My travel reading for this trip is the first volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War. Though a trusted colleague swears by it--going so far as to say he envies my getting to read it for the first time--I had stayed away from it for years because I was worried that Foote might be too much of a Southern apologist for my Northern blood. I'm glad I gave it a try: thus far, though Foote clearly appreciates the South and damns their cause only gently, I'm finding it spectacularly good, full of well-drawn characters and dramatic set pieces. (Oh, and it took but a single quote on Twitter--a line from Sam Houston calling Jefferson Davis "ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard"--to bring someone on Twitter to call me "scum" for insufficiently censuring Foote as a Davis apologist.)
Today I'll share an incident that I must surely have encountered before in reading on the Civil War and Lincoln but had completely forgotten: the President's first and only experience of field command. It came at the point of Lincoln's maximal frustration with General McClellan's self-important dilatory caution: McClellan had finally embarked on his complicated water-borne sweep around the Confederate army protecting Richmond, and Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton had headed out to Fort Monroe to see what they could see. From here, I'll let Foote tell the story:
Amazed to find that McClellan had made no provision for the capture of Norfolk [across the river inlet], outflanked by the drive up the opposite bank of the James, the President decided to undertake the operation himself, employing the fortress garrison under Major General John E. Wool. . . . The first trouble came with the navy: Goldsborough thought it would be dangerous to ferry men across the Roads with the Merrimac still on the loose. But Lincoln not only overruled him, he and Chase got in separate tugs and reconnoitered the opposite shore for a suitable landing place. When they returned, however, they found that Wool had already chosen one from the chart and was embarking with the troops who were to seize it. Chase went along, but Lincoln and Stanton stayed behind to maintain a command post at the fort and question various colonels and generals who, the President thought, were to follow in support.It turned out that "no push or support was needed," as the Confederates had secretly evacuated Norfolk the previous day. Alas, perhaps, for presidential glory, but better, surely, for the fate of America: imagine the chaos of a Lincoln-less Union in late 1862 had he fallen in battle, thrusting the nonentity Hannibal Hamlin (who spent most of the war years in Maine) into command of a fractious nation and tentative army. It's worth a shudder or two.
"Where is you command?" he asked one, and got the answer: "I am awaiting orders." To another he said, "Why are you here? Why not on the other side?" and was told, "I am ordered to the fort." Experiencing for the first time some of the vexations likely to plague a field commander, Lincoln lost his temper. He took off his tall hat and slammed it on the floor. "Send me someone who can write," he said, exasperated. When the someone came forward--a colonel on Wool's staff--the President dictated an order for the advance to be pushed and supported.