YOU CAN’T KNOW EVERYTHING – BUT WHAT YOU MUST KNOW, YOU CAN LEARN
Abraham Lincoln knew relatively nothing about the military when he became President; his only battle experience came when he was 23 years old for about a month during a small Midwestern affair called the Black Hawk War.
Yet when Lincoln became President, he also inherited the title of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces – at the worst time in our nation’s history.
So Lincoln educated himself quickly the only way he knew how; the same way he had become a lawyer; the same way he had learned math: He read books.
It has been said that Lincoln checked out so many books at the Library of Congress on military strategy that he knew as much as any graduate of West Point.
He also knew that he was ultimately responsible for the success of the war, so Lincoln took frequent trips to Union Army camps, visited and questioned many officers, and became a regular fixture in front of the maps, the telegraph machine, and the Secretary in the War Department.
Then, Lincoln the leader soon began to take over.
He and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton rewrote General Winfield Scott’s much criticized strategy for winning the war.
Lincoln also devised criteria for when he would remove non-fighting generals like George McClellan, and what type of general he would put in his place, turning a deaf ear to the loud cries for McClellan’s ouster until the time was right.
Yet it was the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia that Lincoln’s emerging prowess as Commander-in-Chief would be demonstrated when he decided to visit McClellan to see if he could prod the general to attack, as well as visit the troops.
One of the first military installations seized by the South at the beginning of the Civil War was the Norfolk Naval Yard, which contained the much feared ironclad ship, the Merrimac, then flying under a rebel flag.
As Confederate troops receded back toward Richmond, McClellan was in clear striking distance of the yard, but failed to seize it.
Lincoln, frustrated by McClellan’s inaction, ordered that the yard be recaptured.
The night before, much to his security detail’s chagrin, Lincoln even took it upon himself to scout the landing site on foot exactly where the boats would drop off the soldiers who would be seizing the yard.
The next day, Union troops easily secured the yard and the Merrimac – and Lincoln retired undefeated as a field commander.
Since that really wasn’t supposed to be his job, however, he refocused on strategy and motivating his generals.
When Lincoln combined his self-learned knowledge of math with military strategy, he came to an overwhelming conclusion based on the numbers he calculated after the horrifying Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
The Union suffered over 12,000 killed, wounded or captured, while the Confederates absorbed about 5,000 casualties and captures.
As lopsided as the rebel victory seemed, Lincoln figured that if the Battle of Fredericksburg were repeatedly fought for 10 days straight, the smaller Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would nearly cease to exist, and that the remaining Union Army would be victorious.
Of course, the tremendous waste of young men’s lives in such an endeavor halted Lincoln immediately from considering such a plan, yet the numbers didn’t lie.
He needed generals who would fight intelligently – but they needed to fight.
The combination of what he had learned about studying military strategy, his experience with McClellan, and these new, albeit cold, calculations drove Lincoln’s resolve to find fighting generals; a search that would end three generals later in less than a year with Ulysses S. Grant.
Two years later, the Union won.
- Lincoln’s war leadership resulted in a series of decisions that led to the hiring of Grant as General-in-Chief.
- Grant’s desire to fight, in combination with the revised war strategy, whittled down Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army to the point where he had to surrender.
- Grant appointed William Tecumseh Sherman to take over his army in the West and execute part of Lincoln’s strategy to split the South in half.
- The Union naval blockade choked the South economically by not allowing trade between the Confederacy and other countries.
Sometimes you have to learn new skills if you want to be able to reach your goal. Don’t shy away. Unlike in Lincoln’s case, we have the benefit today of classes we can take. Read books. Talk to people who know what they’re talking about. Learn as much as you can.