Lincoln and Churchill: Commanders in Chief

Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017

Page 36

By Lewis E. Lehrman

In peace and in war, Abraham Lincoln became a master of his craft by intense study. Military historian T. Harry Williams argued that President Lincoln was “a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.” But the commander-in-chief had also studied the works of great military strategists in books drawn from the Library of Congress. As President during the Civil War, Lincoln found himself in uncharted territory—legally and militarily. He needed to feel and study his way into both spheres.1 General Grant wrote in his memoirs of Lincoln: “All he wanted, or had ever wanted was someone who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all the assistance necessary, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.”2

The presidency of Abraham Lincoln began and ended in a civil war of national survival. The first prime ministership of Winston S. Churchill began and ended in a global war of national survival. Churchill had inherited his war. Lincoln’s war had not yet begun when he took office. Many generals in America and Britain scoffed at the military strategy and tactics of Lincoln and Churchill. Both proved essentially sound in their strategy of deploying an anaconda-like armed embrace of the enemy to squeeze the life from it. Subordinates would chafe at their suggestions.

Developing a Strategy

T he reality of the Civil War presented itself as largely an ad hoc affair—necessarily with ad hoc strategy and tactics. Corelli Barnett wrote of Lincoln: “Unlike Churchill in 1940, he had no previous experience as a member of a wartime administration. Unlike Churchill again, he had never taken a deep interest in military and naval history.”3 Yet during the first year of the war, Lincoln developed his own strategy for a coordinated series of actions in both the eastern and western United States, which he defined in a letter to General Don Carlos Buell: “I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”4

Colin Ballard wrote that Lincoln’s “strategy was not on the conventional lines of Napoleon and Von Moltke, but it is just in its originality that its beauty comes out…. Like the poet, the strategist is born, not made, and Lincoln had the character of a born strategist. He could not apply the grand principles because he had never had an opportunity to study them; but instinctively he grasped the main facts and gave them their proper value.”5

Churchill had spent years contemplating the military implications of a major conflict. Lincoln never studied the subject before his presidency. Nor did he have grand planning staffs in Washington. “The fundamental problem for the historian attempting to understand and describe the grand strategy for the American Civil War is that it was nowhere written down at the time,” noted historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. “In an era without military war ‘colleges’ and a peacetime general staff, there were no contingency plans or white papers laying out strategic doctrine. There were only ad hoc responses to pressing military problems of war as it raged.”6 Lincoln had to respond to events as they happened and take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. It is in Lincoln’s letters to his Generals that we discover his military tactics and strategy.

Lincoln never hesitated to reach out to Union commanders. He simply walked next door to the Telegraph Office in the War Department and wrote out his message. Unlike Churchill, he rarely consulted anyone but Secretary of War Stanton, General Halleck, even anyone who might be handy. As with Churchill, Lincoln’s biggest challenge was to define goals and find the commanders who could attain them. “As he grew comfortable holding the reins of power, Lincoln became more assertive as commander in chief,” wrote Craig Symonds. By “1862 he was beginning to exercise hands-on management, even issuing operation orders to division commanders; and by 1863 he was hitting his full stride as an activist commander in chief.”7

Both Lincoln and Churchill urged action. Lincoln wrote General George B. McClellan in April 1862: “And, once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow.”8 A few weeks later, Lincoln wrote McClellan: “Your call for Parrott guns from Washington alarms me—chiefly because it argues indefinite procrastination.”9 Churchill prided himself on being a “prod.” On 3 June 1940, only three weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill minuted the British chiefs of Staff: “The completely defensive habit of mind, which has ruined the French, must not be allowed to ruin our initiative.”10

Like Churchill, Lincoln would lead from the front. The President visited General McClellan’s headquarters shortly after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Lincoln would go to General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Lincoln’s visits to the eastern front were instructive and didactic. He tried repeatedly to focus the commanders of the Army of the Potomac on defeating Robert E. Lee’s army rather than to take the Richmond of Jefferson Davis.

Churchill’s Credentials

Winston Churchill in the Second World War began with far greater knowledge of military affairs than Lincoln would ever possess. A graduate of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst,
Churchill participated in wars on four continents. By the time he became prime minister in 1940, he had served as Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, and twice as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Like Lincoln, Churchill was a glutton for military information. Where Lincoln had his telegraph office to learn daily the latest from the war front, Churchill maintained his map room in the Annexe to 10 Downing Street. Historian John Keegan wrote of Churchill’s leadership role in the War: “If there is any other war leader with whom a ready comparison suggests itself, it is Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, Churchill worked throughout the war at the seat of government; like Lincoln, he embroiled himself throughout the conflict in the processes of representative democracy; like Lincoln, he never rested in his search for generals who could deliver victory, peremptorily discarding those who failed him; like Lincoln, he clung to no doctrinaire principles of strategy, preferring to trust in a few broad policies that he believed best served the long-term interests of the people and the alliance of states he represented.”11

Churchill had “a War Lord’s basic requirement, the gift of being right about essentials,” wrote historian Ronald Lewin.12 “The salient feature of Churchill as War Lord is that he unashamedly enjoyed power—and war,” concluded Lewin. In 1927, “Long before Austria and Munich, Lord Keynes remarked that ‘Mr Churchill does not dissemble his own delight in the intense experience of conducting warfare on the grand scale which those can enjoy who make the decision,’ and in the ’fifties, when it was all over, the old man [Churchill] asked Lord Moran, ‘Don’t you feel lonely without a war? I do.’ These passions were not reprehensible—not in a man who had to function as Stalin’s ally and Hitler’s adversary. But the mere mention of this alliance and this confrontation identifies the particular manner in which Churchill exercised power: its purpose was to restore and retain, not to conquer. From the moment he entered his sunlit garden in May 1940, his aim was never predatory, since his three essential objectives were at first, survival: then the restoration of the status quo ante; and finally the establishment of protective devices which might prevent aggression in a post-war world.”13

Thought and Deed

Lincoln, too, represented the fusion of thought and deed. James McPherson emphasized the “congruity” of Lincoln’s strategy, writing: “Common sense, not to mention Clausewitz, will tell us that there must be congruity between national and military strategy. That is, an all-out war to overthrow the enemy requires total mobilization and a military strategy to destroy the enemy’s armies, resources, and morale, while a limited war requires a limited military strategy to gain or defend territory.”14 One of Lincoln’s virtues, as President and Commander-in-chief, was his understanding of the inherent union of both military and political strategy.

Like Lincoln, Churchill did not have the luxury of preparing for wartime command. He took hold of the prime ministership on the day that Germany invaded Western Europe, although he had been, for more than eight months, First Lord of the Admiralty. Lincoln had four months to analyze the situation before he assumed the presidency, then another six weeks before military hostilities commenced, followed by another three months before the first major military battle. For both Lincoln and Churchill, the first engagements of war were disordered and chaotic. Military historian John Keegan wrote: “Lincoln, a totally inexperienced commander in chief, was confronted from the onset of his presidency by a kaleidoscope of temperamental difficulties among his military helpmeets which would have brought down a lesser person. The verdict on the military leadership of the Union during the Civil War is that there was too much personality in play and far too little talent.”15 Despite these disabilities, Lincoln never lost the drive for victory.

Craig Symonds wrote: “Given the absence of either a department of defense or a joint chiefs of staff, Lincoln was the only person in the government or its military establishment who had simultaneous command authority over both the army and the navy, and as a result, he was necessarily drawn into those aspects of the war where the two services had to cooperate: on the western rivers and along the Atlantic seaboard.”16 Lincoln and Churchill frequently worried that their forces would not be used to their best advantage. Churchill particularly worried about the efficient use of British forces in Cairo. They did not have perfect tools but they must use the tools they had. At one point, Churchill told an aide: “Remember, it isn’t only the good boys who help win the wars. It is the sneaks and stinkers as well.”17

A Reliable System

President Lincoln had no astute and experienced military adviser to perform the role that General Ismay did for Churchill—to guide him discreetly and to communicate with other military leaders. Nor did he have for the first three years of the war the services of battle experienced men like Generals John Dill and Alan Brooke, who served as Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff for Churchill.

Speaking to the House in July 1942, Churchill said: “Under the present arrangement the three Chiefs of Staff, sitting almost continuously together, carry on the war from day to day, assisted not only by the machinery of the great departments which serve them, but by the Combined General Staff, in making their decisions effective through the Navy, Army, and Air Forces over which they exercise direct operational control. I supervise their activities, whether as Prime Minister or Minister of Defence. I work myself under the supervision and control of the War Cabinet, to whom all important matters are referred, and whom I have to carry with me in all major decisions. Nearly all my work has been done in writing, and a complete record exists of all the directions I have given, the inquiries I have made, and the telegrams I have drafted. I shall be perfectly content to be judged by them.”18 This description shows precisely what Lincoln did not have in support.

With the world watching, Lincoln and Churchill would prevail, each in his own way, in their great wars of national survival.

Lewis E. Lehrman, co-founder of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, is author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (2008) and Churchill, Roosevelt & Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft (2017).


1. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), p. vii.

2. Frank J. Williams and William D. Pederson, eds., Lincoln Lessons: Reflections on America’s Greatest Leader (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), p. 143.

3. Corelli Barnett, The Lords of War: Supreme Leadership from Lincoln to Churchill (London: Praetorian Press, 2012), p. 11.

4. Abraham Lincoln to Don Carlos Buell, 13 January 1862, in Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, 1861–1862 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 98, hereafter cited as CWAL V.

5. Colin R. Ballard, The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: World Publishing, 1952), p. 8.

6. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 202.

7. Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xii.

8. Lincoln to George B. McClellan, 9 April 1862, CWAL V, p. 185.

9. Lincoln to George B. McClellan, 1 May 1862, CWAL V, p. 203.

10. Michael Paterson, Winston Churchill: His Military Life 1895–1945 (London: David and Charles, 2005), p. 263.

11. John Keegan, “Churchill’s Strategy,” in Robert Blake and William Roger Louis, eds., Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 330–31.

12. Ronald Lewin, Churchill as Warlord (New York: Stein and Day, 1973), p. 254.

13. Ibid., p. 264.

14. James M. McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” in Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 39.

15. John Keegan, The American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 332.

16. Craig L. Symonds, “Lincoln at Sea,” in Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard, eds., 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013), p. 43.

17. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume VI, Finest Hour, 1939–1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), p. 861.

18. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume VII, Road to Victory, 1941–1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), p. 139.

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