Lincoln Develops a More Modern Command System, Part 1: Growing Pains

Abraham Lincoln

Emerging Civil War welcomes back JoAnna M. McDonald

(This piece follows the introductory reminder of wars and republics.)

When you think of the Northern effort in winning the war, you probably picture Congress passing legislation that generated huge numbers of soldiers and ships and a surplus of supplies to support their military. The fact, however, is that while the North had more resources from day one, their armies only began progressing on all fronts later in the war. Why? One often overlooked answer is that it took President Abraham Lincoln and his military organization years to develop a critical asset needed to win the war: a functional command system comprised of a Commander-in-Chief, General-in-Chief, and Chief-of-Staff.  (A functional command system (or chain-of-command) facilitates communication between the President and the military, allowing an agreed upon strategy to be comprehensively implemented in the individual theaters.)   

At the start of the Civil War, the Federal government had no command system in place to deal with the tremendous expansion of the military. It should be no surprise then that problems plagued Lincoln’s initial effort in establishing one, mid-April to October 1861. The most significant conundrum was that, even though the President communicated well with his senior commanders, there was a difference of opinion between them as to the type of war to execute. Lincoln, pressured by public opinion, wanted an offensive war. His general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, and the officer in charge of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, argued otherwise, claiming their army was not ready for a fight. In mid-July, the military conformed to the Chief Executive’s desire and launched their first, large-scale offensive into northern Virginia and were driven back. Frustrated, Lincoln sought to bring in a general he thought was willing to fight and able to defeat the enemy, Major General George McClellan—champion of western Virginia. Except, rather than become part of the solution, the “Young Napoleon” created more internal unrest. He not only wanted to be commander of the armies of the east but also General-in-Chief. Scott, who was sick, recognized a younger officer needed to take his place, but he was not about to endorse McClellan. Scott instead suggested Major General Henry Halleck (commander of the western theater) for the general-in-chief post, and with that recommendation, “Old Fuss and Feather” retired in the fall of 1861. 

George McClellan

With the first leadership attempt failing, Lincoln tried to organize another command structure in October 1861.  This one had a serious but overlooked issue in that the delineation between command and the theater and field commanders was blurred.  The distortion occurred after Scott retired. It was then that the rank of lieutenant general was retired, leaving no supreme rank for one commander to hold.  Instead, the highest rank in the army was that of a major general. Any subsequent general-in-chiefs would be major generals and would barely out-rank the plethora of theater and field major generals—if at all. Despite the inevitable authority problems, Lincoln was concerned with quickly filling the general-in-chief post and thus appointed Major General McClellan supreme commander of all the Army. In this role, he was supposed to function as general-in-chief, as well as the commander of the eastern theater and the Army of the Potomac. Not only was this too much responsibility for one officer, McClellan was also unwilling and unable to fulfill all the duties required. It did not help matters that he was arrogant and resented the President getting involved in strategic planning.  Lincoln, on the other hand, wanted to be, at the very least, part of the process and felt compelled to push his slow moving champion. All this conflict resulted in lack of communication and trust, and something had to be done. 

The Commander-in-Chief made his move spring 1862. On March 11, he restructured the chain-of-command into a third, temporary system. Lincoln assumed the task of general-in-chief after relieving McClellan of this obligation. He directed department commanders to report to his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Halleck was placed in command of all forces in the West.  McClellan remained in charge of the Department of the Potomac and the Army of the Potomac (at least 120,000 strong). Lincoln hoped that if McClellan had less responsibility, he would focus on his grand operation on the Virginia peninsula and decisively defeat the Confederates armies defending Richmond. 

This third command system lasted from March to early July 1862 and yielded mixed results. The President interacted well with his Secretary of War, the navy command, and the army generals in the Western Theater. Strategic plans were deliberated, implemented, and significant headway was made out West, (e.g. capture of Columbus, central and eastern Mississippi; victory at Pea Ridge, northwest Arkansas; and the seizure of New Bern, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Norfolk, southeastern Virginia, Corinth, northeast Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee — in short, the collapse of the Confederate’s western defensive line).

In contrast, the miscommunication and mistrust between McClellan and Lincoln grew and everything was going wrong in the East. The President pleaded with his commander to coordinate the Union forces within the Department of the Potomac and defeat the Confederates throughout Virginia, but the pleas went unheeded.  As a result, three Union forces, acting independently of one other, were repulsed from the Shenandoah Valley. Further southeast, on the Virginia peninsula, McClellan’s massive army was out-maneuvered and out-fought by a smaller Confederate force in the Peninsula Campaign, first week of July.  Aggravated, overwhelmed with presidential and general-in-chief duties, and with a brief lull in the active campaigning in the Eastern Theater, the Commander-in-Chief took this opportunity to make adjustments to the command system. What were those changes? 

To be continued…

JoAnna M. McDonald, Ph.D., has been a historian, writer, and public speaker for twenty years, specializing in strategic studies and strategic leadership.  Currently, she is in an interim position as an environmental and historic preservation specialist. Other experiences include: working as a military history researcher for the History Channel’s Vietnam in HD and World War II in HD, and working as a civilian for the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force—Predator program, and for the U.S. Army at the Army Heritage and Education Center (Military History Institute), U.S. Army War College.

Author of eleven books on the Civil War and WWII, as well as numerous journal and newsletter articles regarding U.S. Marine Corps history, JoAnna’s next book is R. E. Lee’s Grand Strategy & Strategic Leadership: Caught in a Paradoxical Paradigm (Savas Beatie, 2020).

Further reading: Harry T. Williams.  Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

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