Lawyer John H. Hinderaker, on his blog, Powerline (Feb. 28, 2004):
[Slandering Republican presidents.] It's the New York Times' favorite pastime. But Abraham Lincoln ? Alas, not even Lincoln is exempt from the Times' overriding editorial imperative.
Today's Corrections section includes this item:
A Washington Talk article on Feb. 10 about the role of politicians in shaping military campaigns during wartime referred incorrectly to Abraham Lincoln's influence on the decision to seize Atlanta during the Civil War. He approved an overall plan by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for defeating the Confederate armies; he did not specifically order Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to take Atlanta. (General Sherman ultimately made the decision after the Army of Tennessee — which General Grant had told him to defeat — retreated to Atlanta.)
The corrected article, which appeared on Feb. 10, was an analysis of a comment made by President Bush in his interview with Tim Russert to the effect that Vietnam was a"political war." Bush said that he did not want to make military decisions, and that a president should"set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective."
The theme of the original article was that President Bush's view was naive, and all wars are political. Its concluding point was about the Civil War:
It is a widely held view in Washington that the decision to go to war conformed to the election season at home. If true, Mr. Bush would hardly be the first to have waged war around re-election.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln, who had little military expertise, proved to be an anxious meddler in his generals' strategy. By 1864, an election year, he had grown frustrated with what he saw as dithering by some of his generals. That summer, he ordered General Sherman to take Atlanta.
This is really an astonishing error, which betrays an almost complete ignorance of both Lincoln and the Civil War. Lincoln was no military tactician, and he knew it. But it is an important part of his greatness that he understood the strategic situation better, and earlier, than almost anyone in the North. Lincoln knew that the Union would prevail if only its generals would fight battles. The North didn't necessarily have to win--although losses were of course dispiriting to morale--but it did have to fight. The key fact, Lincoln understood, was that the North could replace its losses, but the South, ultimately, could not. This painful arithmetic was, to Lincoln, the essence of the conflict. That is why he valued Grant from the beginning. When some wanted to cashier Grant early in the war, Lincoln said:"I cannot spare this man. He fights."
During the first two years of the war, Lincoln was forced to interfere far more than he wanted to in military matters, especially in the east, because he could not get his generals to see the overriding importance of taking the war relentlessly to the enemy. But by the spring of 1864, Grant had been given command of all Union armies, and for the first time, under his direction, all of the forces in the field worked together in a coordinated manner to maximize the pressure on the Confederacy.
Here is how Grant, in his Personal Memoirs , describes his meeting with Lincoln after he assumed command:
In my first interview with Mr. Lincoln alone he stated to me that he had never professed to be a military man or to know how campaigns should be conducted, and never wanted to interfere in them: but that procrastination on the part of commanders, and the pressure from the people at the North and Congress, which was always with him, forced him into issuing his series of"Military Orders"--one, two, three, etc. He did not know but they were all wrong, and did know that some of them were. All he wanted or had ever wanted was some one who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all the assistance needed, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance. Assuring him that I would do the best I could with the means at hand, and avoid as far as possible annoying him or the War Department, our first interview ended.
A bit later Grant adds:
[Stanton] and General Halleck both cautioned me against giving the President my plans of campaign, saying that he was so kind-hearted, so averse to refusing anything asked of him, that some friend would be sure to get from him all he knew. I should have said that in our interview the President told me that he did not want to know what I proposed to do. But he submitted a plan of campaign of his own which he wanted me to hear and then do as I pleased about. He brought out a map of Virginia on which he had evidently marked every position occupied by the Federal and Confederate armies up to that time. He pointed out on the map two streams which empty into the Potomac, and suggested that the army might be moved on boats and landed between the mouths of these streams. We would then have the Potomac to bring our supplies, and the tributaries would protect our flanks while we moved out. I listened respectfully, but did not suggest that the same streams would protect Lee's flanks while he was shutting us up.
I did not communicate my plans to the President, nor did I to the Secretary of War or to General Halleck.
Sherman, who commanded the Military Division of the Mississippi, was a close friend of Grant and enjoyed his complete confidence. On April 4, 1864, Grant sent a confidential letter to Sherman outlining his plan of campaign. His instructions to Sherman, in their entirety, were as follows:
You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.
I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute it in your own way. Submit to me, however, as early as you can, your plan of operations.
Grant was the father of modern warfare, and one of his principles was that the overriding objective of the Union armies was not to capture territory or cities, but rather to destroy the Confederate armies, for as long as those armies remained in the field, the rebellion would continue. Thus, in his memoirs, Sherman writes:
Neither Atlanta, nor Augusta, nor Savannah, was the objective, but the"army of Jos. Johnston," go where it might.
So for the Times to write that Lincoln"ordered General Sherman to take Atlanta" because 1864 was"an election year" was absurd, and would be recognized as absurd by onyone with the barest knowledge of Lincoln or of the Civil War. I suppose, if Lincoln had the power to simply"order" his generals to capture cities, for political purposes, he would have"ordered" Grant to take Richmond in 1864, too.
It is true, of course, that politics always plays a part in war. In a democracy, it is necessary and right that the course of a war should, ultimately, be not just influenced but determined by politics. In the case of the Civil War, the great danger to the Union was that the Northern public would grow weary of the conflict and give up. By 1864, many in the North were beginning to think that the war was hopeless, and the Democratic Party adopted a defeatist platform, urging that the war be abandoned and the South be allowed to secede with the institution of slavery intact. The capture of Atlanta, along with other victories in the field that year, convinced most Northerners that the end was in sight and ensured Lincoln's re-election. For the Times to twist this well-known narrative into a cynical political ploy by President Lincoln--in the Times' words,"meddling" by a President with"little military expertise" who"waged war around re-election"--is contemptible.
As for President Bush, he seems to have the relationship between civilian command and military expertise exactly right. The country's civilian leadership sets the goals, sets the priorities, gives the military men the resources they need to do the job, and relies on military professionals to figure out how to get the job done. Just like Lincoln, once he had the right commanders in place.