On July 27, 1848, a tall, rawboned Whig congressman from Illinois rose in the House of Representatives to challenge the Mexican War policies of President James K. Polk. An opponent of what he considered an unjust war, Abraham Lincoln mocked his own meager record as a militia captain who saw no action in the Black Hawk War of 1832. “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero?” said Lincoln. “Yes, sir . . . I fought, bled, and came away” after “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many struggles with the musketoes.”
Lincoln might not have indulged his famous sense of humor in this fashion if he had known that thirteen years later he would become commander in chief of the U.S. Army in a war that turned out to be forty-seven times more lethal for American soldiers than the Mexican War. On his way to Washington in February 1861 as presidentelect of a broken nation, Lincoln spoke in a far more serious manner. He looked back on another war, which had given birth to the nation that now seemed in danger of perishing from the earth. In a speech to the New Jersey legislature in Trenton, Lincoln recalled the story of George Washington and his tiny army, which crossed the ice-choked Delaware River in a driving sleet storm on Christmas night in 1776 to attack the Hessian garrison in Trenton. “There must have been something more than common that those men struggled for,” said the president-elect. “Something even more than National Independence. . . something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world for all time to come. I am exceedingly anxious that the Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made.”
Lincoln faced a steep learning curve as commander in chief in the war that began less than two months after that speech at Trenton. He was also painfully aware that his adversary, Jefferson Davis, was much better prepared for that daunting task. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Davis had fought courageously as a colonel of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War and had served as an excellent secretary of war from 1853 to 1857—while Lincoln’s only military experience was his combat with mosquitoes in 1832. Lincoln possessed a keen analytical mind, however, and a fierce determination to master any subject to which he applied himself. This determination went back to his childhood. “Among my earliest recollections,” Lincoln told an acquaintance in 1860, “I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand.” Lincoln recalled “going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep . . . when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it. . . . This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me.” Later in life Lincoln mastered Euclidean geometry on his own for mental exercise. As a largely self-taught lawyer, he honed this quality of mind. He was not a quick study but a thorough one. “I am never easy,” he said, “when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West.”
Several contemporaries testified to the slow but tenacious qualities of Lincoln’s mind. The mercurial editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, noted that Lincoln’s intellect worked “not quickly nor brilliantly, but exhaustively.” Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon sometimes expressed impatience with Lincoln’s deliberate manner of researching or arguing a case. But Herndon conceded that his partner “not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fibre of it.”4 Lincoln also focused intently on the central issue in a legal case and refused to be distracted by secondary questions. Another fellow lawyer noted that Lincoln would concede nonessential points to an opponent in the courtroom, lulling him into a sense of complacency. But “by giving away six points and carrying the seventh he carried his case . . . the whole case hanging on the seventh. . . . Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”
As commander in chief Lincoln sought to master the intricacies of military strategy in the same way he had tried to penetrate the meaning of mysterious adult conversations when he was a boy. His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard the president walking back and forth in his bedroom at midnight as he digested books on military strategy. “He gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation,” Hay later wrote. “He read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge and the keen intelligence of his questions.” Some of those generals, like Lincoln’s courtroom adversaries, eventually found themselves on their backs in a ditch. By 1862 Lincoln’s grasp of military strategy and operations was firm enough almost to justify the assertion of the historian T. Harry Williams: “Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.”
Excerpted from Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) October, 2008.