Lincoln Develops a More Modern Command System – Part 2: Frustration to Breakthrough

A war-weary president in 1865

Emerging Civil War welcomes back JoAnna M. McDonald

(This piece follows the introductory reminder of wars and republics and Part 1: Growing Pains)

Thus far, in the first fourteen months, President Abraham Lincoln’s command systems had failed to generate success on all fronts, and the next nineteen months he would experience much of the same frustration. It would not be until the winter of 1863/1864 that this pattern was finally overcome.

In July 1862, though significant progress had been made out West, the abysmal situation in the East made it clear to Lincoln that he had to reshuffle his command system. For this fourth attempt, the President recreated the office of general-in-chief and directed Major General Henry Halleck, commander of all the Western forces, to travel back East and accept the post. There was no official strategist doctrine or a list of knowledge, skills, and abilities waiting for him when he arrived, but Lincoln certainly had a grasp of the specific tasks the most senior military commander should perform (and history offered plenty of examples of strategic leadership competencies). The duties of the general-in-chief apparently encompassed: development of a broad strategy with the policymakers, maintaining constant contact with the President, creation of a comprehensive military plan, communication of that plan to department and army commanders in each theater of operations, as well as the overseeing of its execution. These tasks required a unique man who could function as a visionary-realist, strategist, warrior-scholar, and politically adroit commander. The interpersonal skills needed for such a position included the ability to align, compromise, confront, delegate, and mentor.

Henry Halleck

Halleck served in this fourth command system from July 1862 to January 1864. Though he was better than his predecessors and held the title of general-in-chief the longest of any Union general, he failed to bring any strategic reform to the military. That said, in his favor, he agreed with the President’s offensive strategy, communicated well with him, and the two had a tolerable working relationship. Halleck’s biggest problem, however, was his personality. He was the antithesis of a politically adroit commander; other than Lincoln, he despised government officials, and he let them know it by insulting them to their faces. Another colossal flaw was that Halleck functioned more as the President’s military adviser and senior most staff officer. He was not a strategic leader. He did not develop a comprehensive military plan, nor was he able to establish command and control over the Union armies. True, it did not help that Halleck was only a major general and with the more obstinate or slow field commanders (e.g. Major Generals George McClellan, Don Buell, and William Rosecrans, and several more) he could not exercise his influence over them. 

Hence, with Halleck unwilling and unable to fulfill the duties of a general-in-chief, Lincoln experienced frustration as he continued to perform some of the more essential tasks, i.e. implementing an evolving offensive strategy and exerting his authority over the cadre.  The months between July 1862 and March 1863 were so bad in all the theaters that he was forced to dismiss at least six major generals who failed to win battles. Then, in April of ’63, progress was made out West when Major General Ulysses S. Grant moved against Vicksburg, Mississippi in an attempt to gain full control of the Mississippi River, but the situation in the East remained grim. General Robert E. Lee again defeated yet another Union general at Chancellorsville in the spring of ’63. Finally, Lincoln received a glimmer of hope in July when Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac repulsed Lee’s northern invasion at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Grant’s forces captured Vicksburg. More good news followed as Grant routed the Confederates at Chattanooga and pushed them out of Tennessee in November. With a keen eye, the President saw an opportunity to reshape the command structure. 

U.S. Grant, 1865

During the winter of 1863/64, Lincoln, the policymakers, the people, and the military formed a fifth command system with a more modern model.  In February 1864, Congress passed legislation restoring the rank of lieutenant general and returning it to the highest rank in the army. The bill not only authorized the President to select one of the current major generals to the position but also to appoint the senior officer as commander of all the armies and general-in-chief. With battlefield victories throughout the Western Theater, the people, a bipartisan Congress, and Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant, Lieutenant General and General-in-Chief, on March 9. The one nuance was that he did not like Washington, and he did not want to set up his headquarters in the city. Instead, he felt he would be more effective and efficient overseeing the war out in the field with Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Lincoln consented, but to ensure and expedite communication between him and Grant, the President created a new command position, the Chief-of-Staff, and assigned Halleck to the post. The North finally had a winning command system. 

Now, if you’re saying “Wait, was it the command system or the individuals within that system who made it successful,” the answer is both.  As Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln exercised his authority over Grant. The General-in-Chief, in turn, had the personality and a willingness to comply with the President’s strategy of destroying the Confederate resistance (i.e. main Southern armies), rather than capturing territory.  Grant also had the skills to develop a comprehensive plan that dovetailed with this overall strategy; then, he communicated it to the field commanders and oversaw the destruction of the enemy’s forces. As a lieutenant general, Grant, moreover, acquired the authority, as well as had the personality and respect, to effect his command over the senior major generals, and so, he achieved control over all the Union armies.  Last, but not least, while Halleck did not function exactly as a contemporary chief-of-staff, he played a vital role in the chain-of-command and was quite good at it. He was a quasi-civilian-military interpreter. He translated Lincoln’s strategic ideas in a way that Grant understood; and, the latter’s military ideas in a way that the President comprehended. Because of Halleck’s communication skills, Lincoln and Grant always understood each other.  Finally, after two years and ten months and five command systems, a symbiotic relationship was established between the Commander-in-Chief and General-in-Chief, allowing the North to efficiently and effectively use their armies and navy against the Confederate resistance and impose their political will upon the Southern people spring 1864 through spring 1865. 


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, and Noah Trudeau, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days that Changed a Presidency, March 24 – April 8, 1865. El Dorado Hills, CA.  Savas Beatie, 2016.

4 Responses to Lincoln Develops a More Modern Command System – Part 2: Frustration to Breakthrough

  1. Excellent conversation starter. Abraham Lincoln did indeed struggle with Command Structure over the course of the war, and had to deal with petty grievances, ego, incompetence, drunkards, and questionable loyalties. The President’s first pick (after Lee – real offer?) to replace General Scott was late arriving from California, so George McClellan ended up with the job. John Fremont was removed from command in the West, and Henry Halleck then expanded on Fremont’s secure St. Louis base to drive secession forces out of Missouri; and absorb Buell’s Department; and take credit for Conquest of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island No.10 and Corinth; and predicted Victory at Memphis (in spite of Lincoln and Stanton attempting a joint Chiefs of the Armies role in Washington, after removing McClellan.) Realizing their Joint Chiefs experiment was not a success, Halleck was called from the West in July 1862 and installed as General in Chief… and failed to live up to his promise. Due to success at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, following on earlier recognition as a “hard fighter,” U.S. Grant was called from the West…

  2. I suppose Lincoln could have used something like the XXth century Leahy or Taylor as a conduit. This would also have reduced the meddling of cabinet officers as well.

  3. That had to be a bitter pill to swallow for Halleck after all the back-stabbing and biting he did to Grant. He wasn’t alone in that, but his antics were quite well known.

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