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His kindness and patience in dealing with the generals who did not succeed is the wonder of all who study the history of the Civil War. The letters he wrote to them show better than whole volumes of description could do the helpful and forbearing spirit in which he sought to aid them. First among these unsuccessful generals was George B. McClellan, who had been called to Washington after the battle of Bull Run and placed in charge of the great new army of three years' volunteers that was pouring so rapidly into the city. McClellan proved a wonderful organizer. Under his skilful direction the raw recruits went to their camps of instruction, fell without confusion or delay into brigades and divisions, were supplied with equipments, horses and batteries, and put through a routine of drill, tactics and reviews that soon made this Army of the Potomac, as it was called, one of the best prepared armies the world has ever seen--a perfect fighting machine of over 150,000 men and more than 200 guns. General McClellan excelled in getting soldiers ready to fight, but he did not succeed in leading them to fruitful victory. At first the administration had great hopes of him as a commander. He was young, enthusiastic, winning, and on arriving in Washington seemed amazed and deeply touched by the confidence reposed in him. "I find myself," he wrote to his wife, "in a new and strange position here, President, cabinet, General Scott, and all, deferring to me. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land." His rise in military rank had equaled the inventions of fairy tales. He had been only a captain during the Mexican war. Then he resigned. Two months after volunteering for the Civil War he found himself a Major General in the Regular Army. For a short time his zeal and activity seemed to justify this amazing good fortune. In a fortnight however he began to look upon himself as the principal savior of his country. He entered upon a quarrel with General Scott which soon drove that old hero into retirement and out of his pathway. He looked upon the cabinet as a set of "geese," and seeing that the President was kind and unassuming in discussing military affairs, he formed the habit of expressing contempt for him in letters to confidential friends. This feeling grew until it soon reached a mark of open disrespect, but the President's conduct toward him did not change. Mr. Lincoln's nature was too forgiving, and the responsibility that lay upon him was too heavy for personal resentment. For fifteen months he strove to make McClellan succeed even in spite of himself. He gave him help, encouragement, the most timely suggestions. He answered his ever-increasing complaints with unfailing self-control. It was not that he did not see McClellan's faults. He saw them, and felt them keenly. "If Gen. McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it," he said one day, stung by the General's inactivity into a sarcasm he seldom allowed himself to use. But his patience was not exhausted. McClellan had always more soldiers than the enemy, at Antietam nearly double his numbers, yet his constant cry was for re-enforcements. Regiments were sent him that could ill be spared from other points. Even when his fault-finding reached the height of telegraphing to the Secretary of War, "If I save this army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army," the President answered him kindly and gently, without a sign of resentment, anxious only to do everything in his power to help on the cause of the war. It was of no avail. Even the great luck of finding a copy of General Lee's orders and knowing exactly what his enemy meant to do, at a time when the Confederate general had only about half as many troops as he had, and these were divided besides, did not help him to success. All he could do even then was to fight the drawn battle of Antietam, and allow Lee to get away safely across the Potomac River into Virginia. After this the President's long-suffering patience was at an end, but he did not remove McClellan until he had visited the Army of the Potomac in person. What he saw on that visit assured him that it could never succeed under such a general. "Do you know what that is ?" he asked a friend, waving his arm towards the white tents of the great army. "It is the Army of the Potomac, I suppose," was the wondering answer. "So it is called," replied the President, in a tone of suppressed indignation. "But that is a mistake. It is only McClellan's bodyguard." On November 5, 1862, McClellan was relieved from command, and this ended his military career.
There were others almost equally trying. There was General Fremont, who had been the Republican candidate for President in 1856. At the beginning of the war he was given a command at St. Louis and charged with the important duty of organizing the military strength of the northwest, holding the State of Missouri true to the Union, and leading an expedition down the Mississippi River. Instead of accomplishing all that had been hoped for, his pride of opinion and unwillingness to accept help or take advice from those about him, caused serious embarrassment and made unending trouble. The President's kindness and gentleness in dealing with his faults were as marked as they were useless.
There was the long line of commanders who one after the other tried and failed in the tasks allotted to them, while the country waited and lost courage, and even Mr. Lincoln's heart sank. His care and wisdom and sorrow dominated the whole long persistent struggle. That first sleepless night of his after the battle of Bull Run was but the beginning of many nights and days through which he kept unceasing watch. From the time in June, 1861, when he had been called upon to preside over the council of war that decided upon the Bull Run campaign, he devoted every spare moment to the study of such books upon the art of war as would aid him in solving the questions that he must face as Commander-in-Chief of the armies. With his quick mind and unusual power of logic he made rapid progress in learning the fixed and accepted rules on which all military writers agree. His mastery of the difficult science became so thorough, and his understanding of military situations so clear, that he has been called, by persons well fitted to judge, "the ablest strategist of the war." Yet he never thrust his knowledge upon his generals. He recognized that it was their duty, not his, to fight the battles, and since this was so, they ought to be allowed to fight them in their own way. He followed their movements with keenest interest and with a most astonishing amount of knowledge, giving a hint here, and a suggestion there, when he felt that he properly could, but he rarely gave a positive order.
There is not space to quote the many letters in which he showed his military wisdom, or his kindly interest in the welfare and success of the different generals. One of the most remarkable must however be quoted. It is the letter he wrote to General Joseph Hooker on placing him in command of the Army of the Potomac in January, 1863, after McClellan's many failures had been followed by the crushing defeat of the army under General McClellan's successor, General Burnside, at the battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862.
"I have placed you," he wrote on giving General Hooker the command, "at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken council of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories."
Perhaps no other piece of his writing shows as this does how completely the genius of the President rose to the full height of his duties and responsibilities. From beginning to end it speaks the language and breathes the spirit of the great ruler, secure in popular confidence and in official authority.
Though so many of the great battles during the first half of the war were won by the Confederates, military successes came to the North of course from time to time. With such fine armies and such earnest generals the tide of battle could not be all one way; and even when the generals made mistakes, the heroic fighting and endurance of the soldiers and under-officers gathered honor out of defeat, and shed the luster of renown over results of barren failure. But it was a weary time, and the outlook was very dark. The President never despaired. On the most dismal day of the whole dismal summer of 1862 he sent Secretary Seward to New York with a confidential letter full of courage, to be shown such of the governors of free States as could be hastily summoned to meet him there. In it he said: "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsake me," and he asked for 100,000 fresh volunteers with which to carry on the war. His confidence was not misplaced. The governors of eighteen free States offered him three times the number, and still other calls for troops followed. Soon a popular song, "We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong," showed the faith and trust of the people in the man at the head of the Government, and how cheerfully they met the great calls upon their patriotism.
So, week after week and month after month, he faced the future, never betraying a fear that the Union would not triumph in the end, but grieving sorely at the long delay. Many who were not so sure came to him with their troubles. He was beset by night and by day by people who had advice to give or complaints to make. They besought him to dismiss this or that General, to order such and such a military movement; to do a hundred things that he, in his great wisdom, felt were not right, or for which the time had not yet come. Above all, he was implored to take some decided and far-reaching action upon slavery.
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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln -by- Helen Nicolay