Bush and the Pursuit of Victory: A Lesson From Lincoln

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2008

There seems to be a general consensus regarding the success of the “surge” in Iraq. In addition, the security policies put in place by the Bush administration have kept the country safe for seven years. Contrary to the expectations of many observers, there have been no attacks on the US homeland since 9/11 and recent reports indicate that US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the CIA have been relentlessly pursuing al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

During the campaign, President-Elect Obama criticized many of the Bush administration’s security policies and has indicated that he may reverse at least some of them. He was adamant that despite the undeniable success of the Iraq surge, he plans to withdraw US troops from that country within 16 months. Although the reality on the ground may cause him to modify this plan, many believe the success in Iraq is in danger of being reversed if US forces are drawn down precipitously. This holds for many anti-terrorist operations as well.

But George W. Bush is president until January 20, 2009. If he believes the security of the United States may be threatened by the policies of his successor, what should he do? At a minimum, he should look to Abraham Lincoln who, in the summer of 1864, faced a similar problem. In fact, Lincoln believed that he would not be reelected in November, and that his successor, George McClellan, formerly the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, would pursue some sort of a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy at the behest of the substantial “peace wing” of the Democratic Party—the so-called Copperheads.

In the summer of 1864, the likelihood of Union success in the ongoing War of the Rebellion seemed remote indeed. Despite Union successes in both the Eastern and Western theaters—the repulse of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863 and the spring-summer 1864 Virginia campaign that had forced Lee into a defensive position around Petersburg—the Northern people were weary of the war and appalled by its human cost.

The Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 reflected the military philosophy of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, whom President Abraham Lincoln had appointed as General in Chief of the Armies of the United States on March 10, 1864. “The art of war,” Grant maintained, “is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”

Thus for forty days in May and June, Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, accompanied by Grant, was locked in an unprecedented death struggle with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, beginning with the hell that was the Wilderness, and continuing through the bloodletting at Spotsylvania, North Ana, and Cold Harbor. While Lee, operating on interior lines, was able to parry each blow, he could never wrest the initiative from his adversary. Eventually Grant and Meade were able to sidestep Lee once more, cross the James River, and besiege Petersburg.

As necessary as it may have been strategically, the human cost of the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 was staggering. Meade suffered 55,000 casualties in addition to the loss of thousands of veteran troops whose three-year enlistments came to an end. The casualty lists that affected every town and city in the North created widespread disaffection with the war, which substantially increased the influence of the Copperheads on the Democratic Party. Democratic newspapers cited the failure of Union arms in Virginia and Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s lack of success in Georgia as a reason for ending the war as soon as possible. “If nothing else would impress upon the people the absolute necessity of stopping this war, its utter failure to accomplish any results would be sufficient.”

Buoyed by disaffection with the war, the Copperheads wrote the platform of the Democratic Party platform of 1864, and one of their own, Rep. George H. Pendleton of Ohio, was the party’s candidate for vice president. Although McClellan was not himself a Copperhead, he reportedly said, “If I am elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice and a call for a convention of all the states and insist upon exhausting all and every means to secure peace without further bloodshed.”

Thus on August 23, 1864, Lincoln drafted a short memorandum that he asked his cabinet to sign without reading. It read:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.

In other words Lincoln vowed to pursue the goal of victory for as long as he was president—in those days the new president was inaugurated in March—and he expected his cabinet to support him.

Fortunately, three military events changed the electoral landscape, resulting in Lincoln’s reelection. The first, Farragut’s capture of Mobile, had occurred during the summer, but its importance was not recognized until later when the second event took place: Sherman’s seizure of Atlanta on September 2nd. The trifecta was completed in October when Phil Sheridan routed Jubal Early at Winchester, driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley for the last time.

It is clear that the Confederates were counting on Lincoln’s electoral defeat. As the Charleston Monitor editorialized, McClellan’s election on a peace platform “must lead to peace and our independence [provided] that for the next two months we hold our own and prevent military success by our foes.” But what would have happened had Lincoln not been reelected? The fact is that the determination that Lincoln expressed in the “blind memo” most likely would have resulted in Union victory even had he not been reelected. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1865. Petersburg fell less than a month later on April 2nd. Lee surrendered at Appomattox a week later, followed by Joseph Johnston’s capitulation to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 18. It seems clear that not even McClellan’s election would have changed the final outcome.

George Bush should take inspiration from Lincoln’s example during the bleak days of August 1864. Lincoln understood that he was president until his successor was inaugurated. And he understood that his obligation was to pursue victory without regard to the likely policies of his successor. The blind memo makes it clear that Lincoln didn’t fret about “tying the hands” of McClellan. Let us hope that President Bush understands his obligations until January 20 in the same way that Lincoln understood his. The recent status of forces agreement is an indication that he does. But he should also keep the pressure up on other fronts as well. At a minimum, this means continuing the previously secret operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that were leaked to the press in an apparent attempt to make it more difficult for the president to carry out his constitutional responsibilities.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the national security journal of the Foreign Policy
Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is writing a history of US civil-military relations.