Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War' Abraham Lincoln had almost no military experience when he arrived at the White House in 1861. In Tried By War, author James McPherson explains how Lincoln defined the role of the American commander in chief as he led the country through the Civil War.
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Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

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Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

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Abraham Lincoln had almost no military experience when he arrived at the White House in 1861. In Tried By War, author James McPherson explains how Lincoln defined the role of the American commander in chief as he led the country through the Civil War.


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington and here are headlines from some stories we're following here today at NPR News. Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke today endorsed a plan for a new economic stimulus package. Democrats in Congress have supported such a package. Thus far, the White House has been skeptical, though President Bush said today he is open to the idea. And Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama campaigned in Florida. Early voting began in the Sunshine state today.

Meanwhile, Republican John McCain stomped through the swing state of Missouri, we'll have details on those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, one five-year-old boy and sister that God had made a mistake that he was meant to be born a girl. Another, from the moment he could speak said he wanted to wear a dress. We'll talk with parents of transgender children about parents, toddlers and the struggle for identity. Plus, this American moment Madeleine Albright joins us, next Talk of the Nation from NPR News. The war powers of the president and the role of the commander in chief are issues much in debate over the past four decades, the last several years in particular and of course they're an important part of this presidential campaign.

In a new book, historian James McPherson argues that both the war powers of the president and the modern concept of commander in chief are the invention of Abraham Lincoln. The author joins us in just a moment. If you'd like to talk with James McPherson about Lincoln's model of war powers, how he exercised them and how his decisions reverberate through American history, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us And you can also join the conversation on our blog at James McPherson's new book is called "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and he joins us here in studio 3A and thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. JAMES MCPHERSON (Author): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And among the many problems that Abraham Lincoln faced upon election was that his own military experience consisted in his own words battling mosquitoes during the Black Hawk War some 30 years before he took office.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's quite true and otherwise he had no particular military training or experience. He was as green as the greenest recruit in the union army. But he learned on the job, he worked very hard at learning on the job and because of his mental acumen, his shrewd common sense, his ability to penetrate to the core of a problem. By the second year of the war, I think he was an extremely competent commander in chief and probably had a better grasp of what was necessary to win that war than most of his military commanders.

CONAN: In fact for large portions of the war, you argue that in fact he did act as his own General in Chief.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Yes he did inherit the General in Chief, Winfield Scott but Scott was old, tired and past his prime, so he disappointed Lincoln, he appointed the young Napoleon as press hailed him. General B. McClellan is General in Chief, but McClellan turned out to be an even greater disappointment. Then Lincoln eventually turned to Henry W. Halleck who likewise refused to take responsibility, make decisions, give orders. So as a consequence, many of the - much of the burden of decision making of command decisions of orders fell on Lincoln's shoulders.

Those shoulders turned out to be broad, but when he finally managed to get Grant in as General in Chief, then Lincoln could unburden himself of some of those command decisions and turn them over to Grant. But he and Grant so eye-to-eye and Lincoln throughout the course of the war had defended Grant against critics, had prevented pressures from building up that would have removed Grant from subordinate commands and finally brought him to the Supreme Command in Washington in the spring of 1864.

CONAN: And indeed we think of the president's role as commander in chief, well certainly it's got to include grand strategy, it's got to include a strategy even operations to some degree but you say Lincoln was involved not just on those levels, but involved on the level of tactics and very involved in the issue of selecting weapons for his army.

Mr. MCPHERSON: It's quite true that on more than one occasion - but one occasion in particular Lincoln got involved in technical decisions and technical orders, this was in May of 1862 when he went down to the Virginia Peninsula, Hampton Roads to try to prod McClellan into greater action. And in the course of his visit there, he actually gave orders to subordinate commander to occupy Norfolk and went out on Tug to select the best landing place for Union soldiers who land in Norfolk. He also spent a lot of time testing new weapons that were offered by various inventors. He went into what is the ellipse now, behind the White House - it was just bare land out there then - and tested repeating rifles, repeating carbines and it was his decision to give contracts to the Spencer manufacturing company which turned out the best weapons of the war. He overruled his Ordinance Chief, who was a very conservative stick-in-the-mud kind of a guy and Lincoln was responsible for making sure that these improved weapons, revolutionary new, improved weapons got into the hands of many of the soldiers by the last two years of the war.

CONAN: And the Union capital which had been so dismal through much of the war, in part because of those repeating rifles proved to be quite effective in the last couple of years.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, the last year of the war, I think they were the best unit in the union army.

CONAN: As you go through the history of Abraham Lincoln and his generals as you mentioned, all of the disappointments, McClellan twice, then Burnside and all of the others fighting Joe Hooker and the other people that he put in-charge of the Army of the Potomac at various times and all of them disappointed him. Some of whom he knew were his political opponents - as certainly General McClellan and certainly other. Nevertheless, all he wanted them to do was win.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's quite true and in fact, he once was quoted as saying and maybe the story maybe a (unintelligible) but it certainly embodies Lincoln's attitude that he would be willing to hold McClellan's horse if McClellan would only give him victories. McClellan behind the scenes, in private letters to his wife was calling the president the original gorilla. He was contemptuous toward Lincoln. I think Lincoln realized that McClellan held him in low regard and nevertheless, he could work with McClellan. Lincoln had a - ability to shrug off personal insults and to work with people who may have held him at low regard, if they were the people who could get the job done. But, you're quite right that many of the - of Lincoln's commanders especially the Army of the Potomac who seemed to be the best choice for that position when he appointed them turned out to be great disappointments to him.

CONAN: What did you make of - what do you make of statements that we've heard in recent years that the decisions have to be made by the commanders in the field?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well that was one of the problems with Henry Halleck, general and chief. Halleck said precisely that that the commander in the field was the best person to make a judgment on certain strategic - and even tactical and even strategic decisions. But Lincoln wanted Halleck who had a reputation as being a military genius. He was called hold brains and - he wanted Halleck to take the responsibility and give the orders. He even - he wanted Halleck to go to the front to go visit General Bernside down at Fredericksburg or across the river from Fredericksburg and size up the situation and decide what to do and Halleck would not do it.

So, I personally think that it's not always the best to leave the decision to the commander in the field. The commander in the field is sometimes, in the case of Civil War, Union commanders frequently risk a verse. They don't want to lose and so they don't take any risks of losing which means they don't take any risks at all. They don't take the initiative. What Lincoln wanted was generals who would, who are willing to take risks, who would take the initiative and that's why he liked Grant so much. Grant was one of those persons.

CONAN: He also was aware of the politics of the situation as president and Commander in Chief. Generals always weren't and would complain about some of his appointments in terms of the militia generals and that sort of thing. Political appointments necessary to reward the people who provided the troops to fight the war.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's right. These were the so-called political generals. Men that Lincoln had appointed to high rank because of their political prominence, not necessarily because of their military competence. And he did so because these men had a large constituency amongst several parts of the northern population. And this was a war fought almost entirely by volunteers, by citizens in uniform. It was a war or mass mobilization from the bottom up and part of that mobil - much of that mobilization was accomplished by political leaders at all levels. The local level, the regional level, the state level and this was Lincoln's job as commander in chief was just as much to mobilize the political support to wage this war as it was to supervised a military strategy necessary to win it.

CONAN: Yeah and your description of the - his struggle for reelection and the difficulties that his army has faced and how all of that played in to the presidential campaign of 1864 is fascinating.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, it's quite true that at a low point in the union military situation, in the late summer of 1864, Lincoln was sure that the would be defeated for reelection because things seemed to be going so badly. Then came military victories. Principally Sherman's capture of Atlanta on September 2nd, 1864 followed by several victories in the Shenandoah Valley by General Sheridan, that turned the situation around 180 degrees and it's a perfect illustration of the very close relationship between politics and the military in the American Civil War.

CONAN: We're talking with James McPherson about his new book, "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." 800-989-8255, e-mail us Mark is on the line from Lansing in Michigan.

MARK (Caller): Hello. Professor McPherson, I kind of had basic educational question, though conveniently we're discussing Lincoln primarily. We have separation of powers and grant to the legislature of making the laws. I don't have the Constitution in front of me, but could you please educate us - well, I've wondered for quite a while how Lincoln could be credited with freeing slaves - the emancipation proclamation. Could you tell us how or what provision of the Constitution would grant the president to make such a proclamation or a declaration, have the effect of law?

Mr. MCPHERSON: The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the Army and Navy. But it doesn't define what the powers of the Commander in Chief are. It's a kind of a blank slate on which Commanders in Chief like Lincoln have written, what they called, the war powers and Lincoln based his emancipation proclamation on his powers as Commander in Chief to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States. That enemy property with slaves, slaves constituted the principal labor force of the confederacy.

They provided the logistical support for confederate armies and just as a general had the power to seize railroads, to seize factories manufacturing weapons, to seize any kind of material - war material being used to wage war against his side, the president as Commander in Chief, the one who is above all the generals claimed that the had the war power to seize enemy property, slaves and to confiscate that property which in the context of slavery meant to free the slaves.

CONAN: And he did not think that way just a year earlier though?

Mr. MCPHERSON: No, at one point, he had said he could not do that. He could not make permanent rules of property by executive declaration. He could seize property for a temporary military use, but a little further thought convinced him, as I think it would convince anybody that once you seize slaves being used by the enemy for example, to build fortifications, you're not likely to give them back to the enemy when you're done with them and since these are human beings, as well as property, seizing them means freeing them and not sending them back and Lincoln finally came to that conclusion.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the question. A good one.

MARK: Thank you. It was my lack of knowledge in the time-line. That was - for example, in the state of Michigan, the Attorney General can issue an opinion and unless that's contrary to statute or is modified by statute of the opinion of the Attorney General stands as lost. So thank you very much for the history lesson.

CONAN: OK, Mark. Appreciate it. We're talking again with James McPherson about his new book, "Tried By War." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we revere Lincoln but we also look back at the powers and how he exercised them and people today would be disturbed I think by the way that he suspended the use of Habeas Corpus, another issue that's come up in recent years.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That was one of the most controversial actions that Lincoln took. The Constitution does permit a suspension of Habeas Corpus in cases of rebellion or invasion and of course, we clearly had a case of rebellion, in the case of the Civil War. The big controversy was whether the president had the power to do that by executive order or whether only Congress had that power. That clause of the Constitution occurs in Article One, which outlines the powers of Congress. But Lincoln made the case, and it's a persuasive case that this is an emergency power, and that only the Commander in Chief in war time, has the quickness to act in an emergency. Congress isn't always in session. That takes a long time for Congress to do anything, as we well know and so Lincoln claimed - and a lot of legal authorities, Constitutional authorities supported his argument that he as Commander in Chief, had the power to do this.

He did not think that this was necessarily a president to be used in all future cases. The Civil War was the greatest crisis this country had faced. It was a crisis that actually threatened to survival of the United States as one nation, indivisible. And Lincoln claimed that the Constitution as - gave him powers as Commander in Chief to do what was necessary to fulfill his Constitutional duty to preserve the nation, to preserve the Constitution if you will. And one of the things that he did was to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus and several thousand people, mostly in the border-slave states where the war was an active - which were an active war zone were arrested and kept in preventive detention for certain like the dime under his suspension of Habeas Corpus but he himself said, that once the war was over, once the emergency was over, there would be now constitutional power for him to do so and the Writ of Habeas Corpus would revert to it's traditional status.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can squeeze in another caller. Michael with us from San Andreas in California.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Was Abraham Lincoln really surprised or shocked when the General Robert E. Lee turned him down when he was offered the union generalship or leadership position? And was the - what was the risk of that and did the blockade of the southern commercial ports - was that Abraham Lincoln's brain child?

Mr. MCPHERSON: To answer your second question first, yes, the blockade was Abraham Lincoln's brain child. He declared a blockade of the confederate forts only four days after the surrender of fort Sumter and he continued to widen it during the course of the war. The other question now, I've forgotten what it was.

CONAN: The general offering the job of the...

Mr. MCPHERSON: Oh, the offering the position, offering the command of the principal union field army to Robert E. Lee. I don't think that Lincoln was surprised when Lee turned him down. That offer was made through general in - well, through general - Secretary Frank, Francis Blaire. But really through general - then general and chief Lynfield Scott. Scott was a fellow Virginian. He tried to persuade Lee that as a Virginian he could remain loyal to the United States, even though Lee's sons and nephews were going over to the confederacy. And when Lee said he could not lift his sword against his native state, Lynfield Scott told him, well, I was afraid that would be the case. And I think that you speaking for Lincoln as well.

MICHAEL: That was truly tragic.

CONAN: Yes. And Michael, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And James McPherson, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, thank you.

CONAN: James McPherson's new book, "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." He joined us here in Studio 3A. He's the George Henry Davis 86 Professor of history Emeritus at Princeton University. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Excerpt: 'Tried By War'

Cover of James M. McPherson's 'Tried By War'

Chapter 7: Lee's army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point

For President Lincoln and Quartermaster General Meigs, the new year of 1863 started on the same depressing note as the old year twelve months earlier. Then it had been Lincoln who said disconsolately to Meigs that "the bottom is out of the tub." This time it was Meigs who lamented that "exhaustion steals over the country. Confidence and hope are dying. . . . I see greater peril to our nationality in the present condition of affairs than I have seen at any time during the struggle."

Matters would get worse before they got better. As usual for Lincoln, the Army of the Potomac presented his biggest problem. He was well aware that Burnside had lost the confidence of his principal subordinates. Gen. William B. Franklin headed a cabal of generals scheming to have McClellan restored to command. Joe Hooker made little secret of his contempt for Burnside and was intriguing to obtain the command for himself.

Morale in the ranks sank to a new low. A soldier from Maine wrote to his sister that "the great cause of liberty has been managed by Knaves and fools. The whole show has been corruption, the result disaster, shame and disgrace." To make matters worse Burnside was a slack administrator. With the resources of a rich country at his back and army warehouses bulging with supplies, troops in winter quarters at Falmouth suffered from poor food, poor medical care, weak discipline, and sickness. Many soldiers had not been paid for months. In January desertions increased to epidemic proportions.

Dissension climaxed with an aborted movement that became notorious as the Mud March. In an effort to recoup his fortunes by a successful campaign, Burnside ordered the army to move up the Rappahannock, cross at the fords, and strike the Confederate fl ank above Fredericksburg. The Franklin clique opposed this plan. An artillery colonel who was no partisan of Burnside nevertheless wrote that "Franklin has talked so much and so loudly to this effect that he has completely demoralized his whole command [two corps] and so rendered failure doubly sure. His conduct has been such that he surely deserves to be broken." Hooker also criticized "the absurdity of the movement" and for good measure included the Lincoln administration in his indictment, saying that what the country needed was a dictator.

Despite this poisonous atmosphere, Burnside 's movement got off to a good start January 20 on dry roads and in unusually benign weather. But that evening the heavens opened; heavy rain turned the roads into a bottomless ooze and bogged down the whole army in mud. Triple teams of horses could not budge the artillery and the wagons. After two days Burnside gave up and ordered the army back to camp. He then went to Washington bearing an order he wrote on January 23 cashiering Hooker and two other generals and transferring Franklin plus his chief coconspirator, William F. Smith, out of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside of course had no authority to make these dismissals, so he confronted Lincoln with this order and with his own resignation. Either the dissident generals had to go, he said, or he would. Lincoln agreed—and accepted Burnside 's resignation. The president also transferred Franklin and his fellow pro-McClellan schemers to other assignments.

The president's choice of Hooker to replace Burnside came as a surprise. Stanton and Halleck favored General Meade for the command. Halleck had disliked Hooker since they had known each other in California before the war. But Lincoln consulted neither Halleck nor Stanton about the appointment.5 Meade was only a division commander, while Hooker was one of the army's senior corps commanders. The president admitted to editor Henry Raymond of the New York Times, who had told Lincoln of Hooker's loose talk about the need for a dictator, that "Hooker does talk badly, but the trouble is, he is stronger in the country than any other man." Hooker was also popular with many soldiers, if not with his fellow generals. He had a good record as a brigade, division, and corps commander. Lincoln considered him an aggressive, hard-driving general (the press had dubbed him "Fighting Joe") and hoped that Hooker could infuse that spirit into the army.

The president summoned Hooker to Washington for a frank discussion. The exact nature of this interview is unknown. Hooker may have sought and obtained from Lincoln a commitment to protect him from Halleck's disfavor. Hooker did get the president's permission to communicate directly with him instead of going through Halleck.

Lincoln had lost confidence in Halleck and may have preferred this arrangement himself.

In their conversation Lincoln probably told Hooker the substance of what the president wrote that day in an extraordinary letter—a letter that Hooker later said was just what a wise father might write to his son. "There are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you," the president said. "I think that during Gen. Burnside 's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him, as much as you could, in which you did great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer." As for the report of Hooker's words about the country needing 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 ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." Lincoln warned Hooker of the possibility that "the spirit which you have aided to infuse in the Army, of criticizing 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." Lincoln concluded on a positive note: "Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories."

Hooker started off with a great deal of energy and vigilance. He shook up the commissary and quartermaster services, got rid of corrupt supply officers, upgraded the food, cleaned the unhealthy camps, improved field hospitals, and cut the sick rate in half. He tightened discipline but also granted furloughs liberally. He increased unit pride by devising insignia badges for each corps. Paymasters finally appeared and brought the men's pay up to date. Morale rose, desertions declined, and thousands of absentees rejoined their regiments after Lincoln on March 10 promised amnesty to deserters who returned by April 1. In his first two months Hooker produced a remarkable transformation in the army's spirit. Even one of the generals who disliked Hooker admitted that "I have never known men to change from a condition of lowest depression to that of a healthy fighting state in so short a time."

Lincoln did not recover his spirits as readily as the army did during this winter of discontent. The president was impressed by Hooker's achievements but disturbed by his gasconade. He had created "the finest army on the planet," Hooker boasted. The question was not whether he would take Richmond, but when. He hoped that God Almighty would have mercy on the Rebels, because Joe Hooker would have none. After visiting the army for several days in early April, Lincoln confided in a friend: "That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is overconfident."

* * *

Lincoln's depression was compounded by lack of success in other theaters. Adm. John Dahlgren, head of the Washington Navy Yard, who had become a close friend of Lincoln, reported in February that "the President never tells a joke now." The commissioner of public buildings met with Lincoln on February 18. "He looked worn & haggard," wrote the commissioner in his diary. "His hand trembled as I never saw it before."

The president was upset by repeated delays in the projected attack on Fort Sumter and Charleston by a fleet of eight ironclads. He was also concerned about Admiral Du Pont's pessimistic predictions that Confederate defenses were too strong for the attack to succeed. Secretary of the Navy Welles discussed this matter with Lincoln several times in March. "The President, who has a sort of intuitive sagacity, has spoken discouragingly of operations at Charleston," wrote Welles in his diary. "Du Pont's dispatches and movements . . . remind him of McClellan." In mid-March, Lincoln sent word to Du Pont that "I fear neither you nor your officers appreciate the supreme importance of time. The more you prepare, the more the enemy will be prepared." Two more weeks went by, and Lincoln again told Welles that "the long delay of Du Pont, his constant call for more ships, more ironclads, was like McClellan calling for more regiments." The president "thought the two men were alike and was prepared for a repulse at Charleston."13 It came on April 7 when Confederate guns drove back the Union ironclad fl eet in a one-sided battle that seemed to confirm Du Pont's pessimism. Lincoln, Welles, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox believed that Du Pont had not pushed the attack with sufficient determination. Whether their assessment was unfair or not, within three months Du Pont, like McClellan, was removed from command.

Another high-ranking offi cer whose apparent failures in the winter and spring of 1863 threatened his tenure was, surprisingly, Ulysses S. Grant. That general was well aware of Lincoln's desire for the capture of Vicksburg. Although John McClernand had been made subordinate to Grant, the Illinois political general kept open his direct pipeline to the president and played on Lincoln's anxiety about this theater. In a conversation with another general Lincoln had said that "if Vicksburg can be taken and the Mississippi successfully kept open it seems to me [they] will be about the most important fruits of the campaigns yet set in motion." Halleck told Grant that "the eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army. . . . The opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds."

After the repulse of Sherman's attack on Chickasaw Bluffs and the destruction of Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs in December 1862, Grant had decided to base his campaign against Vicksburg on the river itself at Milliken's Bend. He faced formidable problems of topography. A direct assault from the river against the two-hundredfoot bluff bristling with Confederate artillery would be suicidal. West of the river a maze of bayous and swamps blocked military operations except at low water—and the winter of 1862–63 was exceptionally wet. North of Vicksburg extended a 250-mile arc of hills that enclosed the Mississippi Delta, a network of swamps, rivers, and junglelike forests. Only southeast and east of Vicksburg was there dry land suitable for marching and fi ghting. Grant's problem was to get there with a large enough force to defeat the enemy and reestablish contact with the Union fleet, which controlled the river above Vicksburg.

Grant's Army of the Tennessee tried several methods to accomplish this purpose. Soldiers and contrabands attempted to enlarge the canal started the previous summer to rechannel the river around the fortress for a safe crossing to the east bank. The Mississippi refused to cooperate, however, and the canal was eventually abandoned. An effort to take gunboats and transports carrying troops through a series of waterways in the delta from a point opposite Helena, Arkansas, to the Yazoo River near Vicksburg was turned back by a hastily constructed fort on the Tallahatchie River a hundred miles north of Vicksburg. An attempt to cut a route through various bayous in Louisiana all the way to the Red River and then into the Mississippi looked likely to take until doomsday. Even if completed it would only have been deep enough for small boats, so it too was abandoned. Still another attempt to get Acting Rear Adm. David D. Porter's ironclad gunboats through Steele's Bayou just twenty-fi ve miles north of Vicksburg almost trapped the flotilla when Confederate soldiers felled trees ahead of and behind the boats. General Sherman disembarked enough troops to drive the enemy away, and the gunboats backed slowly down channels scarcely wider than the vessels themselves.

While all this was going on, Northern newspapers began to criticize Grant, some of them attacking him vigorously. Exaggerated reports appeared of the demoralization of Grant's troops and of typhoid fever, dysentery, and pneumonia killing off hundreds of them. The old rumors about the general's drinking started circulating again. Still hoping to replace Grant, McClernand did his part to spread these rumors. He wrote Lincoln that "on the 13th of March, 1863, Genl. Grant I am informed was gloriously drunk and in bed sick all next day."

The president did not deign to reply. But he could not ignore letters from the two most influential Republican newspaper editors in the Midwest. In February Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune wrote to Elihu Washburne, Grant's chief congressional supporter. "Your man Grant" was a miserable failure, declared Medill. "No man's career in the army is more open to destructive criticism than Grant's. We have kept off him on your account. We could have made him stink in the nostrils of the public like an old fish had we properly criticized his military blunders. Was there ever a more weak and imbecile campaign?" Several weeks later editor Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial wrote to Salmon P. Chase, who passed along the letter to Lincoln with an endorsement that such "reports concerning General Grant" were "too common to be safely disregarded." Grant was "a jackass in the original package," wrote Halstead. "He is a poor stick sober, and he is most of the time more than half drunk. . . . Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally." Even Elihu Washburne's brother Cadwalader, a major general, wrote to Elihu: "I fear Grant won't do. The truth is, Grant has no plan for taking Vicksburg, & is frittering away time & strength to no purpose. The truth must be told even when it hurts. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Lincoln was deluged with politicians demanding Grant's removal. The president resisted the pressure. The anecdote about his desire to know what brand of whiskey Grant drank so he could send some to his other generals is probably apocryphal. But Lincoln did say, after Grant had confounded his critics, that "I have had stronger infl uence brought against Grant . . . than for any other object, coming too from good men. . . . If I had done as my Washington friends, who fight battles with their tongues instead of swords far from the enemy, demanded of me, Grant . . . would never have been heard from again."

But Lincoln did express some dissatisfaction with the apparent lack of progress in the Vicksburg campaign. On March 20 he told the Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune, off the record, that he thought "all these side expeditions through the country dangerous. . . . If the rebels can blockade us on the Mississippi, which is a mile wide, they can certainly stop us on the little streams not much wider than our gunboats and shut us up so we can't get back again." On April 2 Halleck warned Grant that Lincoln had become "impatient" with the various abortive efforts to get at Vicksburg. With the president's approval, Stanton sent the War Department troubleshooter Charles A. Dana to the western theater, ostensibly to investigate the paymaster service but in reality to determine whether Grant deserved the administration's continued support. Dana soon began sending favorable reports by special cipher to Stanton, who shared them with Lincoln. These reports probably were a major factor in Lincoln's decision to stick with Grant.

That general soon justified the president's faith in spectacular fashion. All the efforts to get at Vicksburg by tributary waterways having failed, Grant decided to have Porter's gunboats and transports run the batteries on the big river itself. The soldiers would build roads and causeways down the west bank to rendezvous with the fleet and cross to the east bank somewhere below Vicksburg. Despite Sherman's skepticism, it worked. The fleet ran the batteries on the night of April 17 with what Grant and Porter considered acceptable losses. While cavalry commander Benjamin Grierson led a diversionary raid through central Mississippi, and Sherman feinted another attack on the bluffs north of Vicksburg, Grant crossed two-thirds of his army (soon followed by Sherman's corps) forty miles downriver on April 30.

Halleck and Lincoln wanted Grant to unite his army with General Banks's Army of the Gulf for a joint attack on Port Hudson, followed by a combined attack on Vicksburg, or vice versa. In such a case Banks would outrank Grant and take command. But the two hundred river miles between the two armies and the logistical nightmare of trying to unite and supply them—plus, probably, Grant's disinclination to yield command of the enterprise to Banks—prevented any joint effort. After crossing the Mississippi, Grant cut loose from the river. His troops lived mainly off the land for the next three weeks until they could fight their way back to Vicksburg and make contact again with their riverborne supplies. During those three weeks, Grant's men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate forces that, if combined, would have been nearly as large as Grant's own, and penned the Confederates up in the Vicksburg defenses.

Lincoln had finally found a general who could march his army as fast and light as the enemy. The president was delighted by a tongue-in-cheek letter he received from Elihu Washburne, who traveled with Grant for part of the campaign. "I am afraid Grant will have to be reproved for want of style," wrote Washburne. "On this whole march for five days he has had neither a horse nor an orderly or servant, a blanket or overcoat or clean shirt, or even a sword. . . . His entire baggage consists of a tooth-brush." After driving the enemy into the Vicksburg fortifications, Grant ordered attacks on May 19 and 22. They were repulsed, but the Federals tightened their grip and Vicksburg's surrender seemed only a matter of time. "Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg," wrote Lincoln on May 26, "his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world."

Excerpted from Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson. Copyright © 2008 by James M. McPherson. Published in October 2008 by Penguin Press HC. All rights reserved.

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