This Day (Champagne & Oysters Edition)

Published:January 27, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln issued the remarkable General War Order No. 1, which called for a coordinated land and naval attack on Confederate forces no later than by February 22. A supplemental order designated Joseph E. Johnston‘s forces at Manassas as the target. Why was this remarkable? Because Lincoln, although commander-in-chief, had little or no military experience and yet found himself dictating strategy to his West Point–certified generals. (This is the sort of thing we still argue about, by the way. The current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination believes that President Obama should do more to “follow the recommendation of the generals.”)

So how did it all turn out for Lincoln? Long story short, Johnston retreated, and Union general George B. McClellan—whom Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had accused of enjoying “champagne and oysters on the Potomac”*—eventually sailed his army down the Chesapeake and marched it up the Virginia Peninsula, attacking Johnston but from the opposite direction as Lincoln originally intended. The point of the order, though, was to get McClellan moving, and in that regard it worked.

If you’re interested, you can actually find the text of Lincoln’s order in this monograph copy of The Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln (vol. 7, part 1, 1905; Nicolay and Hay, eds.):

What’s more interesting, perhaps, than the order itself, is the interpretation provided by the editors (one of whom, John Hay, was Lincoln’s secretary). Footnote 1, there at the bottom of page 89, reads as follows:

This is the first instance of Lincoln using his power as commander-in-chief of the army. Up to now he had been diffident about exercising such authority, but finding those who were supposed military experts, accomplishing nothing, he, himself, studied the war situation night and day, read a number of strategical works, pored over reports and held long conferences with eminent officers. His taking hold of the army infused new hope throughout the North.

The historian Ethan S. Rafuse—an eight-time EV contributor—points out that when Lincoln issued his order, McClellan had been quite ill, and that the president was, for better or for worse, attempting to fill the leadership void. Problem was, once he got back on his feet, McClellan found that the president wasn’t quite willing to step off.

Our entry on McClellan complicates the situation a bit more by suggesting that Lincoln was acting under intense pressure from the newly formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The secretary of war, meanwhile, was a Republican and in league with the Democrat McClellan’s enemies in Congress. So politics, not simply strategy, was at work here, and anyway when Lincoln did finally force McClellan to give up his oysters, the details of his orders still managed to provoke endless testimony before that same Joint Committee.

The whole deal was not pretty, in other words, and probably didn’t “infuse new hope throughout the North.” But it does lead to a number of interesting questions:

Was Lincoln right to get so heavily involved in his general’s business? Was he even a good military commander? Drew Gilpin Faust, in a review of James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief (2008), suggests that Lincoln was legitimately hamstrung by slow-moving generals like McClellan, while another review concludes that “Lincoln was a more sophisticated military strategist than his professional generals.”

While some folks—and I believe this blogger in particular—want to push back on that notion, most accept the premise of this New York Times contributor, who asks: “How did Lincoln, a lawyer by training with no military background to speak of—get the nature of the conflict so right, and his seasoned generals get it so wrong?”

* Funny how these phrases get recycled.

PS: Join the debate: Should Virginia set aside a day for Abraham Lincoln?

IMAGE: Abraham Lincoln by emi