Lincoln’s Strategic Vision

Abraham Lincoln’s vision for restoring the Union and the means he used to achieve victory evolved over the course of the war, and he skillfully wove together numerous military and political threads to attain his objectives. It took some time for the commander-in-chief to find army commanders who shared his vision and had the audacity to pursue the necessary means to Lincoln’s ends, but when Grant and Sherman were brought east, they engaged in a relentless pursuit of the enemy. Finally, in these two men Lincoln had found commanders who were willing to do what needed to be done to win the war and restore the Union.

Lincoln made it clear from the outset that he “was an intense nationalist and that he regarded the Union as indestructible.”[1] In his first inaugural address, he told the nation “that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States or insurrectionary or revolutionary.”[2] He also assured southern slave owners, however, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”[3] Lincoln’s overriding concern was restoring to the Union those states that had seceded, and at this point of his presidency abolition and emancipation were not among his primary goals. Although he hated slavery and wished to see its eventual extinction, Lincoln was not interested in forcing a premature emancipation as part of his wider military goals. Indeed, as late as August 1862 when he was considering an emancipation proclamation, Lincoln stated that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” and that if he could “save the Union without freeing any slave,” “save [the Union] by freeing all the slaves,” or “save it by freeing some and leaving others alone” then he would be obligated to pursue whichever course provided the best means for achieving his primary goal.[4]

In pursuing his primary goal, Lincoln met resistance from all sides, and he deftly maneuvered political minefields as the war dragged on. He was assailed by abolitionists who felt he was not adequately committed to their cause and attacked by copperheads and border-state slaveholders who believed he was threatening the property rights of southerners. Lincoln struggled to find an army commander who was willing to take the fight to the enemy and destroy the military capacity of the Confederacy to wage war on the North. Both sides came to understand that the war would not be quick or painless, and Lincoln began to realize that only by waging total war on the Confederacy could a final victory be achieved. Daniel Sutherland argued that despite historians’ insistence on crediting Grant and Sherman with inaugurating total war in 1864, the policy was inaugurated two years earlier. Unfortunately, “it failed miserably, largely because Lincoln selected the wrong general, John Pope, to engineer the plan.”[5] It was not until the spring of 1864 that Lincoln found the man who would apply his strategic vision to the battlefield, when he brought Ulysses Grant from the western theater and named him general-in-chief. Grant named William Sherman his successor as commander of the western armies, and brought Phil Sheridan east with him to command the cavalry in that theater. “With the Union’s three best generals…in top commands, the days of the Confederacy appeared numbered.”[6] As Grant kept Lee bottled up in Richmond, Sheridan wreaked havoc in the Shenandoah Valley. Simultaneously, Sherman tore through Georgia and up into the Carolinas. The exceptional coordination of these campaigns helped ensure a string of Union successes, and Lincoln’s goals of restoring the Union were at last being realized.

Lincoln had handed the initiative to the South, telling them, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” But he also warned them, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.” [7] When war came, however, Lincoln understood that it needed to be pursued vigorously, and he found in Grant and Sherman men who agreed. In the end, though, Lincoln believed wholeheartedly in a peaceful reconciliation with his straying southern Americans. His humanitarian sentiments—“with malice toward none, with charity for all”[8]—was shared by his eastern commanders, despite their willingness to engage in ruthless total war against their enemies.

[1] Kenneth M. Stampp, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Defense in the Crisis of 1861,” Journal of Southern History 11, no. 3 (August 1945): 298,

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, Monday, March 4, 1861,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 150.

[5] Daniel E. Sutherland, “Abraham Lincoln, John Pope, and the Origins of Total War,” Journal of Military History 56, no. 4 (October 1992): 567.

[6] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 718.

[7] Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address.”

[8] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865),” The Miller Center, University of Virginia,


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