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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Civil War Battles and Strategy

Soon after the Confederate States of America was formed in early February 1861, it began to take over federal forts, arsenals, and other property in the South. Only Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida and Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina remained in federal hands. On the morning after his inauguration, however, Lincoln received a February 28 report from Major Robert Anderson at Ft. Sumter, warning that he needed reinforcements to maintain his occupation of the fort.

Portrait of William H. Seward

Portrait of Secretary of State William H.Seward, officer of the United States government, from Civil War

Lincoln questioned General Winfield Scott, commander of the United States Army, about the feasibility of reinforcing the fort in a letter dated March 9. On the 11th and 12th, Scott advised that timely reinforcement was impossible and that Anderson should evacuate the fort. On the 13th, however, former Navy man Gustavus V. Fox met with Lincoln to recommend a plan for reinforcing the fort. Lincoln called his cabinet together to discuss his options. A Search on Fort Sumter provides numerous documents including the notes of Lincoln's cabinet members, such as Secretary of State William H. Seward, who warned, "The dispatch of an expedition to supply or reinforce Sumter would provoke an attack and so involve a war at that point." Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith reasoned:

"If it shall be understood that by its evacuation we intend to acknowledge our inability to enforce the laws and our intention to allow treason & rebellion to run its course, the measure will be extremely disastrous and the Administration will become very unpopular. If however the country can be made to understand that the Ft is abandoned from necessity and at the same time Ft Pickens & other forts in our possession shall be defended and the power of the Govt vindicated, the measure will be popular & the country will sustain the Administration."

From "Caleb B. Smith, March 29, 1861 (Notes from cabinet meeting on Fort Sumter; endorsed by Abraham Lincoln) ."

Ultimately, Lincoln decided to send reinforcements to both forts. He also sent messengers to inform Governor Pickens of South Carolina that the Federal Government would be making a peaceful reinforcement of Fort Sumter. In response, President Jefferson Davis demanded Anderson's evacuation of the fort. On April 12, when Anderson refused, the Confederacy's General Beauregard fired the first shot of the Civil War in an assault on the fort. Lincoln's reinforcements arrived too late to aid Major Anderson who, after 34 hours of fighting, surrendered Fort Sumter.

  • What options did Lincoln have for dealing with Ft Sumter?
  • What were some of the possible consequences of reinforcing Ft. Sumter?
  • What were some of the possible consequences of failing to reinforce it?
  • How would different groups have reacted to each course of action? How would people of the northern states, the northern slave states that had not yet seceded, and the confederate states have responded?
  • What kind of message did Lincoln's decision to reinforce both forts send to each group of people?
  • Given warnings such as Seward's, do you think that Lincoln essentially decided to start a war when he decided to reinforce the forts? Why or why not?

On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate armies clashed at a rail junction near Manassas, Virginia, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. Throughout the day, a series of telegraphic dispatches were sent on the progress of the battle. One telegraph, written at 5:20 PM proclaimed, "We have carried the day — Rebels...are totally routed...." The news soon reached Lincoln that early reports were incorrect and that the Union forces were in full retreat.

In light of the Union defeat at Manassas, Lincoln prepared notes on strategies that the Union should take in Northern Virginia and in the western theater. He also called in General George McClellan to take command of the Union Army.

Soon, Lincoln and McClellan clashed over military policy, evident in correspondence from January and February of 1862. In a lengthy letter to Secretary of War Stanton, McClellan objected to Lincoln's strategy and outlined his own. Lincoln replied to McClellan on February 3, writing, "You and I have distinct and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac."

  • What were McClellan's criticisms of Lincoln's plan to attack southwest of Manassas?
  • What was McClellan's plan of attack in 1862? What did he see as the benefits of this plan?
  • How would you characterize Lincoln's style of working and communicating with McClellan? How would you describe McClellan's style?

In the end, Lincoln yielded to McClellan, who implemented his strategy in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. Lincoln became more and more agitated, however, by the general's failure to follow orders. When McClellan failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee's retreating army after the September 17 battle at Antietam Creek, Lincoln chided McClellan for his "over-cautiousness." McClellan's explanation that his horses were "sore-tongued and fatigued" further irritated Lincoln, who wrote a terse note to McClellan asking what his cavalry had done since Antietam that would cause the horses to be fatigued. Lincoln followed up the note with the following apology to McClellan :

"...Most certainly I intend no injustice to any; and if I have done any, I deeply regret it. To be told after more than five weeks total inaction of the Army, and during which period we have sent to that Army every fresh horse we possibly could, amounting in the whole to Seven thousand nine hundred and eighteen, that the cavalry were too much fatigued to move, presented a very cheerless, almost hopeless prospect for the future; and it may have forced something of impatience into my despatch. If not recruited and rested then, when could they ever be?"

From "Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, October 27, 1862 ."

Mary Todd Lincoln echoed Lincoln's concern about "McClellan and his slowness" in a letter written to her husband in the fall of 1862, while traveling in New York and New England. Mary Lincoln wrote, "Many say, they would almost worship you, if you would put a fighting General, in the place of McClellan." A few days later Lincoln replaced McClellan.

  • Why do you think that Lincoln allowed McClellan to proceed with his Peninsula Campaign of 1862? What was the outcome of the campaign?
  • In your estimation, was Lincoln attempting to micromanage the war? Should he have left field decisions up to General McClellan?
  • What is the tone of Lincoln's "apology" to McClellan?
  • What do you think caused the problems between Lincoln and McClellan?
  • Why do you think that Lincoln ultimately replaced McClellan? Do you think that he should have done it sooner?

In July 1863, one of the bloodiest and most celebrated battles of the war was fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Search on Gettysburg for items such as Simon Cameron's telegram reporting Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and advising, " ... the absolute necessity of action by Meade tomorrow even if attended with great risk...." Though Meade won the battle of Gettysburg, he failed to pursue Lee's retreating forces. Lincoln expressed his disappointment in a July 14 letter to Meade, which, however, he decided not to send. Other correspondence about General Meade is also available.

  • Why was Lincoln disappointed with General Meade?
  • Why do you think Lincoln decided not to send Meade his letter of July 14?
  • How does Lincoln's correspondence about the battle of Gettysburg and General Meade compare to his correspondence about General McClellan and his battles?
  • How would you characterize Lincoln's sense of his role as Commander-in-Chief? How would you characterize his style of commanding?