Civil War and Force of Personality
Lately we’re more willing to argue that systems – institutions, webs of laws, processes and rules of legislating, prevailing cultural currents – are important and that people can’t always move them by force of will. Sometimes the frame is more important than what’s in it. But not always, and people go too far, completely ignoring the importance of individuals operating in that system. Reading histories of the Civil War put in sharp relief the tension between systems and people and their various roles in shaping events.
In Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson burns reams of paper on the economic costs of war and the political machinations of North and South and their various strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and structural advantages. A shallow reading of history suggests that disparities in casualties were the result of superior Confederate fighters and that the North won on overwhelming superiority of manpower and resources. McPherson, however, refuses to allow the Confederacy’s immense structural advantage to fade into the background.
The war was fought on Confederate soil and, though the Southern landscape was obliterated in a way the North was spared, the Confederacy fought continuously on both strategic and tactical defense with knowledge of the topography and the advantage of needing only not to lose. The North had to occupy cities, destroy armies, control waterways, put down insurgencies, and affirmatively win – all with time on the side of the Confederacy (at least until later in the war).
But the drama of McPherson’s account is interpersonal. His book reads like a novel and Confederate economic policy in 1862 or Northern draft politics don’t do much for narrative. But far more important is the fact that systems and structures, hills and rivers, resources and politics only set the stage: people act on it. Those personalities clash most dramatically in the stretch of woods and townships between Richmond and the Potomac River. Historians point out differences between Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln: the former vindictive and mercurial, the latter stable and intolerant of political bickering.
More important, perhaps, are the differences between Lincoln and alternative presidents of the Union. Salmon P. Chase considered running in 1864 but was outmaneuverd by Lincoln. According to friend and fellow Ohio politician Benjamin Wade:
“Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound. He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.”
Would a man like Chase submit to the judgement of generals in the field or trust them enough for their opinions to reach him in Washington? Would he endure the short term political disasters of Emancipation and slow, bloody campaigns like Vicksburg or Petersburg? Would he buck the demands of politics and patronage to make room for a man like Grant to command the entire Union army?
George McClellan ran against Lincoln as a Democrat that year and his personality raises more questions. He changed his position on the war to whatever was politically expedient throughout the campaign and, if his command of the Army of the Potomac two years earlier was any indication, would have had none of Lincoln’s political nerve. The enormous consequences of individuals become impossible to ignore on the battlefield. McPherson spends page after page on the pathology of McClellan during his time as the commander both of the entire Union Army and its flagship Army of the Potomac.
He writes of McClellan:
“He lacked the mental and moral courage required of great generals – the will to act, to confront the terrible moment of truth on the battlefield. Having experienced nothing but success in his career, he was afraid to risk failure. He also suffered from what might be termed the ‘Bull Run syndrome’ – a paralysis that prevented any movement against the confederates until the army was thoroughly prepared. McClellan excelled at preparation, but it was never quite complete. The army was perpetually almost ready to move – but the enemy was always larger and better prepared.”
McClellan developed a messiah complex coupled with a crippling fear of losing in battle, writing to his wife (with McPherson’s commentary in brackets):
“I am here in a terrible place. The enemy have 3 to 4 times my force [in fact, McClellan then had twice the enemy’s force] – the Presdt. is an idiot, the old General is in his dotage – they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.”
At the same time, General Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces nearby and won astonishing victories by taking extraordinary risks and manipulating the personal weaknesses of his Union opponents that so frustrated Lincoln.
“Across the way, McClellan voiced pleasure at the change in southern command, for he considered Lee ‘cautious and weak under grave responsibility … likely to be timid and irresolute in action.’ A psychiatrist trying to understand what made McClellan tick might read a great deal into those words, which described McClellan himself but could not have been more wrong about Lee.”
Lee defied conventional military doctrine by dividing smaller armies in the face of larger opposition: he repeatedly moved his army like the vastly superior force his enemy always believed he commanded. Grant manipulated the similar timidity and political infighting of his Confederate opponents in the west. McPherson states rather bluntly that counterattacks, bold maneuvers, aggressive campaigns, or quicker actions by more confident commanders might have broken Lee’s army years before the war actually ended – once or twice before Lee even had a chance to take command.
Later in the war, Lee’s extraordinary aggressive streak contributed to staggering losses. McPherson also notes that Lee’s focus on tactics and battlefield strategy blinded him to an irony which didn’t escape Grant and Sherman: a longer and more brutal war bled the Confederacy completely dry even as it broke Union will. A less aggressive Lee may have outlasted Union will to fight or succumbed to invasion before the South was completely devastated, perhaps even saved the slavery for which they fought.
I’m not sure why this battle of personalities stuck out so brightly. Part of it is probably that McPherson is an extraordinary writer of narrative history and Battle Cry of Freedom is a masterpiece. He’s able to make a dense and comprehensive history of a confusing time, spanning decades, into a story with characters and action.
But there’s also an election coming up and people I know, who care about things I care about, often seem to despair over the futility of individuals swimming against currents. They don’t vote or care, in large part, because the people they care about seem powerless. But history, told well, illustrates that such fatalism couldn’t be more wrong. People start wars, end wars, send soldiers into battle, command those soldiers, perpetuate or precipitate disaster simply by being who they are, end it aided by strength of character, repair the damage or burn the whole thing down, shape and guide the titanic structures that gobble up others. I’m not sure if it’s heartening to think of history as being so fragile, but it certainly suggests that we don’t care enough about who wields which power and why.