The Myth of the Free Hand

The relationship between Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln is often summed up by the apocryphal story of Lincoln saying “I can’t spare this man; he fights” after the battle of Shiloh. But while Union commander Henry Halleck, Grant’s superior, sidelined Grant after Shiloh, probably for his own ambition, Halleck also shielded Grant from a presidential inquiry into his actions. The truth is, to some extent, Abraham Lincoln did believe he could spare Grant, and considered doing so on several occasions, starting with Shiloh.

During Grant’s first attempts to take Vicksburg, Lincoln met with politician-general John McClernand, a prominent War Democrat. Unlike West Point Democrats Buell and McClellan, McClernand talked very aggressively, and he did have a good record on the battlefield to that point in the war. McClernand was also a good friend of Lincoln’s. McClernand got permission from Lincoln to gather a force to operate on the Mississippi River against Vicksburg. This was in direct contradiction of Grant’s authority as department commander in that region; the presence of separate forces under rival commanders trying to compete for the glory of taking Vicksburg, rather than working together, could only spell disaster.

Union general-in-chief Henry Halleck is criticized for a myriad of things, and often deservedly so. But he clearly saw the danger that McClernand’s independent command would represent. And whatever his reservations about Grant, Halleck loathed McClernand, who alienated Halleck, Grant, and many others with his big mouth and political intriguing. With a few letters to Grant, Halleck neatly neutralized McClernand, telling Grant he had authority over all forces in his department. After McClernand engaged in a fairly pointless adventure against Arkansas Post, Grant took personal command of all the forces operating against Vicksburg, reducing McClernand to the senior corps commander. But Lincoln wasn’t done meddling with the Vicksburg Campaign by a longshot. During the winter months, Lincoln, through Halleck, prodded Grant into trying a variety of schemes involving canals to bypass Vicksburg and join up with Banks. Uncomfortable with how long the campaign seemed to be taking, Lincoln sent not one, but two “envoys,” aka spies, Charles Dana and Lorenzo Thomas, to report on Grant. Grant took the shrewd approach of doing everything possible to impress both of them, while also stage-managing a few scenes in Dana’s presence of various officers denouncing McClernand. After the success of the Vicksburg Campaign, Lincoln did indeed write a remarkable letter to Grant, congratulating him on his success and admitting Grant had been right, and Lincoln wrong. A very important consequence of the Vicksburg Campaign was ensuring job security for Grant.

Lincoln wasn’t quite done having various men report on Grant however. General David Hunter, a favorite of Lincoln’s for being the rare West Pointer who was a fervent abolitionist, was sent by Stanton to report on the situation at Chattanooga. Hunter, either on his own or because he was told to do so, also reported on Grant’s personal habits, remarking that he only saw Grant take two drinks in a few weeks of sharing a room with him. The result of Chattanooga apparently erased whatever lingering doubts Lincoln might have retained about the mostly slanderous reports of Grant’s drinking. Grant came to Washington to take command of all the Union armies, and plan his campaign to put an end to the war.

Many authors, most notably the excellent Civil War scholar T.H. Williams, paint a certain picture of Lincoln as commander-in-chief. This picture is one where he has the correct strategic ideas on how to prosecute the war, but despite showing understanding, has to continually shuffle through generals until he finds Grant, and then he happily steps back, and lets Grant fight the war after providing his usual wise guidance. In reality, Lincoln’s insistence on using his political generals in the field severely handicapped Grant. Grant suggested returning generals like Buell and McClellan to active duty; Grant wasn’t overfond of Buell, but his motivation was probably to get professional soldiers to use to displace Lincoln’s politician-generals. But despite objections from Grant, Nathaniel Banks retained his post in the west, and also some of Sherman’s veteran troops that he had been loaned. The Red River Campaign in Louisiana was a pet project of Lincoln or Halleck’s, I’ve seen conflicting interpretations on that, but regardless, Lincoln allowed it to go forward despite the fact that Grant and even Banks himself were opposed to it. Benjamin Butler, a politician-general with a terrible combat record, also was given command of the Army of the James, which was a key component in Grant’s plan. Grant was initially not happy about this, though he came away from his first meeting with Butler favorably impressed. Grant tried to counteract potential shortcomings of Butler’s by giving him two professional subordinates to work with, William F. Smith, and Quincy A. Gilmore. Smith was a motormouth and a gossip, and a quarrelsome one at that. But he and Butler actually managed to largely tolerate each other; Gilmore didn’t get along with either of them however. There was also Franz Sigel in the Valley; I’m not aware that Grant expressed any specific protest there, but Halleck later dryly informed Grant by telegram that he couldn’t expect Sigel to do anything but run, so his shortcomings were well known.

Lincoln’s unwillingness to take the risk of offending a few politically important people very likely prolonged the war in 1864. Unlike many who hail Lincoln as a model commander-in-chief, in this instance at least, the military debacles created by his political generals far, far outweighed whatever benefit he got from keeping them in their posts. Banks and Sigel had to be relieved for incompetence in any case, and Butler was gone shortly after the elections. If, instead of sending Banks on his quixotic Red River Campaign, Lincoln had done as Grant wished and used those troops to take Mobile, then cooperate with Sherman in Georgia, the result would have been far superior. The same holds true for Butler and Sigel in Virginia. Grant did not have a free hand; in effect, he had to fight with one hand tied behind his back.

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