Book Club: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years | Meeting Four

Meeting 4, February 13, 2020, Chapters 20-23

[01:55] Expanding the Scope of Commander in Chief (10 minutes)

President Abraham Lincoln faced an unprecedented crisis. For that reason, he exercised unprecedented presidential power as commander in chief. This was to the end that he might “take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” He suspended the writ of habeas corpus by presidential decree, declared martial law, authorized the trial of civilians by military courts, and proclaimed emancipation of slaves. His intentions were to preserve the Union, and he expanded his scope of power so that he could “in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.”

[11:33] The War Initiates (7 minutes)

On April 12, 1861, the war began when the South bombed Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Three months later, the First Battle of Bull Run was fought. It took place on July 21 just outside Washington, D.C., close enough for women to rush to the battle field to watch from afar. At the battle’s outset, the North had the upper hand; but by 3 p.m., the tide had begun to turn.

[18:24] General McClellan (11 minutes)

He was a man whose worries and fears prevented him from going on the offensive in war. As Sandburg wrote, “An illusion that the enemy outnumbered him kept growing.” He wrote his wife on August 16, “I am here in a terrible place; the enemy have from three to four times my force.” Then later he said, “I do not live at all; merely exist, worked and worried half to death.”

After repeated requests for men and supplies, Lincoln finally said in exasperation, “If I gave McClellan all the men he asks for, they could not find room to lie down. They’d have to sleep standing up.” All Lincoln wanted was a victory, but McClellan wouldn’t deliver. As Lincoln said, he had “a case of the slows.” His unwillingness to go forward and get the victory is the exact opposite of what constitutes a good general, the kind of general Lincoln would soon have in Ulysses Grant.

[29:00] Open Discussion (8 minutes)

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