All historians amateur and professional have their own viewpoints and assessments of Lincoln. Who was Abraham Lincoln? What made Lincoln great? What was Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment? All questions worthy of debate and assessment. What about in his darkest hour or time of greatest challenge? What was Lincoln’s greatest attribute during his greatest crisis?
In this particular activity, I will present two attributes that I believe made Lincoln great during the Civil War. These are obviously not his only attributes but rather two that I feel played an important role in helping the Union to win the war. My students will then attempt to answer my opening question in the form of an essay as their culminating activity.
At the outset of his 1st term, Lincoln entered the White House completely unprepared for his role as Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln's prior military experience consisted of a three month stint in the Illinois Militia during the Blackhawk War which resulted in a rank of Captain. During his experience, Lincoln joked on his lack of action remarking he “had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from the loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry." Despite this lack of military experience, his growth with regard to his ability to lead and interact with his generals was instrumental in the Union victory. Bruce Tap highlights some of his growth in "Amateurs at War". Tap argues that while Lincoln was inexperienced and made mistakes, particularly early in the war. He improved and grew throughout the war. Tap argues that although Lincoln did not have much in the way of military experience, he studied military tactics with great attention and clearly grew in knowledge during the course of the war.
- The first example of Lincoln's leadership with regard to his generals, was his criticism/questioning of George McClellan on October 13th of 1862. In this particular piece, relatively early in the war Lincoln exhibits his leadership by pressing his general to act. He was very clear in his directions or ideas on how McClellan should proceed however, he was careful at the end of the piece to remind McClellan that he wasn't "giving McClellan an order". Here despite his view on how his general should proceed, the President stops short of giving him a direct order.
- Another example of Lincoln's growth can be found in his letter to Ulysses S. Grant on July 13, 1863. In the letter Lincoln congratulates Grant for his victory at Vicksburg. The President then goes further by acknowledging that he did not agree with Grant's strategy, but realized that Grant was correct in the strategy he employed.
- A close reading of this document is found below and not only analyzes the letter, but also gives some insight into the trust that was built between Lincoln and Grant with examples of further correspondence between the two.
- The final letter that shows Lincoln's growth was his heavy criticism of George Meade in an unsent letter following the Battle at Gettysburg. In this selection Lincoln was extremely critical of Meade and discussed his strategic failings and also the likelihood that Meade's lack of action prolonged the war indefinitely. This letter also shows Lincoln's development as a Commander-in-Chief. In the first example, we see a guy giving suggestions to McClellan but stopping short of giving a direct order. The Grant letter acknowledges a success and a failure on the President's part with regard to strategy. The Meade letter on the other hand, provided Lincoln the opportunity to get out his anger and frustration while stopping short of humiliating a general. This highlights the President's growth in that he demonstrated maturity in the face of a difficult situation. In the article by Bruce Tap, he argued that Lincoln believed the failure of his generals was simply due to their inability to perform their job. One has to wonder how much the success of Grant at Vicksburg while following his own course, coupled with Meade's failure played a part in Lincoln's decision to bring Grant east.
- The second attribute we examine with regard to President Lincoln during the Civil War involves his human side particularly in the form of compassion for the profound sense of loss experienced by people who lost family during the Civil War. The first correspondence was a letter from December 23rd, 1862 that the President was writing to a young woman Fanny McCullough who's father was killed in the war.
- Another letter that I examined involved a bereavement letter to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth a young man who was essentially murdered after removing a secessionist flag from atop a small hotel in Alexandria, Virginia.
- Both letters are also worthy of review through the process of close reading to get a closer look at the context, tone, and meaning of the President's sympathies. Although both were bereavement letters, they are different in there style and tone.
- The Civil War presented arguably the greatest challenge in the history of our nation. Only someone truly great could navigate that turbulent time and allow America to emerge in tact and perhaps even more democratic than the Founding Fathers had envisioned. Abraham Lincoln's growth as a Commander-in-Chief and compassion along with other attributes played a major role in preserving the nation. One can certainly make an argument for many of his other attributes besides the ones I mentioned above. The task for my students going forward is to use this storify page and the documents below to answer the question posed at the outset.