Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Abraham Lincon, Part II: His Generals

During last week's session of "Abraham Lincoln: Now He Belongs to the Ages," Professor Gary Gallagher spoke about Lincoln's relationships with his generals.

Gallagher gave an incredible lecture: he is dramatic, animated and clearly loves history (and there are few things better than listening to a historian, truly passionate about his subject matter, tell stories and bring it all back to life).

Gallagher started by posing this question: Given Jefferson Davis's tremendous advantage in terms of military experience, how did Lincoln manage to do such a better job of running the Union war effort than Davis did for the Confederacy? He had two primary answers:
  1. Lincoln was an incredible listener, and he was uniquely capable of (a) listening to his military leaders' advice, (b) following the best of it, and (c) giving his generals in the field sufficient leeway to improvise as necessary.

  2. Lincoln recognized, early on, that the key to prevailing in the war would be maintaining the support of the civilian population (thus, for instance, his careful calibration of the emancipation process).
With respect to point #1, Gallagher talked about Lincoln's relationships with three generals: Winfield Scott, George McClellan, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Gallagher loves Winfield Scott; he said Scott is sadly underappreciated by many military historians (Gallagher ranked him as one of America's five greatest military leaders based on his achievements during the War with Mexico; he said that US Grant also makes the "Top 5" list).

He argued that McClellan was awful (I'd completely forgotten about McClellan's ineptitude during the early part of the war), but he said that Lincoln's problematic relationship with McClellan enabled him to grow and to relate into a healthier give-and-take with US Grant. It sounds like the Lincoln/Grant relationship had just the right balance: Grant wasn't afraid to give him advice (and Lincoln wasn't afraid to ask for it), but Grant recognized that Lincoln was ultimately the boss. Grant also didn't complain about a lack of resources but instead made the most of those he had.

Listening to Professor Gallagher definitely brought to mind the current relationship between President Obama and General McChrystal. I am curious whether other generals think Obama and McChrystal are striking the right balance in their relationship.

Gallagher said that after many years of being caricatured as a drunk and corrupt president (and with his military leadership subordinated to his presidential problems), US Grant's reputation is currently undergoing something of a rehabilitation.
My favorite line of the night was Gallagher's take on the terrible disservice done to society by the low quality -- and lack of historical perspective -- of the cable news networks: "They are nitwits (said with great emphasis)! Their historical imagination goes back to this morning."

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