The Civil War was an event that changed the course of American history. Many men and women were involved in the Civil War, but a few major players became even more important and stood out from all the rest. The president of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had alternative goals—however, both men were intelligent and driven. Lincoln’s effective tactics and strategies as a commander and chief allowed him to win several major battles during the Civil War, which eventually led him to victory in the conflict. Conversely, his counterpart, Jefferson Davis was an extremely experienced military leader, but his strategies and tactics eventually led to the demise of the Confederacy. There are a number of very complex reasons the Confederacy lost the war; however, there are also distinct links between the tactics used by each general and the overall outcome of the Civil War.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln had a singular goal—his goal was to make sure the United States remained united, and that they did not fracture into two (or more) countries (McPherson). As a result, all of Lincoln’s strategies forced his end goal; he was fundamentally committed to keeping the United States together, while Jefferson Davis had a much more complex duty. Lincoln’s experience with military strategy was small at the beginning of the war, but he quickly became adept at the minutiae of strategy (McPherson). Lincoln blended the military needs of the country with the political needs of the country. He quickly called the state militias into action for the federal government, and took control over the various militias and military groups, organizing them into a single army under generals that reported directly to Lincoln himself, as the commander-in-chief (McPherson). Lincoln’s reliance on politics to win the respect and command of his troops is sometimes considered a poor strategy, but the issue of political agenda and war were so closely tied together during the Civil War that he almost had no choice—he had to ingratiate himself with the people that mattered the most politically, in an attempt to cement the relationships and bonds in the Union (McPherson). With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln managed to cement the bonds within the Union even closer together, as it tied into Union fears that the Confederacy could win the war due to their economic success (which was reliant on slavery) (Avila). Lincoln also instituted the Anaconda Plan, which was put into place in the hopes of squeezing the South in many different places simultaneously—and protecting the Northern troops from attack (McPherson).
The Confederate strategy was different from the Union strategy, and necessarily so—the Confederacy were fighting mainly on their own soil, while the Union troops were invading into the Southern land (McPherson). Davis himself described the strategy that he was to employ during the Civil War as both offensive and defensive in nature—there were a number of locations and battles that were fought as a result of Southern aggression towards Union troops (McPherson). Davis recognized that he did not have to win the war to achieve his ends; he merely had to stave off the Union troops for long enough to make the war a draw. If the war had been a draw, he would be able to make his demands before the Union Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln (McPherson). Davis wanted to ensure that the borders of the Southern states were protected, but he also recognized that one of his main priorities had to be the railroad, as it was something that he relied on heavily for communication between troops in different regions of the South (McPherson). The major problem for Davis was that his strategy never provided his generals with a clear way to win the war—because he did not see winning the war as a necessity (McPherson). Instead, he made a series of tactical blunders that cost the Confederacy some key battles, including the Battle of Chattanooga (McPherson; Dawson and Borritt). Because there was no clear strategy to win the war, the generals in the Confederate Army were free to do anything they wished to win individual battles, but they were mostly unable to solidify a coherent strategy for winning the war as a whole (McPherson).
Lincoln’s Union army was not without its problems as well (Internet Archive). General McClellan was one of Lincoln’s generals, and he was a man that repeatedly disrespected the Commander in Chief because he felt that he could do a better job making decisions for the Union troops and for the country as a whole (Internet Archive). He performed well in many battles, but he never became the outstanding general that he seemed to consider himself to be; Ulysses Grant outshone him easily as the war progressed, and his relationship with President Lincoln became more and more strained as time went on as well (Internet Archive). In short, McClellan was a taciturn man, and was completely unwilling to act cooperatively with the many different people that he worked with on a daily basis; even for a military man, he was difficult and problematic for leadership (Internet Archive). On the other hand, Lincoln shared a closer relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, the general that would become the most important name in the Civil War (Internet Archive). Although Grant made a number of mistakes throughout the war, Lincoln maintained his faith in the abilities of the man he considered his friend; it is, perhaps, this faith that allowed Grant to persevere through a number of tactically difficult situations and become victorious at the end of the Civil War (Davis; Internet Archive).
Alternatively, in the Confederate Army, the most important relationship that was developed was the relationship between Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis (Dawson and Boritt). Although the Civil War began with other generals receiving more faith than Lee, Lee developed a close relationship with Davis and quickly became the trusted general for all the most difficult strategic decisions (Dawson and Boritt). Early in the war, many of the generals did not respect Davis—their relationships with the erstwhile president were similar to the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan (Dawson and Boritt). However, Lee developed a closer bond with Davis, and Davis began to trust Lee to develop strategy and make decisions on the battlefield. This faith came as a result of a number of mistakes that were made by other generals like Beauregard and Johnston, who quickly fell out of favor with Davis when they were unable to hold the military advantage that they had eked out over the Union troops. Some would argue that it is Robert E. Lee’s military success that drove the positive relationship between the two men, but in reality, it is more likely that there was mutual respect that was developed over time because of the respect that Lee attributed to Davis as the commander of the Confederate Army (Dawason and Boritt).
Avila, Rolando. Abraham Lincoln: strategist of union victory. 1999.
Davis, W. C. 'Creating A Military Image: Lincoln As Commander In Chief'. OAH Magazine of History23.1 (2009): 19-23. Web.
Dawson, Joseph G., and Gabor S. Boritt. 'Jefferson Davis's Generals'. The Journal of Military History64.1 (2000): 207. Web.
Hahn, Steven. '‘Embattled Rebel,’ By James M. Mcpherson'. Nytimes.com. N.p., 2014. Web. 22 June 2015.
Internet Archive,. 'Lincoln And His Generals : Macartney, Clarence Edward Noble, 1879-1957 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive'. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 June 2015.
McPherson, James M. Embattled Rebel. Print.
McPherson, James M. Tried By War. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Print.