Robert Gates


The controversy over Robert Gates’ new book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” has raised important questions about how presidents should deal with the military.  I have not read Gates’ book, so I should not comment on it. But I have been asked to comment on how Lincoln dealt with his generals and admirals and other military advisors.

Lincoln’s first Secretary of War (now called the Secretary of Defense) was Simon Cameron, who proved to be incompetent and notoriously crooked.  Lincoln exiled him to a diplomatic post inRussia.  His second Secretary of War was the ill-tempered but honest and efficient Edwin M. Stanton, with whom Lincoln worked closely until his assassination. Stanton was present when Lincoln expired and famously said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Relations between the Lincoln White House and the military were uneven.  Lincoln greatly admired some of his military men–like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Porter, and Farragut–and gave them an almost free hand in military matters. But he regarded others as unreliable, prone to exaggeration, lacking in judgment and courage. He criticized their ideas and ignored their recommendations.

Many military leaders regarded Lincoln as a meddler, incompetent, soft-hearted, and a blabber of sensitive intelligence. General George McClellan, in letters to his wife, called Lincoln a “baboon” and an “idiot.”  He believed that politicians (Remember, Lincoln was a politician.) were leading the country to disaster.  He strongly urged Lincoln not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln paid absolutely no attention to his advice, and eventually fired him. 

Was Lincoln within his rights to do this?  Absolutely. The founding fathers made it clear that civilians (i.e. politicians) would control the military, and not the other way around.

In 1775 Congress established 69 Articles of War, which includes these words,  “Any officer or soldier who shall use contemptuous or disrespectful words against the President of the United States, against the vice president thereof, against Congress of the United States…shall be cashiered or otherwise punished as a courts-martial shall direct; if a noncommissioned officer or soldier, he shall suffer such punishment shall be inflicted on him by the sentence of the court-martial.”  (The basic concepts of the Articles of War were incorporated within the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.)

The idea that politicians should just get out of the way is a commonly held belief, but it is not what the founding founders intended.  And it certainly did not happen in the Lincoln White House. 

Most Americans would be stunned to know that General George McClellan, Lincoln‘s top general during the first part of the Civil War, was prodded by his supporters to march his huge army toward Washington, stage a Napoleon-like coup, and install a dictatorship. We now know McClellan seriously considered the idea after he repulsed Robert E. Lee’s army at Antietam. McClellan was talked out of it by several influential people, including one member of Lincoln’s cabinet. But it was a close call for the United States

We also know that General Joseph Hooker, who subsequently became Lincoln‘s top general in the field, talked openly about a dictatorship.  In fact, when Lincoln appointed Hooker to command the army, Lincoln let him know that he knew:
“I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”  

After that letter from Lincoln, there seems never to have been a peep about a dictator. 

Bottom line.  There were fierce debates in the Lincoln White House about how to conduct the War and who should do it.  When Lincoln moved General Grant into the top position, he explicitly ordered Grant not to make political pronouncements.  Lincoln insisted that he held the right to make political decisions, and he would entrust them to no other.

(I discuss this topic in greater detail in “Lincoln And Obama” pp. 111-116. There’s an excellent 2012 book on the subject: Richard Slotkin’s excellent “The Long Road to Antietam: How The Civil War Became A  Revolution.”  Beautifully written.  Careful attention to the historical record.  It contains one shocking revelation after another!)

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