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Victory Out of Chaos

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May 19, 2004
Wall Street Journal


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently mentioned that he was reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant and finding some comforting parallels with the present day. He noted that during the Civil War, people "were despairing" too, but though "the carnage was horrendous," it turned out to be "worth it."

He didn't mention which Grant biography he was referring to, but it's possible that it was the one published in 1999 by Geoffrey Perret. Mr. Perret, a prolific Anglo-American biographer, military historian and novelist, has now returned to the same terrain with "Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief" (Random House, 470 pages, $35).

The book doesn't deliver on the promise of an "untold story." When it comes to Lincoln -- who has been the subject of more books than Napoleon or Hitler -- that's just about impossible. But Mr. Perret has managed to tell the old story in fine fashion. He has an excellent ear for language, whether describing the army's internal divisions ("politics rose from it like morning mist from a valley floor") or the oversize cranium of Benjamin Wade, the contentious Whig senator from Ohio ("It was an Easter Island head on a living man's frame'). Such literary flair serves him well in writing about our most poetic president.

Mr. Perret frames his narrative with a short discussion of the commander in chief's role. "Incredible as it may seem to us, when Lincoln became President," he writes, "there was still a question as to whether the president, even acting as commander in chief, had the power to determine military policy." This is a bit of a stretch, since no one doubted that the president could command in wartime, as Madison had done during the War of 1812 and Polk in the Mexican War. But there is no question that Lincoln greatly expanded the president's role and in the process opened up new horizons for the federal government.

His devotion to preserving the Constitution was such that he did not hesitate to take actions not strictly authorized by it, from suspending the writ of habeas corpus to freeing the slaves. Lincoln himself doubted whether he was in the right legally, but acts of Congress -- and the verdict of history -- ratified his actions.

The essential challenge facing Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War was to direct a huge, industrialized mob of citizen soldiers with an inadequate command structure left over from the days of a small, professional, preindustrial force. The relationship between the president, the secretary of war and the general-in-chief was far from clear: Which one would exercise operational control of forces in the field? In those days, before the existence of a legislatively mandated National Command Authority, Lincoln had to make it up on the fly.

In the process, he and his lieutenants anticipated some of the structural solutions put in place by their successors. For instance, Lincoln began his day by reading secret cables that arrived overnight, much as modern presidents read a daily intelligence briefing. His war secretary, Edwin Stanton, organized weekly meetings of senior military and political leaders, including the president, thus prefiguring the National Security Council.

But for the most part Lincoln's management style was improvisational and chaotic. He involved himself in minor matters that could have been delegated to others (approving an officer's request for a leave of absence, disapproving a request to shoot a deserter). He often communicated directly with subordinate officers, circumventing the chain of command. He went through one general after another until he found, in Grant, a man able to win the war.

Mr. Perret is neither unduly critical nor hagiographic. He criticizes Lincoln for focusing the Union's major efforts on costly frontal attacks on Richmond, Va., instead of going through the backdoor of the West. But he praises Lincoln for his openness to innovative weapons, such as repeating rifles and ironclads, which were initially spurned by his more conservative officers.

Above all, he applauds Lincoln for his indomitable "will to fight," which was often the only thing keeping the Union together. In these days, when another president is slogging through another war full of setbacks, it is worth recalling what Lincoln had to put up with.

He was not losing a few dozen or even a few hundred soldiers a month; he was haunted by the deaths of tens of thousands. He was not dealing with a few antiwar demonstrations; he had to quell bloody draft riots in New York City. He was not facing criticisms from only opposing Democrats; he was constantly under attack from radical Republicans in Congress and the press, who thought he was not severe enough with the South. And he had to contemplate the prospect of a defeat that would lead not just to a loss of American credibility but to the end of the country, period.

No doubt President Bush wishes at times that he could reply to a second-guesser as Lincoln did: "Be assured, dear sir, there are men who think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine."

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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