows as this does how completely the genius of the President rose to the full height of his duties and responsibilities. From beginning to end it speaks the language and breathes the spirit of the great ruler, secure in popular confidence and in official authority.

Though so many of the great battles during the first half of the war were won by the Confederates, military successes came to the North of course from time to time. With such fine armies and such earnest generals the tide of battle could not be all one way; and even when the generals made mistakes, the heroic fighting and endurance of the soldiers and under-officers gathered honor out of defeat, and shed the luster of renown over results of barren failure. But it was a weary time, and the outlook was very dark. The President never despaired. On the most dismal day of the whole dismal summer of 1862 he sent Secretary Seward to New York with a confidential letter full of courage, to be shown such of the governors of free States as could be hastily summoned to meet him there. In it he said: "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsake me," and he asked for 100,000 fresh volunteers with which to carry on the war. His confidence was not misplaced. The governors of eighteen free States offered him three times the number, and still other calls for troops followed. Soon a popular song, "We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong," showed the faith and trust of the people in the man at the head of the Government, and how cheerfully they met the great calls upon their patriotism.

So, week after week and month after month, he faced the future, never betraying a fear that the Union would not triumph in the end, but grieving sorely at the long delay. Many who were not so sure came to him with their troubles. He was beset by night and by day by people who had advice to give or complaints to make. They besought him to dismiss this or that General, to order such and such a military movement; to do a hundred things that he, in his great wisdom, felt were not right, or for which the time had not yet come. Above all, he was implored to take some decided and far-reaching action upon slavery.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln and the War The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Freedom for the slaves

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


A President's Childhood

Captain Lincoln

Lawyer Lincoln

Congressman Lincoln

The Champion of Freedom

The New President

Lincoln and the War

Unsuccessful Generals

Freedom for the Slaves

The Man Who Was President

The Turning Point of the War

The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

The Fourteenth of April

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