Lincoln as Commander in Chief
Radical secessionists were quick to act following the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. Scarcely one month later, calls to arms sounded across North and South. The immediate advantage in the contest lay with the South, particularly in the area of leadership, and had it been a short war, it doubtless would have ended with a Union defeat. Much of the credit for Northern tenacity can be attributed to President Lincoln, who preferred death in the cause of liberty over surrender.
To Lincoln, this democratic union of states represented the hope of America, and an example to the entire world. While deftly maintaining the support of Congress, Lincoln battled incompetence in military leadership. Finally, generals not afraid to confront the enemy emerged from the ranks, topped by Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. These were men who understood the brutality of war, and from that point forward, the tide of battle changed. The object of the overall struggle also changed. No longer was it only a war for the preservation of the Union, but both from desire and necessity, the war became a battle for liberty and freedom for slaves.
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Call to Arms
President Lincoln struggled vigorously to avoid war. Realizing that whoever fired the first shot would lose moral ground, he was determined not to initiate the seemingly inevitable conflict. The Civil War began with the Southern bombardment of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12 and 13, 1861. Following the surrender of the fort, the northern states rallied behind Lincoln’s call for troops to preserve the Union. Read more about Call to Arms »
Lincoln changed the command structure of the Union army several times before choosing Ulysses S. Grant as the general-in-chief who could lead Union forces to final victory. George McClellan, Lincoln’s first appointment as general-in-chief, was, even after Lincoln rescinded that higher appointment, the most popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army in the East. But McClellan lost Lincoln’s confidence because of his reluctance to take offensive action. When the general failed to pursue the retreating Confederate army after the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Lincoln removed him from command. Under McClellan’s first two successors—Ambrose E. Burnside and Joseph Hooker—the failures mounted.
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Almost as soon as Lincoln took office, abolitionists and radical Republicans began pressuring the president to issue an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln hesitated for fear of jeopardizing the fragile Union coalition that included slave-owning, border states. Nearly two years after taking the oath of office, on January 1, 1863, he issued the final Emancipation Proclamation that declared that all slaves within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Tying emancipation directly to military victory, this crucially important document marked the expansion of Northern war aims to include emancipation along with preservation of the Union, thus altering the nature of the war. Lincoln considered the document his greatest achievement.
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Success through Trial and Error
During the first years of the war, Lincoln struggled to find a commander who would attack the Confederate armies aggressively. In 1863, Ulysses S. Grant led a successful campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, thereby securing Union control of the Mississippi River. In March 1864, Lincoln named Grant commander of the Union armies. Grant carried out a strategy of simultaneous attacks on the South’s economy as well as its armies. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the war.
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End in Sight
By early 1865, the Civil War was drawing to an end. Much of the Southern landscape was devastated, the Southern economy was shattered, and the demoralized Confederates saw little chance of winning. After four years of fighting and the death of 620,000 soldiers—more than in all other American wars combined—both Northerners and Southerners were relieved when the bloody conflict ended. However, despite Lincoln’s appeal for unity and forgiveness in his second inaugural address, Southern whites were justifiably concerned as to how the victorious Federal government, which was rapidly falling under the control of Northern radical Republicans, would deal with them.
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