Lincoln And His Generals Essay, Research Paper
Book Report: Lincoln and His Generals
Author: Williams, T. Harry
Harry T. Williams was born on May 19, 1909. When in college, he was encouraged by a professor to study history. This professors main interest was the Civil War era and had a great effect on Williams. He attended Platteville State Teachers College (later Wisconsin State University at Platteville) where he received a B.Ed in 1931. Williams continued education into graduate school was mainly due to the lack of work during the Great Depression. He went on to earn a Ph.M. in 1932, and Ph.D. in 1937, from the University of Wisconsin (Dawson 431).
Lincoln and His Generals was the breakthrough book for Williams who had only written one book previously. This book provided him with many national and local acclaims. He book was on the best seller list, he received rave reviews in national publications, and scholarly awards where he was teaching at the time, L.S.U. He would go on to become a very respected writer during his forty-year career. He would also win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his book Huey Long (437).
Williams main theme in Lincoln and His Generals is about the Civil War being the first modern war and Lincoln’s function in the position of President. He introduces the state of the Union army as one that has no shape to it. This includes the lack of any plan of attack, as the thought of war had not been translated into any type of scheme. The armies lacked organization and communication, and existing qualified generals were old and inept. The first task that Lincoln had was the immediate selection of Generals. Lincoln’s selection process was sometimes based on political and personal grounds, and he was in the position of selecting from a pool of generals that had no experience leading a large army. Williams
tells us that even if the selection was for political reasons, Lincoln had the ‘national cohesion’ in mind. It appears that control was an important factor in Lincoln’s selections, however, Williams continually argues that if Lincoln had had generals who were more competent he would not have interfered as much. In Lincoln, one sees a willing amateur, one who had the ability to bring out the best in some men, and also learn from them (Williams 11).
Williams gives us insight into Lincoln’s thought process into who Lincoln really was. Williams superbly supports this with various examples and numerous interactions that Lincoln had with his Generals. For example, Lincoln’s selection of General Scott, the first General of the Union forces. When Lincoln interacted with Scott, he showed a deference for Scott’s age and knowledge. Thus allowing Scott to share his skills, this humility was shored by General McClellan. Lincoln later changes his approach towards McClellan, trying to boost his confidence and courage. Williams continually shows McClellan as an egotist, who eventually replaced Scott as General in chief. McClellan is depicted as unsure, indecisive, self-centered and fearful of declaring war. Lincoln continually defends McClellan but is not afraid of tactfully sending criticism his way. One could easily be lead to believe that Lincoln was more of a placator. Williams shows us that Lincoln never hesitated in making difficult decisions based on results. Lincoln’s people skills are easily ascertained in Williams writings. Lincoln seems keen at applying pressure as well as giving his generals a free hand when necessary.
Williams shows an interesting side of Lincoln’s patience that wears thin when there are no early victories and from the lack of aggressiveness on the Union side. Williams shows a gradual transformation on Lincoln’s selection process. Initially each general was selected on characteristics such as battle experience and political backing. As the enemy holds out and there is inaction, Lincoln starts to doubt the ability of his generals and starts to seek generals who can win without excuses.
Williams captures the pressures that are placed on Lincoln. The union government and the public were questioning the inactivity of McClellan and his troops. Lincoln is willing to absorb most of this
pressure but eventually seeks answers to the same questions. Williams shows the desperate side of
Lincoln. Lincoln starts to recklessly agree to attack plans that he did not agree with, just because he was desperate to see action from McClellan.
Williams indicates that Lincoln is a much misunderstood man through the eyes of his Generals. His chief general McClellan thought little of him and yet Lincoln had few doubts about him early on. The Generals were sometimes lacking in appropriately feeding information back to Lincoln. Often a simple suggestion was taken as a direct order. I feel that William fails to argue that there might have been a certain awe that people felt towards Lincoln since he was their president. This relationship of a superior officer versus a junior officer is ignored by Williams. There could have been a small amount of intimidation that Generals felt towards Lincoln, especially later on with his reputation for getting rid of non performers.
Lincoln is painted as an intelligent maverick, a great statesman, and yet human enough to make mistakes and feel discouragement. Williams also shows us a despondent side of Lincoln; when McClellan was sick and resources were low, Lincoln confides in his Quartermaster General Meigs, about the futile future (269). Williams constantly points out Lincoln’s strategic planning abilities against the fact that Lincoln had never had any formal training in war. I believe Williams does this due to fact that Lincoln’s Westpoint educated generals had such large personalities and egos as compared to a simple yet assertive Lincoln. This allows the reader to truly appreciate the humbleness of Lincoln.
Williams might have served the reader better if he had focused on a number of issues. Williams could have put less emphasis upon the detailed descriptions of battle plans and strategy. The book tends to bog down in this area, especially when other books have touched upon this topic in a deeper sense. . Despite the use of maps and footnotes, it seemed easy to get lost in this area. There is no doubt that reference is required to the history of the war to tell Lincoln’s story, but the author does tend to give more detail than necessary.
More information on the selection process would have provided more story into the book. Williams has done this adequately, but additional information might have really thrown more light both
upon the generals as well as Lincoln himself. Williams leaves question as to his objectivity in his true assessment of certain Generals. Williams might be so fascinated with Lincoln that he might always take his side when analyzing questionable war tactics taken by some of the Generals, especially McClellan. Also, he does not offer any guesses why McClellan withholds certain battle plans from Lincoln. This question, though a small seems like it would deserve some time spent on it.
The portrait that Williams paints of Lincoln is that of a frustrated patriot. Time and time again he expects action. Its here that Williams shows us the greatness of Lincoln; compassion and patience. There are a number of instance when he is really frustrated with his generals, yet he reprimands them gently. Williams brings out this characteristic of Lincoln very beautifully. The private Lincoln is deeply affected by the slow movement of war, but in public he almost never berates a public figure. Williams gradually unfolds this private compassionate Lincoln. First as the brilliant strategist, then as the father of the nation. Williams attributes this change largely to General Grant. As Grant emerges as the key union player in the war theater, Lincoln is glad to take a lesser role. This ties well into what Williams had originally suggested; Lincoln willing to relinquish control to someone qualified.
Williams has also expounded upon the role of Lincoln as a placicator, its with the emergence of
Grant, that some of the other Generals start feeling unattended to (336). Lincoln becomes understanding and does his job of keeping the big picture of the war in mind by soothing the bruised egos. Williams has done wonders showing Lincoln as one devoid of any ego. This is one of the subtle tones of the passages, but yet always make the reader draw this inference. I found this subtle reiteration very well timed and placed. There are numerous instances wherein the Generals are depicted as immature and frightened, and Lincoln as the strong pillar of faith.
Williams portrays Lincoln in a very positive light, allowing the reader to realize the greatness of
Lincoln, in his compassion, strategy, statesmanship and lack of ego. Williams has provided numerous
instances wherein he provides ample support to his arguments and facts. In spite of the unnecessary detail and verbosity that Williams sometimes uses, there is no doubt that this book is a remarkable insight into Lincoln’s persona.
Dawson, Joseph G. III. “T. Harry Williams.” Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 17, 431-446
Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Dorset Press, 1952.