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Two Harrys and "A Most Interesting Story": A Document of Note

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 58-65 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0003

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In 1952, Alfred A. Knopf published one of the landmark works in Civil War military history, T. Harry Williams's Lincoln and His Generals. In that book, Williams offered a compelling chronicle and provocative analysis of Abraham Lincoln's management of the Union war effort, placing particular emphasis on the president's dealings with the various general officers fate placed in high command. In the process, Williams further bolstered Lincoln's stature in the eyes of historians and the general public as a great commander in chief. "Lincoln stands out as a great war president," Williams declared, "probably the greatest in our history." In large part, Williams argued, this was due to Lincoln's willingness and ability to confront and overcome the shortcomings of professional military men and impose his superior strategic judgment on the Union war effort. "When the war started," Williams proclaimed, "he was inclined to defer to the judgments of trained soldiers. He soon came to doubt and even scorn the capabilities of the military mind. . . . With no knowledge of the theory of war, no experience in war, and no technical training, Lincoln, by the power of his mind, became a fine strategist. He was a better natural strategist than were most of the trained soldiers. He saw the big picture of the war from the start."

The book's publication and arguments were certainly, to say the least, timely. Lincoln and His Generals appeared when the United States was still reeling from one of the great moments of tension—if not outright crisis—in civil-military relations in its history. In 1952, the clash between President Harry S. Truman and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean War that culminated in MacArthur's removal from command in April 1951 was still fresh in the minds of the American people. There can be little doubt that this played a role in the ability of Lincoln and His Generals, aided by its being a selection of the Book of the Month Club, to reach the sort of audience most academic historians, even those writing in the popular field of Civil War military history, can only dream of.

One member of that audience was none other than the very same president of the United States who still bore deep scars and a decidedly unfavorable popularity rating with the public from his conflict with MacArthur. To Truman, Williams's book and its arguments lauding strong presidential management of general officers could hardly have been more welcome. Indeed, Truman so enjoyed and appreciated the book that he decided in March 1952 to take time from his busy schedule to write to Williams. In that letter, Truman not only commended Williams for Lincoln and His Generals but also, perhaps in search of escape from his many cares, briefly offered his own take on other aspects of the American Civil War, a subject he had a long and passionate interest in and frequently used as a point of departure in thinking about the challenges he faced as a leader. Some of the forces that shaped Truman's particular interest in and memory of the war were certainly evident in his letter to Williams.

[personal and confidential] 3 March 1952—

My dear Dr. Williams.

I have been reading your "Lincoln and His Generals." It is a most interesting story, especially as it relates to Generals [Henry W.] Halleck, George B. McClellan, Don Carlos Buell, [John] Pope, [Ambrose E.] Burnside, [William S.] Rosecrans, Old Joe Hooker, whose name to fame is linked with "lady camp followers," [Ulysses S.] Grant, [William T.] Sherman and George Meade.

George Meade was called before the Committee on the Conduct of War and abused like a pickpocket, just as the Committee of the Senate, known as the judiciary Committee, has been using its investigative powers to run a Star Chamber proceeding in our day.

I wish you would do for the Western Generals in the Civil War what Douglas Freeman and you have done for the Eastern Generals.

Take Braxton Bragg—he was the hero of Old General Zach Taylor's remark, "A little more grape Mr. Bragg." Bragg was stationed at Ft. Monroe. He...

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