soldier with rifle american civil warThe Sesquicentennial Edition





The Fall of 1861

James M. McPherson writes:

"About December 1, 1861, . . .Lincoln drafted a proposal for half of the Army of the Potomac to make a feint toward Centreville to hold the enemy in place while the other half moved in two columns south along the Potomac—one by road the other by water—to turn the Confederate flank. The moving columns would push up the Ocoquan Valley in the enemy's rear to destroy the [Orange & Alexandria] Railroad supplying the Confederate army at Manassas and trap that army between the converging Union forces. This proposal reflected the crash course of reading on military history and strategy that Lincoln had recently begun." (Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, The Penguin Press (2008), at p. 53.)


Lincoln's actual proposal:

"Suppose that of those troops southwest of the Potomac 50,000 move forward and menace the enemy at Centreville. The remainder on that side move to the crossing of the Ocoquan by the road from Alexandria towards Richmond; there to be joined by the whole force from northeast of the Potomac, having landed from the Potomac just below the mouth of the Ocoquan, moved by land up the south side of the Ocoquan to the crossing point named; then the whole force moves together, by the road thence to Brentsville, and beyond, to the railroad just south of its crossing of Broad Run."


Lincoln's Plan


Editor's Comment

Lincoln's "plan" was hardly the product of a "crash course"in reading military history books. What Lincoln proposed to McClellan on December 1, 1861 was simply a restatement of the original plan of operation proposed by General Irwin McDowell, in late June 1861. McDowell's experience exposed the problem with the plan, Lincoln expressed to McClellan, in December 1861: how to get to Brentsville by crossing the Ocoquan River?

Here is how McDowell put the plan to Scott on June 24, 1861:

"The objective point in our plan is the Manassas Junction. . . . There is a fifth approach, from [the mouth of the Ocoquan River], by way of Brentsville, a march of about twenty-two miles, but the starting point is too far from the main direct approach to admit of its being used without a superabundance of force. The country lying between the two armies is mostly thickly wooded, and the roads leading across it are narrow, and in places sunken by the wear of travel and the wash of rains. This makes it necessary to have the fewest number of carriages of any kind, and our forces, therefore, though the distance is short, will have to move over several lines of approach in order to get forward in time a sufficient body to operate with success. . .


. . . I propose to attack the main position by turning it, if possible, so as to cut off communications by rail with the South. . . , and if I find it can be done with safety, to move a force as far as Bristoe, to destroy the bridge at that place."


McDowell's Plan


To reduce as much as possible the distance to be marched on the right bank of the Ocoquan, McDowell decided to cross the Ocoquan as close to Brentsville as possible. On July 15, 1861, he issued orders for the army's march, to begin on the morrow: Heintzelman's division was to follow the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad as far as Fairfax Station, then turn to the south toward Wolf Run Shoals, cross the Ocoquan and head for Brentsville, and with Broad Run on his right at that point, move forward toward the railroad. The rest of the army, in two columns, was to move to Centreville, the idea being to fix the enemy at Bull Run in front of Centreville while Heintzelman's division moved to get across the railroad south of Manassas.

On July 18, McDowell, in company with Heintzelman, rode over the ground leading to the Ocoquan River. On the 19th, he reported to General Scott:

"I went with Heintzelman to make arrangements to turn the enemy's right and intercept his communications with the South. I found on examining the country that the roads were too narrow and crooked for so large a body to move over, and the distance around too great to admit of it with safety. We would become entangled, and or carriages would block the way. I was therefore forced to abandon the plan of turning the enemy's right, and to adopt my present plan of going around his left, where the country is more open and the roads are broad and good." (Vol 2, O.R. at p. 307.)


Editor's Comment

Professor McPherson, like the crop of historians generally, claim for Lincoln the attributes of an outstanding military commander when, in fact, Lincoln demonstrates his ignorance of the realities of military movements time and time again. The only difference between Lincoln's plan and McDowell's, is that Lincoln would have 33,000 men, with artillery carriages and supply wagons, march twice as far through rough wooded, ravine covered ground as McDowell planned on attempting; and Lincoln, in proposing the plan, ignored McDowell's finding that, even from Wolf Run Shoals, it was impractical for such a body of troops to reach the railroad by way of Brentsville.


Lincoln's Choice of Strategy for the Eastern Theater, in 1862,

Lincoln's choice of strategy for the Eastern Theater, in 1862, destroyed any reasonable chance of suppressing the rebellion in Virginia. Professor McPherson puts great emphasis on the concept that Lincoln brilliantly fathomed, what McPherson asserts as the distinction between concentration in time and concentration in space, when, in fact, given the plain evidence, Lincoln had no intelligent military idea of what he was doing.

Here's how McPherson sets the situation up, in Tried by Fire:

"Lincoln grasped sooner than many of his generals the strategic concept of concentration in time. Because the Confederacy's basic military strategy was to defend [its territory], Southern armies had the advantage of interior lines (No kidding). That advantage allowed them to shift reinforcement from inactive to active fronts (Think Bragg moving from Tupelo to Chattanooga). . . This concentration in space could be overcome only if the Union employed greater numbers to attack on two or more fronts at once." To McPherson's mind, attacking on two fronts at once means, "concentration in time." (If Grant had had the means to threaten Bragg at Tupelo, Bragg would not have been free to move to Chattanooga, would he?)


What Professor McPherson thinks he is talking about is difficult to fathom. Take, for example, the strategic situation the Union army faced during the First Bull Run campaign. Had Union general Robert Patterson, commanding about 15,000 men on the upper Potomac River, attacked, or at least maneuvered against, Confederate general Joseph Johnston's 15,000 men in the lower Shenandoah Valley, as McDowell's army approached Centreville, on July 18, 1861, we would label the situation—according to McPherson's definition of "concentration in time"—as the Union attacking on two fronts at once. To say that Lincoln grasped the military value of this sooner than his major generals is silly; for the record shows all the generals involved, on both sides of the line, planned for, and expected that Patterson would become engaged with Johnston at the same time McDowell became engaged with Beauregard. That Patterson, for several reasons, failed to carry out his part in the plan doesn't change the reality that everyone understood—without being educated by Lincoln—the importance of "concentration in time."

When Patterson shies away, Johnston speeds to Manassas

Professor McPherson makes confusing a military concept that ordinarily is perfectly plain: to prevent an enemy force removed from another enemy force by distance, from reinforcing it, it must be attacked or at least seriously threatened. This did not happen with Johnston, in 1861, and this did not happen, with Bragg, in 1862. Why McPherson created this ambiguous story line is obvious: in 1862, Lincoln bungled Union military operations in the East, by interfering with General McClellan's plan of concentration.

McPherson tells us, "No one explained this strategic concept better than Lincoln himself," and, to prove his point, quotes from a letter Lincoln sent to Don Carlos Buell on January 13, 1862:

"I state my general view of this war to be that we have the greater numbers (No kidding), and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision (debatable); . . . we [must] find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time."


Editor's Comment

It is likely that General Buell had no good idea exactly what Lincoln meant by "menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time." In the event, Buell moved his force toward Bowling Green, Kentucky, as Grant moved his force toward Forts Henry and Donelson. Both movements were, in effect, movements against Albert Sidney Johnston's army. With his supposed advantage of "interior lines," Johnston might easily have concentrated his entire army at Fort Donelson and destroyed Grant's, but for the fact the movement would have opened the way for Buell, moving on Bowling Green, to gain Johnston's base of supply at Nashville. Because of this, Johnston had no good choice but to withdraw from Bowling Green and retreat through Nashville as Grant, with superior force, forced the surrender of Donelson, thereby breaking the Kentucky Line and gaining for the Union control of Western Kentucky and the frontier of Tennessee.

McPherson's quoting Lincoln's letter to Buell goes on:

". . . so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and that if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened on, but seize and hold the weakened one."


Unlike McPherson, Lincoln explains himself:

"To illustrate, suppose last summer, when Winchester ran away to reinforce Manassas, we had forborne to attack Manassas, but had seized and held Winchester."


Lincoln is writing nonsense here. First, it was Lincoln, himself alone, who had insisted that the rebel force at Manassas be attacked, though he knew the Union men were as he put it "green" and, second, he knew that the great bulk of Patterson's force was made up of ninety day men whose term of enlistment was expiring. The practical reality, then, was that Patterson's force was not going to seize Winchester from Joe Johnston and that Lincoln never would have consented to McDowell not attacking the force at Manassas.

Lincoln goes showing himself the dunce:

"Applying the principle to your case (Buell's), my idea is that Halleck shall menace Columbus and `down river' generally, while you menace Bowling Green, and East Tennessee."


The last "point" Halleck thought reasonable to "menace" was Columbus, Kentucky. The Confederate general, Polk, had occupied the place and had built a fort of immense strength on the bluff of the Mississippi. He had none this contrary to the advice offered by Sidney Johnston, who wanted Polk to strengthen Fort Henry. Polk declined.

In January 1862, Halleck was marshalling his forces to suppress the rebellion in Missouri, and as this was accomplished, and the Engineer Eads's flotilla of gunboats were launching in the Mississippi River, he acceded to Grant's plan to move a force of 15,000 men, by steamers supported by the gunboats, up the Tennessee River to attack the almost unmanned Fort Henry. Had Buell weakened his force by sending a portion off into Eastern Tennessee, Johnston might have held Bowling Green and reinforced Fort Donelson sufficiently to hold it against Grant's troops.

 Ignoring reality, McPherson then writes that,

". . . events in [Buell's and Halleck's] theaters during the next month proved the soundness of Lincoln's strategy. (Huh?) At the beginning of February, Halleck ordered Grant, with 15,000 men, to proceed against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. . . Just as Lincoln had predicted, Johnston was forced to weaken one [force] to defend the other from these Union forces converging on exterior lines."


Lincoln's strategy, his letter to Buell makes plain, was for Halleck to operate against Polk's fort at Columbus, not against Fort Henry on the Tennessee. Halleck, being an intelligent general, ignored Lincoln's suggestion and adopted Grant's. For Sidney Johnston's part, contrary to McPherson's concoction, no sooner had it become plain that Buell would gain the left bank of the Duck River in front of Bowling Green, Johnston began issuing orders for a strategic retreat of his army into Tennessee. He did release a token force of "reinforcements" to Donelson, but only because he was hounded by Pillow to make a show of defending the place.

Now Lincoln waded in to military operations planning with both his big feet. McClellan's plan of operation was to move the army by transports down the Potomac to Chesapeake Bay, build up a depot at Fort Monroe and march up the Yorktown Peninsula to Richmond. To accomplish this, McClellan expected to take with him fourteen divisions, totaling about one hundred and twenty thousand men. This was a grand conception of operations, utilizing the principle of concentration all generals understand, but Lincoln could not, would not, execute.

First, in the middle of the movement down the Potomac, Lincoln set up John Fremont in command of a force of 25,000 men, and, giving him a division taken from McClellan's army, ordered Fremont to march several hundred miles through the Allegany mountain range to threaten the point of Knoxville.

Second, Lincoln stripped McClellan's force of McDowell's corps of 40,000 men, with the excuse that this force was needed to hold the line of the Rappahannock and thus afford Washington more protection than the 30,000 men occupying the forts that ringed it could provide. Then, just as he was grudgingly releasing McDowell to march overland to Richmond, Lincoln ordered McDowell and Fremont to stop in their tracks and move to the Shenandoah Valley, to destroy Stonewall Jackson's force of 15,000 that had appeared at Winchester. Throwing his own advice to himself out the window, Lincoln had two columns of troops marching toward an irrelevant point, while McClellan was on the verge of closing with the masses of the enemy concentrated at Richmond.

Third, with his one hundred thousand strong army encamped in a fortified position on the James River, twelve miles southeast of Richmond, Lincoln orders the army to return to Washington!  Talk about spinning wheels. Davis should have messengered to Lincoln several cases of Champagne.

Fourth, he threw out on to the Manassas Plain an army he had cobbled together out of disparate parts and failed to support it with superior strength in time to meet the on rush of the enemy smelling red meat.

As the result of these blunders, Lincoln gave us the battle of Antietam which guaranteed the security of Richmond for two more years. After the experience of this, Lincoln got out of the generalship business, leaving operations to the generals. Although he kept changing the generals.

By Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan shows the evidence that exposes Lincoln's decision
to remove McClellan's army from Richmond as a great blunder.