Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary wartime leader. He led the country through its most trying ordeal, a civil war that spanned nearly his entire presidency and took a greater toll in American lives than all the other conflicts with which this book will deal put together. At several points during the struggle, he faced the prospect of both military and electoral defeat, either of which would have spelled the end of the nation. His decisions and determination led to a triumph that also ended the brutal system of chattel slavery. The republic took the first tentative steps toward the “new birth of freedom” that he articulated as the ultimate goal of the terrible sacrifices the war imposed. Our martyred sixteenth president accordingly, and appropriately, has been elevated to a kind of secular sainthood.
Lincoln’s performance still calls for critical reappraisal. Even his admirers acknowledge its flaws. This should be no surprise: Lincoln may have been extraordinary, but even he could not escape the impossible leadership demands and inherent conflicts that all wartime presidents face. It is unreasonable to hold them to a standard of perfection. We should instead weigh their full record, recognizing the challenges they met as they guided a nation through military conflict, challenges that grew in magnitude with the scale of the war.
Lincoln struggled to master the multiple responsibilities of the political leader of a nation at war. As James McPherson, Eric Foner, and other historians have observed, Lincoln’s political objectives evolved over the course of the Civil War as the nature of the conflict changed, and one of his signature achievements was to reshape political goals accordingly. Lincoln chose to play a hands-on role in directing the war. Eliot Cohen, unsurprisingly, depicts him as the paragon of effective wartime political leadership, the model to which any president commanding a conflict should aspire. But there is more to the story. Lincoln established an overall strategy for pursuing victory and kept his military subordinates focused on that strategy. In the end, victory depended less on his active direction than on the strategic course he established when he embraced emancipation. Moreover, he took a back seat during the final campaigns. It is not clear, then, that he can serve Cohen’s prescriptive purpose. Interestingly, the Civil War provides us with a second example of an active politico-military chief executive, Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. A comparison of the two presidents is revealing: Davis demonstrated that a political leader’s close involvement in military matters is no guarantee of success.
Further, wartime political leadership involves more than military matters, and we therefore need to extend analysis of Lincoln beyond the military realm. Two other leadership tasks stand out: maintaining popular support for the war effort and planning for peace. Both require as much active direction as military affairs. Here Lincoln’s record is mixed. He did well in meeting the political challenge of keeping up Union morale, which was severely tested time and again. Given the depth of partisan strife in the North, this was an impressive achievement, though I will show that he was aided not just by his own skills but by the resources of the Republican Party.
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