Book Review: Lincoln And His Generals

Lincoln And His Generals, by T. Harry Williams

This book, one of quite a few spoken of my my local congregational pastor [1], is one of many books about Abraham Lincoln that have been written over the years, and like many books written since its publishing in 1952, it seeks to differentiate itself from other books on the subject of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, about which many books have been written [2]. In the Preface, which is important for readers to seriously examine, the author notes that his particular focus on generals is based on Lincoln’s involvement with them, which explains why much is said about generals like McClellan, Banks, Fremont, and Hunter, despite their mediocre to poor military record, and why comparatively little is said about able generals like Sherman and Thomas who Lincoln did not deal with as closely. Understanding the author’s focus, in this case the demonstration of Lincoln’s genius as a military and political grand strategist, is vital to correctly understanding and evaluating this book.

In terms of the book’s organization and contents, the book follows a chronological order but one that is heavily slanted towards the beginning of the Civil War, with far fewer pages given to the second half of the war when the Union war machine was functioning far more smoothly. The first chapter covers the pattern of command at the beginning of the Civil War, looking at its conduct from a fair perspective and not an anachronistic one. The next chapter looks at Fremont in the West and McClellan in the East as self-professed men of destiny, while the next five chapters focus on Lincoln’s troubled relationship with McClellan and his efforts at prodding McClellan to advance, while also discussing the failures of generals like Banks, McDowell, and Pope, the problems of cooperation between Halleck and Buell before Halleck’s rise to the position of General-in-chief, and the early successes of Grant. After this the author discusses the choice of new generals like Burnside and Rosecrans, the desire for victories from those generals, and General Hooker, in early 1863, the victories of Grant at Vicksburg and the barren victory of Meade in Gettysburg, by which point the book is more than two-thirds complete, and then the failure of Rosecrans to recover after Chickamuga and the failure of Meade to advance in the autumn of 1863. The last three chapters discuss the modern command system overseen by Grant, the eventual success of coordinated movements with a great deal of input by Lincoln in 1864, and a short closing chapter that examines Lincoln at the hour of victory in the aftermath of his reelection win in late 1864. The book as a whole covers slightly more than 350 pages of text, and although it is largely unadorned text, it does contain intriguing photos of many of the leading generals it discusses.

While some readers may fault the balance in this book, it admirably serves its point in discussing the role of Lincoln in overseeing and directing the Union war effort to a greater degree than would be acceptable to the military establishment in contemporary warfare. The author is at some pains in correcting certain hagiography of Grant, as well as Grant’s occasional misstatements in his memoirs, but is generally very positive towards Grant, and even to Halleck, relative to the view of many other historians. Aside from Lee, the author has comparatively little to say about rebel generals. Among the more noteworthy and praiseworthy aspects of this book is the way that the author takes a great deal of text from Lincoln’s letters and telegrams and from the diaries of contemporaries, including the generals themselves, noting where variant accounts exist of a particular situation or interaction, and finding a great deal to praise in Lincoln’s humility as well as his natural strategic genius. For those authors who wish to understand the sorts of strains that the North was under and the mostly deft way in which Lincoln handled the situation, this book is an excellent and worthwhile examination of the difficult but ultimately successful relationship between Lincoln and his generals, once he found the right generals to put into place his grand strategic vision for Union victory.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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