The president as commander in chief.

AuthorTerry, James P.
PositionP. 423-456
  1. Abraham Lincoln

    The first of our wartime Presidents to direct an unlimited war as Commander in Chief, as opposed to the prior limited wars, was Abraham Lincoln. Our sixteenth President was elected in 1860 and took office in 1861. (173) Unlike the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, the Civil War was totally disruptive of the lives of U.S. citizens and of our national economy. Like the First and Second World Wars of the next century, the Civil War required a total commitment of men and industry in the national interest. These words from Edward Corwin aptly describe Lincoln's welding of power during the Civil War: "[A]ll resources of constitutional power ever previously uncovered were brought into requisition on a scale hitherto unparalleled, by a President who was happily free of any mistrust of power when it was wielded by himself." (174)

    With no military background other than minor experience as a militia soldier in Indian skirmishes, Lincoln possessed a superb mind and became a fine strategist. (175) No one better exemplified Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that an understanding of military affairs is not nearly as important for a wartime leader as "distinguished intellect and strength of character." (176) Lincoln saw the big picture from the beginning and understood that his sole objective must be the destruction of the Confederate armies and not the occupation of territory in the Southern States. (177)

    In the conduct of the Civil War, nothing was more important than the selection of general officers to lead the Northern armies. Soon after the war started, Lincoln replaced General Winfield Scott with Irvin McDowell, and later replaced McDowell with George McClellan (after McDowell's defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run). (178) All three had little understanding of how they could or should share their strategic views with the Chief Executive, and Lincoln had to train them and their successors to address clearly the strategic situation, make clear decisions in terms of war planning, take decisive action, and make required strategic adjustments as the campaigns unfolded. (179)

    The problem for Lincoln in his general selection of officers was compounded by the need to select an aliquot share of officers of the opposing Democrat party, just as he had maintained a national political cohesion in his administration by selecting his principal opponents for the Presidency as cabinet members. (180) Of those generals who did serve in positions of great responsibility during the conflict, there were as many ineffective and indecisive leaders as there were, later in the war, those who rose to the challenge and proved to be extremely capable.

    After observing seventeen months of General McClellan's leadership, Lincoln became convinced that McClellan could not lead the Union army to victory. (181) When Lincoln wrote a letter, dated October 13, 1862, to his commanding general exhorting him to move on Robert E. Lee's forces, (182) and in response, McClellan complained to Lincoln of inadequate horses, Lincoln removed him in frustration and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside. (183) Burnside was in command in the fateful Union attack across the Rappahannock River on well-fortified Confederate positions along a string of hillsides overlooking Fredericksburg, Virginia, in late 1862. (184) There he suffered a disastrous defeat to an inferior force. (185) When, following that costly defeat, Lincoln removed Burnside in favor of General Joseph Hooker, Burnside had been in command of Union forces only about seventy-five days. (186)

    General Hooker's command of the Army of the Potomac was also short-lived. In another fateful battle just west of Fredericksburg at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Confederate forces under Generals Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson rolled up the Union infantry in perhaps the greatest flanking movement in American military history. (187) Despite the ignominious military loss by the Union, the loss of General "Stonewall" Jackson to friendly fire as he returned through his own lines from a reconnaissance of Union positions represented an even greater loss to Lee and the Confederacy. (188) Relieved by Lincoln after only five months in command, Hooker was followed in command by General George Meade. (189)

    Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee drove north into Pennsylvania. (190) It was at the sleepy crossroads town of Gettysburg in 1863 that Meade faced Lee in the bloodiest battle of the war. While Meade's forces won a decisive victory and halted the Confederate advance, Meade failed to counterattack, allowing Lee and his crippled forces to escape and withdraw into Virginia where they had the opportunity to reconstitute. (191) Lincoln was totally frustrated at Meade's failure to follow up on the initial victory. (192) When Meade learned of Lincoln's frustration, he asked to be relieved as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, but Lincoln refused to accept his resignation. (193)

    It was General Ulysses S. Grant, however, who would prove to have all the qualities Lincoln sought in his commanding general. Grant first came to Lincoln's attention at the Battle of Vicksburg, (194) where the General completely cut off the city and forced its surrender. (195) The Union victory at Vicksburg was followed by crushing blows to the Confederate army against General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee as Grant drove that force into Georgia. (196) The Union General's selection of strong subordinates with the will to persevere, no matter how difficult the slogging, was equally critical to Lincoln. Grant's choice of Generals Phillip Sheridan and William Sherman was crucial to keeping the pressure on Confederate forces at every turn. (197) When Grant was called back to Washington in March 1864, General Henry Halleck stepped down as Commanding General of the Armies of the United States to become Lincoln's Chief of Staff, and Grant replaced him. (198) Without question, Grant had convinced Lincoln that he possessed the ability and the fighting heart to crush the Confederate army, and Lincoln had the wisdom to understand that this was precisely the man to lead at this critical time in our history. (199)

    In other areas as well, Lincoln brought a willingness as Commander in Chief to exercise his war powers without hesitation and with great decisiveness. In 1861, following the attack on Fort Sumter, he called for seventy-five thousand militia without congressional consent or approval. (200) In order to preserve the Union, he considered a broad interpretation of his powers essential. As the President later told Congress:

    The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed, were being resisted, and failing of execution, in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear, that by the use of the means necessary to their execution, some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen's liberty, that practically, it relieves more of the guilty, than of the innocent, should, to a very limited extent, be violated? To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? (201) These early measures were just one small part of Lincoln's aggressive execution of his war powers. In April 1861, he directed Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Chase to advance his Administration two million dollars in nonappropriated funds to pay for the government's critical defense requirements, (202) despite the clause in the Constitution specifying that "[n]o Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." (203) He did not advise Congress of this action until more than a year later. (204)

    Lincoln also took immediate and decisive action to suppress sedition and address treasonous acts on the part of Confederate sympathizers in the Northern States. His most visible actions occurred after Southern sympathizers attacked Massachusetts militiamen transiting through Baltimore. (205) The sympathizers also seized the telegraph office in Baltimore and precluded communications between New York and Washington for almost a week. (206) Once service was restored by federal forces, Lincoln exercised federal censorship over all communications from that office, (207) and ordered that persons engaged in, or about to engage in, treasonable actions be arrested and, if necessary, detained. (208) This instruction was followed by authorization, on April 27, 1861, to his commanders to suspend habeas corpus "at any point on or in the vicinity of any military line" between Philadelphia and Washington. (209) In each instance, Lincoln did what was required for the successful prosecution of the war, with little concern for what the courts would say later. (210)

  2. William McKinley

    When Republican William McKinley of Ohio was elected to the White House in 1896, "the Major" inherited an Army that had been largely depleted after the Civil War, (211) but a Navy that had seen the largess of a Congress anxious for the United States to compete as a major sea power with Great Britain and Russia. (212) The ostensible reasons voiced by Republicans and opposing Democrats alike for entering into this nation's first limited offensive war included Spain's refusal to grant independence to Cuba, retaliation for the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor, and the need to eliminate the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay if the Philippine Islands were to be available to the U.S. fleet as a needed coaling station and protected harbor for U.S. naval forces assigned in the Western Pacific. (213)

    In approving the initial military operation of the campaign in 1898, McKinley ordered Admiral George Dewey, the Commander of the Asiatic squadron in Hong Kong, to "[p]roceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet.... Use...

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