The Civil 
War Institute

300 North Washington Street
Campus box 435
Gettysburg, PA 17325
P: 717.337.6590
F: 717.337.6596

Part 3: Lincoln, the Commander in Chief

"The great triumph of Lincoln's years in office was the preservation of the Union by defeating the South in the Civil War. To accomplish this took some skill. In the early years of the war Lincoln preferred not to become involved in war strategy. However,  was consistently disappointed by the performances of his generals and eventually took a more hands-on role. This included the national strategy of trying to choke the South into submission by cutting off trade through a naval blockade, along with using the Union's advantages in numbers and supplies to bleed and spend the Confederacy to defeat. Clearly this strategy Lincoln developed worked; it just took finding the right men to put it into action. This shows Lincoln's strength as a wartime commander-in-chief. It is also important to remember that while Lincoln was a hero, he was also a man, and as such he had flaws." - Student from Edina, MN

First Meeting"As it appears to me, Lincoln was a reluctant, yet still incredibly hands-on and assertive commander-in-chief. He wished to not direct war strategy and issue orders as a his various general-in-chiefs should, but he had to, when faced with their indecision, take full command and responsibility of his army. Yet he did so reluctantly; he happily made Grant general-in-chief of the armed forces, and relinquished his strategic command to a man that was fully in his capacities to command. Some may have seen his command of the army as meddlesome, and argue against his directive control. But it truly was necessary to win the war; his generals would do nothing, so he had to step in to take the reins of the army." - Student from Brier, WA

"Before this Civil War institute, I had a narrow view of Lincoln as commander in chief of the Union Army. I considered him to be an inept military strategist with a great inability to comprehend the factors affecting the performance of the Union Army. It seemed to me that he was nothing but a great voice in the background always shouting "attack, attack!" with no regard or understanding of strategy. However, after hearing Dr. McPherson's lecture of Lincoln as the commander in chief, I now see Lincoln in the light of new knowledge. Given that Abraham Lincoln had no past experience with leading an army, any flaws he might have in this position are easily understandable. To his credit, Lincoln took a larger role in the workings of the Union army than most war time presidents took in their armies. He even reportedly studied military strategy so as to gain some understanding of his army. In reality, much different than my perceived view of him, Lincoln's understanding of the Union armies' numerical advantage over the Confederate army was the same understanding that Grant had that led to the end of the war. If more of Lincoln's often inept subordinates had listened to their commander in chief, the war might have been over far more quickly and they would have retained their honor. Lincoln, ultimately, was a good commander in chief given his lack of any education on the subject." - Student from Springfield, OH

"Lincoln appeared to be a commander in chief who was forced to learn a skill that is very complicated in a very short time. He was a man unversed in the arts of war, and this was sometimes very apparent. He mismanaged much of the early part of the war, sending two of his best generals into the western theater, which was generally viewed as the less important campaign. He tolerated incompetence in his generals for far too long, allowing men like McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker to take prominent leadership roles. Later in the war he grew more accustomed to his position as commander in chief, he took a more active role in affairs and finally found the right men to lead his armies. Lincoln the man seems to be almost nonexistent. He is more myth than man in today's common view, and it is hard to cut throw the legends to the truth. In actuality he must have made mistakes, and large ones at that. However, it seems that most people are Lincoln apologists, and while Lincoln probably was a great man, more critical biographers need to examine him to view the full picture. That said, by all accounts he was a great man and a great leader." - Student from Rumford, RI

"With but little national government experience, Abraham Lincoln became the model president for every president to come after him, just as Washington was before him.  No president before or after him had dealt with a more divided America.  He fought multiple wars: one in the field, one in his mind, one in his cabinet, one at home.  Yet he came to grips with all of them, and led the Union to victory, insuring the stability of the American government for years to come.  While he took a long time finding the right commanders for the right places, he eventually found a winning team that defeated and destroyed the rebellion.  From then on 'the United States are...' became 'the United States is.'" Student from Boca Raton, FL

"The lectures that we have heard involving Lincoln as the commander and chief of both the army and navy provided for a look into the tactical mind of our nations leader during the time of the Civil War. Lincoln was involved in many of the military actions taken by the many different navy admirals and commanders of the army involved with the different Union assaults on key points throughout the war. Although Lincoln wanted to let his generals and commanders deal with military issues, he did not have enough faith or trust in them to allow them to make their own executive decisions involving important movements." Student from Brewster, NY  

Read about students' experience at the conference:

Part 1: Student Expectations
Part 2: Lincoln, The Man
Part 3: Lincoln, The Commander In Chief
Part 4: Lincoln, The Great Emancipator
Part 5: Experiencing College Life
Part 6: Visiting The Battlefield
Part 7: The CWI

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300 North Washington St.
Gettysburg, PA 17325
P: (717) 337-6300