Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lincoln at the Confederate High Point (updated)

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, in late August and early September 1862, the Confederate cause was at its high tide. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had won the second battle of Manassas or Bull Run, and was preparing to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland. The two-pronged Confederate invasion of Kentucky was proceeding well, with Edmund Kirby Smith's army winning the Battle of Richmond. 
George McClellan's Union army had been compelled to withdraw from the Virginia Peninsula, and its commander was detested as a near traitor by many of the leading representatives of the ruling Republican Party. Yet Lincoln now decided, on today's date in 1862, to restore him to the most crucial post in the Army, defending against Lee's advance, despite the personal humiliations McClellan had inflicted on the president and his now obvious failings as a military commander. (Two of Lincoln's most important Cabinet members, Edwin Stanton and Salmon Chase, opposed the decision.)
Events would prove Lincoln right. McClellan, though a Democrat, was no traitor, knew the Army well and was trusted by the troops. His tactical and battle-fighting deficiencies would continue to be on display in the coming weeks, but so would his sound strategic sense. The campaign would culminate in the Battle of Antietam, a tactical draw but strategic victory which saved the Union -- and enabled Lincoln to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation, much detested by McClellan, and later in the year to dismiss the general. 
Unfortunately, Lincoln replaced McClellan with the less competent Ambrose Burnside, showing his education as a war president was from complete. But unlike Jefferson Davis, he still had the ability to learn from his mistakes.

Update: On the same date, Sept. 2, 1862, Lincoln jotted down a Meditation on the Divine Will, which would bear fruit two-and-a-half years later in the greatest speech in American history.

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