Lincoln’s War


This review of Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War appears in the Haysville Sun Times for Friday, December 5th.

The America in which we live each day would not exist but for the courageous acts of the man both the general public and professional historians agree to be America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.

We owe the very existence of our nation and much of its subsequent history to crucial decisions which Lincoln made, amidst the fog of what remains to this very day America’s most destructive and bloodiest war. And the shape of our presidency, our democracy, and the American Constitution would be irrevocably different without his incomparable influence.

As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth this next February 12th – an occasion for a special celebration at the Haysville Community Library – it is important to remember how very much we owe this humble yet brilliant man.

Dozens of excellent new Lincoln books have appeared in print in recent days, anticipating that anniversary. We’ll be reviewing a number of them in the pages of the Haysville Sun Times or in the library weblog at But there is no more appropriate place to begin than with Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, the role which he himself created extemporaneously as the Civil War progressed.

“Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war,” observes James M. McPherson in the preface to his excellent new book Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. “On the day he took office the first document placed on his desk was a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, informing him that the garrison there must be withdrawn or resupplied at the risk of war. Lincoln chose to take that risk. Four years later he was assassinated, five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox but while several Confederate armies were still in the field.”

It is simply a fact, as McPherson notes, that “not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duties as commander-in-chief.”

Surprisingly, though, Lincoln’s virtually autonomous creation of the commander-in-chief role, and his radically innovative definition of its war powers, is one of the rarely examined aspects of his presidency. In 1952 T. Harry Williams published his classic Lincoln and His Generals, a book which is still richly rewarding and well worth reading. As mentioned, McPherson’s Tried by War was published earlier this year. Between these two books is sandwiched only Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander In Chief. I highly recommend all three.

Perret’s approach is fluid, intelligent and entertaining. It is less analytical than anecdotal — but few readers will regret the absence of the “academic” perspective. Well-documented, but occasionally unorthodox and at times even provocative in its point of view, Lincoln’s War conclusively demonstrates that Winfield Scott’s initial plans for suppression of the rebellion have long been misrepresented, caricatured as the “Anaconda plan” for slow strangulation of the Confederacy rather than a variant of the decisive Western Strategy which, in fact, ultimately won the war. As B.H. Liddell Hart noted, “in strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.”

In my own judgment, however, Perret overemphasizes and misconstrues Lincoln’s alleged “preoccupation” with a Richmond-centered Eastern Strategy. (I’ll admit, of course, that this is a question of emphasis and the interpretation of conflicting evidence.) Still, from first to last, Perret’s narrative captivates and holds the attention of the reader, illuminating many aspects of presidential leadership which are of interest and importance in the present day, ten score years from Lincoln’s birth.

It is well that we remind ourselves that Lincoln commanded, struggled, fought, and ultimately died for “a new birth of freedom,” in the certain conviction that with victory “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It is equally well that we remember the words of his final inauguration, and that we “strive on to finish the work that we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

(For more concerning the question of Union strategy and Scott’s alleged “Anaconda plan,” see the excerpt from Lincoln’s War included in the immediately previous post, The Myth of the Anaconda Plan.)

Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 2:44 pm  Comments (1)  

The Myth of the Anaconda Plan


An excerpt from Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief. This selection focuses on dissecting ‘the myth of the Anaconda Plan.’

“Yet suppose Richmond was taken, Scott argued, the Confederates would only be driven back. They would still hold nearly all their most important military and economic assets, but with a greater concentration of force, a shorter perimeter to defend and stronger interior lines. Any Richmond-based strategy would take years to produce victory, he said. Time would prove him right.

“Scott proposed to Lincoln a strategy that would outflank Richmond and its defenders. ‘If you will maintain a strict blockade on the seacoast, collect your revenues on board cutters at the mouths of the harbors, and send a force down the Mississippi sufficiently strong to open and keep it free along its course to its mouth, you will thus cut off the luxuries to which the people are accustomed; and they may feel this pressure, not having been exasperated by attacks on them within their respective states.’ He had rehearsed what he would say by practicing it on others. ‘The Union spirit will assert itself; those who are on the fence will descend on the Union side, and I will guarantee that in one year from this time all difficulties will be settled. But, if you invade the South at any point, I will guarantee that at the end of the year you will be further from a settlement than you are now.’

“Montgomery Blair ridiculed this assertion, saying, ‘I would march to Richmond with ten thousand men armed only with lathes.’

“’Yes,’ rejoined Scott. ‘As prisoners of war.’”

“The force he wanted to send down the Mississippi to New Orleans numbered at least one hundred thousand fully trained volunteers drawn from the Midwest. They would start from Cairo, Illinois, or Xenia, Ohio, and a specially built fleet of ironclad gunboats would spearhead the push south. Most of the Army would advance parallel to the river, while the gunboat fleets would tackle enemy shipping, and both the gunboats and the volunteers would tackle riverine fortifications.

“Four and a half months to train the Army. A campaign beginning in November 1861, when temperatures in the South moderated. Cut the Confederacy in half, and with luck, New Orleans might fall by spring. The entire rebellion would collapse soon after. Scott would use the rivers and coasts as his highways to the enemy’s strongholds, instead of fighting, as McClellan proposed, over mountain ranges. The general Scott suggested for command of this operation was Irvin McDowell, but McDowell refused.

“Scott’s strategy was much like his dazzling conquest of Mexico: threaten strategic places rather than trying to annihilate enemy armies; constantly move; seize the initiative and hold it right to the end. He would strike the enemy in his left flank, where he was weak, proceed to turn that flank and drive deep into the Confederates’ rear.

“Almost every campaign in history that brought an army into the enemy’s rear had been successful. The Confederacy would also find itself split between its eastern and western halves, giving the Union a significant military advantage that would be magnified many times over by control of the Mississippi.

“Scott did not spell out the obvious strategic possibilities if the Confederates did not capitulate quickly. They offered such a dazzling range of vulnerable targets that the commander on the spot would be spoiled for choices. By holding the line Memphis-Vicksburg-New Orleans, he could strike at Atlanta or thrust into Texas, advance following the railroad tracks towards Mobile, Chattanooga, or Richmond. He would pose a serious threat to far more places than the Confederates could hope to defend, while holding a line of communications down the Mississippi that they would be hard-pressed to cut. As his battle record showed, Scott was not a man to have the Army sit on its bayonets, waiting for a Confederate collapse. If they did not yield to the inevitable within weeks, he would conquer a peace.

“Scott acknowledged a fundamental weakness un his plan – it would not be popular with northern opinion. The government’s supporters ‘will urge instant and vigorous action, regardless, I fear, of consequences.’

“There was another drawback, one that was implied rather than spelled out, but Lincoln was surely aware of it. By mounting the strategic offensive out west, where there was as much maneuver room as any commander might wish for, the largest army in the East would assume the strategic defensive. With feints and demonstrations and threats, it could keep a large Confederate army tied down defending Richmond. That, however, would not be popular with Public Opinion from Boston to Washington.”


“In the many years since that fateful meeting, a fictitious version of what Scott offered Lincoln has taken root in Civil War historiography. Even though there is no documentary evidence that Scott proposed an essentially passive plan to defeat the South over three years by economic strangulation, it has become the great unchallenged myth of the war.

“Its origins date back to March 1861, when Scott wrote to Seward to say that if the crisis over Lincoln’s inauguration led to civil war, the struggle would last at least three years and the North would have to field an army of three hundred thousand men.

“Some months later, a mocking newspaper cartoon showed the seceded states encircled by a large black snake slowly crushing them into surrender. This, scoffed the cartoonist, was the ‘Anaconda,’ squeezing its prey to death before swallowing it whole. It was headed SCOTT’S GREAT SNAKE.

“That image colored the imaginations of Nicolay and Hay when they came to write of Scott’s strategic thinking three decades later. In their highly detailed, highly influential ten-volume biography of Lincoln, they claimed that what Lincoln heard in June 1861 was ‘Scott’s Anaconda.’

“Neither Nicolay nor Hay was even present at the crucial discussion. They did no consult anyone close to Scott in June 1861, such as his military secretary, Schuyler Hamilton, or his aide de camp, E.D. Townsend. They did not even talk to Irvin McDowell, with whom Scott spent many hours talking war. They chose instead to reconstruct Scott’s strategy on the basis of his two letters to McClellan. Nicolay and Hay admitted that they were not following the sequence of the letters. Instead, they pasted together carefully tailored quotations and asserted that this revealed ‘the logical connection’ of the plan.

“And how did the correspondence conclude? The second letter consisted mainly of a list of questions from Scott about manpower, gunboats and whether Cincinnati would be a suitable base to mount a large operation. McClellan never answered these questions, because he was suddenly elevated to major general in the regulars and preparing to take an army into western Virginia. Scott’s question hung in the air, underlining the fact that nothing had been settled.

“Having conflated the cartoon version of Scott’s strategy with an interrupted discussion, Nicolay and Hay then described some of McClellan’s ideas as if they were Scott’s and presented a tentative proposal as if it were a plan perfected in outline and settled in detail. Scott’s Anaconda was in truth the invention of two elderly civilians with no combat or command experience, trying to guess thirty years after the event what had happened inside a warrior’s mind.

“Far from proposing slow strangulation, Scott’s staff, working on the final plan – the real Scott strategy – recorded his calculation that the war could be over by the summer of 1862. In conversation with friends, Scott said his latest thinking might even bring the war to an end by the spring of 1862. Still, this was not enough to persuade the President.”

[For a review of Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War, see the immediately following post.]

Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 2:36 pm  Comments (2)  

Fast Food Calorie Counts

Fast Food in Berlin's Central Train Station

Fast Food in Berlin's Central Train Station

For those who love to eat fast food but are nonetheless concerned about their caloric intake, the Washington Post offers a Fast Food Calorie Counter that allows you to calculate calories consumed directly from the menus of 10 different fast food chains (Baja Fresh, Boston Market, Burger King, Chik-fil-A, Cosi, KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy’s).

Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 11:29 am  Comments (1)