The Officers

President was careful in dealing with the egos of his generals. In a letter to General Nathaniel Banks, President Lincoln wrote: “My dear general, this expanding and piling up of impedimenta has been so far almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned.” He concluded: “Now, dear general, do not think this is an ill-natured letter; it is the very verse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you.”1

Lincoln chronicler Allen Thorndike Rice noted: “The responsibility of office weighed heavily upon the President, but never overwhelmed him; yet the rebuke of a friend caused him the keenest pangs.” He noted that Mr. Lincoln told General William T. Sherman at the end of the war that his warm relations with Generals Sherman and Grant had a simple base: “It was because you never found fault with me, from the days of Vicksburg down.”2

President Lincoln attempted to be firm, but friendly in handling the demands and complaints of Union officers. On another occasion in December 1864, President Lincoln wrote General Banks about the division of responsibility among generals charged with reconstruction of Louisiana: “I know you are dissatisfied, which pains me much, but I wish not to be argued with further. I entertain no abatement of confidence or friendship for you.”3

Instructing generals was one problem. Promoting them was another. “The President says that the changes and promotions in the Army of the Potomac cost him more anxiety than the campaigns,” wrote California journalist Noah Brookes in an 1863 dispatch. He also says – and he ought to know – that the ratio of men to Generals in that army, is now just 800 men to each General. This is partly owing to the fact that many of the regiments are such only in name – their ranks having been decimated, and the remnants are being consolidated or recruited.”4

Mr. Lincoln sought balance – among factions and friends in these appointments and assignments to commands. Once, Representative George W. Julian urged the appointment of John C. Fremont to a new command, saying it “would stir the country as no other appointment could.” President Lincoln replied: “It would stir the country on one side, and stir it the other way, on the other. It would please Fremont’s friends, and displease the Conservatives; and that is all I can see in the stirring argument.”5

Dismissing generals presented a third problem – General Ulysses S. Grant himself was anxious to dismiss or demote several generals – among them, New Orleans-based Banks. Henry Halleck responded to a critical note from Grant about Banks, by writing back:

General Banks is a personal friend of the President, and has strong political supporters in and out of Congress. There will undoubtedly be a very strong opposition to his being removed or superseded, and I think the President will hesitate to act unless he has a definite request from you to do so, as a military necessity, you designating his superior or superior in command. On receiving such a formal request (not a mere suggestion) I believe, as I wrote you some days ago, he would act immediately.

I have no authority for saying this, but give it simply as my own opinion, formed from the last two years’ experience, and the reason, I think is very obvious. To do an act which will give offense to a large number of his political friends the President will require some evidence in a positive form to show the military necessity of that act. In other words, he must have something in a definite shape to fall back upon as his justification.6

Political generals like former House Speaker Banks caused special problems – particularly when he rubbed West Point generals like Grant the wrong way. Earlier, Halleck had written Grant: “I think the President will consent to the order if you insist upon General Banks’ removal as a military necessity, but he will do so very reluctantly, as it would give offense to many of his friends, and would probably be opposed by a portion of his Cabinet. Moreover, what could be done with Banks? He has many political friends who probably demand for him a command equal to the one he now has. Before submitting the matter to President, the Secretary of War wishes to have in definite form precisely the order you wish issued.”7

President Lincoln also had problems with another Massachusetts general, Benjamin Butler, who preceded Banks as the military commander in New Orleans. Butler gained a military reputation early in the war by bringing Massachusetts regiments to Washington’s defense in April 1861 and establishing military rule of mutinous Baltimore. But Butler had a talent for annoying superiors – such as General Winfield Scott and Henry Halleck. As military governor of New Orleans, he simultaneously annoyed foreign governments and scandalized the South. But his unorthodox and dramatic style created a political following, especially among Radical Republicans, and made it necessary to treat Butler with unusual care.

In the spring of 1864, President Lincoln sent former Secretary of War Simon Cameron to test Butler’s political ambitions. In the summer of 1864, Butler got into a fight with the pro-Union government of Virginia. He arrested a circuit court judge who insisted on holding court in defiance of General Butler’s orders. In a letter to President Lincoln, he extended his fight to include Attorney General Edward Bates: “If the learned Attorney General has a fancy for intermeddling with the affairs of disloyal people in a state, it might be suggested that Missouri opens a fine field for the exercise of his talents in that direction.”8 President Lincoln wrote a reply to Butler that he should base his actions on military necessity and leave other governmental institutions “undisturbed”:

This subject has caused considerable trouble, forcing me to give a good deal of time and reflection to it. I regret that crimination and recrimination are mingled it. I surely need not to assure you that I have no doubt of your loyalty and devoted patriotism; and I must tell you that I have no less confidence in those of Gov. Pierpoint and the Attorney General. The former, at first, as the loyal governor of all Virginia, including that which is now West-Virginia; in organizing and furnishing troops, and in all other proper matters, was as earnest, honest, and efficient to the extent of his means, as any other loyal governor. The inauguration of West-Virginia as a new State left to him, as he assumed, the remainder of the rebel lines, and consequently within his reach, certainly gives a somewhat farcical air to dominion; and I suppose he, as well as I, has considered that it could be useful for little else than as a nucleus to add to. The Attorney General only needs to be known to be relieved from all question as to loyalty and thorough devotion to the national cause; constantly restraining as he does, my tendency to clemency for rebels and rebel sympathizers. But he is the Law-Officer of the government, and a believer in the virtue of adhering to law.9

The letter was never finished by the President and was not sent until December 21, 1864 after General Butler ordered elections in his Virginia district – elections that Governor Pierpont opposed. The election over, President Lincoln dealt with Butler more firmly: “Let this be suspended, at least, until conference with me, and obtaining my approval.”10 Meanwhile, Butler failed in an expedition to capture Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina. General Grant’s patience with Butler also failed and he demanded authority to replace him. On January 7, 1865, by “direction of the President of the United States,” Butler was relieved of his command and sent home.11 He joined a growing group of furloughed generals – like George B. McClellan, John A. McClernand, and John C. Frémont.

General McClellan was given the opportunity for friendship when he was dramatically promoted to head the Army of the Potomac in August 1861 and as commander of the entire army a few months later. He never took the opportunity. Indeed, from his sense of superiority, McClellan disdained it. Mr. Lincoln understood ambition; he did not disdain it. But McClellan had ambition without humility. He virtually forced out Winfield Scott as Union general-in-chief. He felt ever persecuted by the imbeciles in Washington. Lincoln biographer Alonzo McDonald wrote:

“McClellan’s engaging personality, moreover, was not without its wonted effect, for it stirred the great heart in the White House to a feeling of friendliness quite apart from mere official support. We have seen something of the President’s amiable indulgence toward the statesmen who severally fancied that their names spelled the country’s salvation; but none of them, it is safe to say, were treated with such consideration as was shown, in the beginning, at least, to the ‘Young Napoleon.'” McClellan’s pretensions met with the utmost good humor. Flowers and invitations to dinner and kind words poured in upon him from the Executive Mansion, until even he, a very glutton for honor, turned aside to cry, ‘Enough!'”12

In early March 1862, President Lincoln summoned McClellan to the White House and told the general that there were rumors that his strategy “was conceived with the traitorous intent of removing its defenders from Washington, and thus giving over to the enemy the Capital and the government, thus left defenceless.” In response to McClellan’s indignation, Mr. Lincoln said that “he did not believe a word of it.”13 Effective generals understood Lincoln’s need to speak frankly to them.

As the war wore on, there was less opportunity for generals to interact with President Lincoln since they required permission to visit the nation’s capital. It was a reasonable restriction since a good deal of trouble had been caused in December 1862 by Army of the Potomac generals circumventing the chain of command and taking their complaints against their commander, Ambrose Burnside, directly to the White House.

President Lincoln knew that generals needed that to be treated with a combination of direction and tact. That combination can seen in a letter President Lincoln wrote but didn’t send to George Meade in July 1863. General Henry W. Halleck had telegraphed Meade on July 14 about the Administration’s unhappiness to expeditiously follow up on the Union victory at Gettysburg: “The enemy should be pursued and cut up, wherever he may have gone. This pursuit may or may not be upon the rear or flank, as circumstances may require. The inner flank toward Washington present the greatest advantages. Supply yourself from the country as far as possible. I cannot advise details, as I do not known where Lee’s army is, nor where your pontoon bridges are. I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”14

Meade’s reply clearly reflected his impatience: “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.” Halleck tried to pacify Meade: “My telegram, stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army, was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.”15 President Lincoln penned a response which he marked “To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.” The President was clearly distressed and needed to express his feelings – but also realized that the expression of those feelings would injure a general who had faithfully served his country:

I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very-very-gratefully to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles of Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. [Darius N.] Couch, and Gen. [William F.] Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him, but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive. At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fiftyfive miles, if so much. And Couch’s movement was very little different.
Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. as it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand:? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasureably because of it.
I beg you will not consider this a prossecution, or persecution of you. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

Meade was notoriously prickly, but he wasn’t unique. President Lincoln struggled to balance their prickliness with public policy. It wasn’t just what generals did on the battlefield that concerned and irritated President Lincoln. What generals did in relation to civilian populations and authorities could be equally vexing. The border situation in Missouri was particularly troublesome – as there was continuing tension between conservatives and radicals and between civilian leaders and military commanders. General Samuel R. Curtis has suppressed the Rev. Samuel S. McPheeters from preaching because the minister’s Southern sympathies. Mr. Lincoln rebuked General Curtis, writing in early January 1863: “But I must add that the U.S. government must not, as by this order, undertake to run the churches. When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest, he must be checked; but let the churches, as such take care of themselves. It will not do for the U.S. to appoint Trustees, Supervisors, or other agencies for the churches.”16 But problems continued. Later in January 1863, the President wrote Curtis:

I am having a good-deal of trouble with Missouri matters, and I now sit down to write you particularly about it. One class of friends in greater severity, and another in greater leniency, in regard to arrests, banishments, and assessments. As usual in such cases, each questions the other motives. On the one hand it is insisted that Gov. [Hamilton R.] Gamble’s Unionism, at most, is not better than a secondary spring of action–that hunkerism, and a wish for political influence, stand before Unionism, with him. On the other hand, it is urged that arrests, banishments, and assessment are made more for private malice, revenge, and pecuniary interest, than for the public good. This morning I was told by a gentleman who, I have no doubt believes what he says, that in one case of assessments for ten thousand dollars, the different persons who paid, compared receipts, and found they had paid thirty thousand dollars. If this be true, the inference is that the collecting agents pocketed the odd twenty thousand. And true or not, in the instance, nothing but the sternest necessity can justify the making and maintaining of a system so liable to such abuses. Doubtless the necessity for the making of the system in Missouri did exist, and whether it continues for the maintenance of it, is now a practical, and very important question. Some days ago Governor Gamble telegraphed me asking that the assessments, outside the St. Louis county, might be suspended, as they already have been within it; and this morning all the members of congress here from Missouri, but one, lay a paper before me asking the same thing. Now, my belief is that Gov. Gamble is an honest and true man, not less so than yourself; that you and he could confer together on this, and other Missouri questions with great advantage to the public; that each knows something which the other does not, and that, acting together, you could about double your stock of pertinent information. May I do not hope you and he will attempt this? I could at once safely do, (or you could safely do without me) whatever you and he agree upon. There is absolutely no reason why you should not agree.”17

Civilians were difficult enough to control. Disciplining the military could be equally troublesome. Mr. Lincoln’s policy was wherever possible to expand and protect the number of friends of the Union. This meant trying to patch up differences where possible and removing obstacles where necessary. Eventually, Mr. Lincoln decided that the situation in Missouri required a change in command and appointed General John M. Schofield to replace Curtis. He wrote Schofield:

Having relieved Gen. Curtis and assigned you to the command of the Department of the Missouri – I think it may be of some advantage for me to state to you why I did it. I did not relieve Gen. Curtis because of any full conviction that he had done wrong by commission or omission. I did it because of a conviction in my mind that the Union men of Missouri, constituting, when united, a vast majority of the whole people, have entered into a pestilent factional quarrel among themselves, Gen. Curtis, perhaps not of choice, being the head of one faction, and Gov. Gamble that of the other. After months of labor to reconcile the difficulty, it seemed to grow worse and worse until I felt it my duty to break it up some how; and as I could not remove Gov. Gamble, I had to remove Gen. Curtis. Now that you are in the position, I wish you to undo nothing merely because Gen. Curtis or Gov. Gamble did it; but to exercise your own judgment, and do right for the public interest. Let your military measures be strong enough to repel the invader and keep the peace, and not so strong as to unnecessarily harrass and persecute the people. It is a difficult role, and so much greater will be the honor if you perform it well. If both factions, or neither, shall abuse you, you will probably be about right. Beware of being assailed by one, and praised by the other.18

Problems in Missouri continued when this letter leaked into the press. Governor Gamble took offense and wrote President Lincoln:

“Your letter to Major General Schofield of the 27th of May was published in the newspapers of this city on the 27th of June last and but for my engagements in the State Convention in aiding in the passage of an ordinance of emancipation, and other pressing official duties I would sooner have attended to that most extraordinary publication.
As a paper written by the President…concerning the Governor of a loyal state is a most remarkable production and its publication is a most wanton and unmerited insult…I have borne in silence the attacks…by newspaper writers, but when the President…in an official communication undertakes to characterise me, the Governor of a loyal state, as the head of a faction in that state, an answer is demanded…
I take leave to say…that the language of your letter…is in my judgment unbecoming your position…But there is your accusation…this further wrong, that the charge is not true…
I have earnestly desired that the military might be restrained from all wanton violence and cruelty…When my views of the policy necessary to the restoration of peace and civil government have been disregarded, I have caused the facts to be made known to you in order that you might apply the remedy…If making to you the proper representation of facts constituted me the head of a faction then I have been such; but if I was performing a simple duty to you, upon whom rests the ultimate responsibility for the government of the military, then my conduct was necessary for the country, and just to you, furnished no ground for your attack upon me…
‘Mr. President, I have disapproved of acts of your administration, but I have carefully abstained from denouncing you…and this because there is nothing of a ‘faction’ spirit in me…
‘You can then judge sir how grossly offensive the language your letter is, when you say ‘as’ (that is, because) ‘I could not remove Gov Gamble I had to remove General Curtis’ distinctly intimating that you would have removed me if you could…”19

Mr. Lincoln confronted Gamble directly: “My Private Secretary has just brought me a letter saying it is a very ‘cross one from you, about mine to Gen. Schofield, recently published in the Democrat. As I am trying to preserve my own temper, by avoiding irritants, so far as practicable, I have declined to read the cross letter. I think fit to say, however, that when I wrote the letter to Gen. Schofield, I was totally unconscious of any malice, or disrespect towards you, or of using any expression which should offend you, if seen by you.”20 Keeping friendly relations with generals could not come at the expense of friendly relations with their civilian counterparts. Mr. Lincoln needed friends everywhere and as many as he could get.


  1. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 329 (Letter to Nathaniel P. Banks, November 22, 1862).
  2. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxvii-xxviii.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IX, p. 131 (Letter to General Nathaniel P. Banks, December 2, 1864).
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 60 (July 22, 1863).
  5. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 55 (George Julian).
  6. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 556-557.
  7. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 5530554.
  8. Richard S. West, Jr., Lincoln’s Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818-1893, p. 271.
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 487-488 (Letter to Benjamin F. Butler, August 9, 1864).
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 174 (Letter to Benjamin F. Butler, December 21, 1864).
  11. Richard S. West, Jr., Lincoln’s Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818-1893, p. 291.
  12. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 335.
  13. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story, p. 195-196.
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, VolumeVI, p. 327-328.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, p. 327-328.
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, VolumeVI, p. 34 (Letter to Samuel R. Curtis, January 2, 1863).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 36-37 (Letter to Samuel R. Curtis, January 5, 1863).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 234 (Letter to John M. Schofield, May 27. 1863).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 344-345 (Letter from Hamilton R. Gamble to Abraham Lincoln, July 13, 1863).
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 344-345 (Letter to Hamilton R. Gamble, July 23, 1863).