Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Lincoln’s Impact on Military Operations

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, a color lithograph by Currier & Ives; (SCALA/Art Resource)


Lincoln and McClellan

In class, we’ve been discussing how the decisions of the two commanders-in-chief during the American Civil War impacted events at the operational level. Modern scholars have challenged the notion that Lincoln simply stayed involved in military details until he found the right general (Grant). Eliot Cohen posits that’s “Lincoln exercised a constant oversight of the war effort from beginning to end.”(1) This intense interest in providing direction can be seen as early as the events surrounding the attack on Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s order of the nonviolent resupply of the fort, which caused the Confederates to fire the first shot and thus initiate the war, demonstrates Lincoln’s willingness to go against the advice of senior commanders. Equally important, it showed his considerable ability at playing the game of strategy. Cohen summed it up well by calling Lincoln’s move “characteristically cunning” and revealing of “a steely willingness to accept the hazards of war.”(2)

Lincoln continued to immerse himself in operational details, stepping back only to a degree when General Grant became General-in-chief but certainly not completely. Lincoln carefully reviewed dispatches and, as has been well documented, literally camped in the telegraph office during battles. In fact, he qualified as a micro-manager to some degree. As such, one of the ways in which his leadership impacted operation was by his dismissal of generals who didn’t perform. “By comparison with our recent presidents, Lincoln was an exceptionally unforgiving boss.”(3) He also took considerable personal interest in the technological advancements that took place prior to and during the war. His personal influence could make things happen as it did with the development of river canon, which helped to win control by the Union of the Mississippi River and southern ports.

General Grant

C. A. Dana

Lincoln was so intent upon staying informed of field activities that he installed journalist Charles Dana as, effectively, a spy in Grant’s camp while he was assigned in the west. Dana, who even had his own cipher for sending reports back to Stanton, was also dispatched to observe and report back on the command abilities of General Rosecrans. Lincoln put Dana back in Grant’s camp later in the war even after Grant had demonstrated success and earned Lincoln’s trust. This fact further dispels the notion that Lincoln simply turned over the war’s higher direction to Grant.(4) In fact, Cohen posits that “Lincoln did not merely find his generals; he controlled them. He molded the war to its last days, and he intended to dominate the making of peace at its end.” (5)

(1)  Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, (London: Free Press, 2002), 19.
(2)  Ibid., 20.
(3)  Ibid., 24.
(4)  Ibid., 51.
(5)  Ibid., 21.


This Weekend’s Reading: “Grant” and “Lincoln and His Generals”

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I’m reading this weekend for class, Lincoln and His Generals by T. Harry Williams.


For pleasure, I’m reading Grant by Jean Edward Smith, this on my Kindle.


Informal Leadership and Civil War Command

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I’m reading the second half of Archer Jones’ Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory And Defeat this weekend. He makes an interesting point about the power of informal leadership over formal leadership positing that people find informal leaders just as they create informal organizations. He suggests that George McClellan provides one of the best examples.

McClellancroppedAs the creator and first commander of that Army [the Army of the Potomac], he had claims to loyalty which his charisma and the appeal of his Peninsula campaign’s strategy intensified. Even after he had left the command, his position of formal leadership, he continued to exercise great informal influence. This often took the form of the officers of the Army of the Potomac displaying hostility to the secretary of war  and an unshakable allegiance to the strategy of the Peninsula campaign. No successor in command could ever displace him as the army’s informal leader, a situation  which made it difficult for every subsequent commander and limited the ability of the president ad the general in chief to enjoy any widespread, deep-rooted support.

LeecroppedIn like fashion, he suggests that Lee uprooted Johnston’s memory because of the three campaigns he conducted in four months and put Lee in the position of informal and formal leader of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Do you agree with his assessment?

CivilWarCommand&StrategyArcher Jones, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory And Defeat, (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 126.

Technology in U.S Military History Series Posts

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I was quite flattered to discover that my series on Technology in U.S. Military History was listed as “Recommended Reading” on a graduate course in Military Leadership at the University of Oklahoma. To make it easier for those posts to be accessed, I’ve moved them to the “Popular Series” section pages. That can be accessed here or on the right Nav Bar under Popular Series Posts.

Or, you can access below which replicates the series post page.


Written by Rene Tyree

January 16, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Stewards of Civil War Railroads – Part III

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This post completes the series, Stewards of Civil War Railroads. Read Part I here and Part II here.

Group of the Construction Corps U.S. Military Railroads with working tools, etc., Chattanooga, Tennessee

Above: Group of the Construction Corps U.S. Mil. R. Rds., with working tools, etc., Chattanooga, Tennessee
Courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-62364

Millett and Maslowski posit that President Abraham Lincoln did not have Jefferson Davis’ sensitivity about government interference with railroads. The evidence supports the point and also suggests that Davis’ hands-off approach expanded to other areas under his purview including signals and communications. Whether he was afflicted with chronic indecisiveness or was bowing to the perceived whims of a public unreceptive to “big government” is open for discussion but as in many things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Regardless, it is clear that rational military considerations were not the sole concern in shaping the South’s military policies and programs. Had they been so, military needs would have received higher priority and the events of the war may have flowed differently.

Above: Lincoln and McClellan

The impact of the decision making processes in the Lincoln and Davis administrations and the respective Congresses as regards those issues impacting the military is indeed a fascinating one and worthy of continued analysis and review. Clearly the social, economic, and political nuances of the North versus the South had much to do with the directions taken within each section. But one is left to wonder whether the leadership qualities of Lincoln and Davis, including the ability to be decisive, allowed the North to more frequently follow a path guided by rational military reason.

The engine

Above: The engine “Firefly” on a trestle of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.

Stewards of Civil War Railroads – Part II Davis

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This post continues from Part I, here.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis (above) and the Confederate Congress, by contrast, were reluctant to wrestle control of the railroads away from civilian owners. This was consistent with a laissez faire pattern exhibited by Davis on a number of issues involving civilian commercial interests and may have been a response to the populace’s opposition to overbearing centralized government. The consequences were dire for Lee. In the winter of 1862, he found his Army of Northern Virginia completely reliant on its communications. [i]


Above: Pocotaligo, South Carolina – Railroad depot center of image surrounded by rough sketch of soldiers and covered wagons. Circa: 1865
Medium: 1 drawing on tan paper : pencil, black ink wash, and Chinese white ; 14.7 x 21.4 cm. (sheet).
Source: Library of Congress Ref: LC-USZ62-14306 (b&w film copy neg.)

With the mobility, indeed the survival, of the army dependent on the efficient use of the railroads, the railroad owners responded with an assertion of their individual rights. They failed to cooperate. Government shipments were accorded low priority. The railroads over which the animals’ feed had to be transported refused to use the space for bulk fodder. The breakdown of the railroad system led to a crisis in the supply of horses, mules, fodder, and subsistence. The Army of Northern Virginia was left hanging at the end of its lines of communications.[ii]

 Warrenton Depot

Above: Warrenton Depot, on the Orange & Alexandria RR, in August 1862. Supply point for Lee.

Davis’ refusal to give greater control to the military for operation of the railroads added to “the weight of this burden of waging war by improvisation within the confines of the Confederacy’s social and political ideals [and] helped break the back of Confederate offensive power.” [iii]

Edward Hagerman notes that problems continued into 1863 as “conflicts between the commissary agents of field commanders and those of the [Confederate] Subsistence Department hampered efficient gathering of available resources.” [iv] The largest obstacle was “the failure of the railroads to cooperate in the distribution of food surpluses from other states to the Army of Northern Virginia. Neither the army nor the government exercised any control over the railroads.” [v] It wasn’t until Lee’s army was faced with starvation that the Confederate Congress intervened. In April of 1863, it “hesitantly” granted Jefferson Davis the “authority to regulate the railroads.” [vi]

The laissez faire-minded Davis was as reluctant to accept the authority as the Confederate Congress was to bestow it. Here was the instrument to prevent a recurrence of the crisis of the past winter. It would enable through scheduling the interchange of rolling stock from one railroad to another. It also would enable the War Department, rather than the railroad owners, to decide on the priority of material to be transported. [vii]

Davis signed the bill into law but Congress ensured its ineffectiveness by failing to approve an “office of railroad superintendent” as proposed by the secretary of war and by sacking the temporary appointee. [viii] “Not until early 1865, far too late, did the Confederacy finally take control of the railroads.” [ix]

[i, ii, iii] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 121.

[iv, v] Ibid., 130.

[vi, vii, viii] Ibid., 131.

[ix] Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, 165.



Jomini on the Nature of War – Part VII – Jomini’s Impact on Civil War Leadership

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jomini-cropped.jpgThis post continues the series of “Jomini on the Nature of War.” Part I: Introduction is available here, Part II: The Burgeoning Military Theorist here, Part III: The Founder of Modern Strategy here, Part IV: The Basics here, Part V: Lines of Operation here, and Part VI – The Conduct of War here.

Returning to Baron Antoine de Jomini (right), I wanted to explore the extent to which his strategies influenced those who held leadership positions during the American Civil War. A modest survey of the literature revealed some disagreement. 

Historian James L. Morrison, Jr. in his article “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 – 1861,″ pointed out that exposure to Jomini came during “Professor Dennis H. Mahan’s [pictured below] course, Civil and Military Engineering and the Science of War which all First Classmen studied daily.”[i]

Dennis Mahan

Dennis H. Mahan
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

But only nine hours were given to the study of the science of war and Morrison contends that this was entirely too brief an exposure to have had any lasting impact. That said, he acknowledges that some alumni of the military academy studied Jomini thoroughly including Beauregard, Lee, Halleck, and McClellan.

“…The same cannot be said for the great majority of their colleagues who had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to continue their strategic studies after graduation. Probably Sherman was more representative of the typical graduate when he denied that Jomini had affected his thoughts or actions in the war.” [ii]

 I’ll discuss some additional viewpoints in the next post.

A word on Dennis H. Mahan. A military theorist in his own right, Mahan was instrumental in developing the engineering-focused curriculum at West Point. Some may recall that he was the father of naval strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. The elder’s obituary, which appeared on September 17, 1871 in New York Times here, reveals that Professor Mahan committed suicide by jumping in the Hudson River from the deck of the steamboat Mary Powell in such a way that he was hit by the wheel. He was apparently despondant about being forced to retire. A sad end to a remarkable career. Professor Mahan’s memoir is available online here.

Powell Photo
Mary Powell, Queen of the Hudson

[i, ii] James L. Morrison, Jr., “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 – 1861,” Military Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Oct., 1974), pp. 109.