Free Media Learning Opportunity: James McPherson ~ Lincoln as Strategist


On March 15, 2008, eminent historian (and Gustavus Adolphus College graduate) James McPherson, addressed the Pritzker Military Library on President Lincoln as a strategist. His analysis is interesting:

“As Commander in Chief in time of war, the President performs or overseas three areas: Policy, National Strategy, and Military Strategy.”

“Policy refers to war aims, the political goals of a nation in time of war.”

“Lincoln’s policy at outset: Preservation of the U.S. as one nation, indivisible, a republic based on majority rule.”

-Lincoln in May 1861: “The central idea pervading is the necessity of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now whether in a free government, the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”

-On another occasion, Lincoln described secession as “the essence of anarchy, because if one state may secede at will, so may any other, until there is no government and no nation.”

-Lincoln in 1864: “This [sovereignty] issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”

“National Strategy refers to mobilization of the political, economic, diplomatic and psychological as well as military resources of the nation to achieve those war aims.”

-McPherson identfies Lincoln’s “national political mobilization effort through military patronage” (largely via “political” and ethnic generals) to rapidly increase the size of the Union Army.

-Slavery: starts as a military strategy and becomes policy. Had to keep Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland. MG Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, receives slaves as “contraband” to deny the Confederacy workers and weaken enemy. After the victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the issue of slavery from a means to defeat the Confederacy to a policy or war aim.

“Military Strategy refers to plans for the employment of armed forces to win victories that will further the political goals.”

-[at 22 minutes] To invade and conquer the Confederacy, the Union was forced to do so using “exterior lines.” The Confederacy, defending that territory, could rely on interior lines, shifting resources from one threatened area to another.

January 1862, General Henry Halleck: “To operate on exterior lines against an enemy occupying a central position will fail. It is condemned by every military authority I have ever read.”

Lincoln, in response: “I state my general idea of this war that we have the greater numbers and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision. that we must fail unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his. This can only be done by menacing him with superior at different points at the same time, so that we can safely attack one or both if he makes no change, and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forebear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”

McPherson calls this the clearest statement of the military strategy of “concentration in time.”

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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