Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership During the Civil War

Subject: History
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When Abraham Lincoln ran for the position of the President of the United States (in 1860), the time of his election was one of the most consequential periods in American history. After his election, the Southern states did not agree with the choice of the President, thinking that he was an abolitionist, and started a process of secession (leaving the Union). However, Lincoln was firmly convinced that the secession of states such as South Carolina went against the legal regulations; thus, he pledged to begin a war (1961) to protect the federal Union. His leadership qualities were indisputable: Lincoln managed to attain victory and continued his presidency with the Emancipation Proclamation that had a tremendous impact on the development of the institution of slavery.

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The portrait of Lincoln as a leader of a fragmented country has always been painted by describing him as a thoughtful and soft-spoken person that preferred to use his words sparingly but to tremendous effect. The brilliance of his leadership skills was captured in the Gettysburg Address speech, in which he spoke about the fundamental principles of human equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence and compared the Civil War between the North and the South with the birth of freedom that would potentially bring peace and equality to all people inhabiting the U.S. lands. Thus, despite many misconceptions about the persona of Abraham Lincoln, his leadership qualities along with the ideas of emancipation and freedom from slavery were a catalyst to the North winning the war against the South and starting a journey of changing the American society.

Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

At the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln was much less prepared for performing the duties of commander in chief compared to Jefferson Davis who had experience in fighting during the Mexican War and serving as a secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce administration (McPherson). The only military experience Lincoln had was associated with him being a captain of a militia unit, which did not see any war action. During his time in Congress, Lincoln went as far as mocking himself for the lack of military experience: “Did you know I am a military hero? […] I fought, I bled, and came away after charges upon the wild onions […] and a good many bloody struggles with the Musquetoes” (qtd in Nesbit 99).

When having to call state militia into performing the federal service in 1861 after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln was faced with a steep learning curve that forced him to become a better military leader. It is fascinating that he was successful in learning quickly; Lincoln read a lot of works on the history of military strategy, analyzed the failures and victories of past military commanders, and applied common sense to situations when it was necessary to cut through the excuses given by his military subordinates, as mentioned in the Smithsonian Magazine article (McPherson). By 1862, Lincoln’s understanding of military strategy and operation was so firm that it could have partially supported the exaggerated statement of the historian Harry Williams who wrote: “Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals” (qtd. in Donald 150). Lincoln’s approach to military combat was quite unique: he did not think that war was separated or autonomous from political considerations. He appointed “political generals” who had very little military experience. Some of them managed to outrank the most educated officers due to their proficiency in political affairs; moreover, the President supported the commissioning of ethnic leaders as generals to support the military spirit of soldiers who had to obey a leader that they had already known and the one they respected.

Despite the fact that many critics mocked Lincoln’s approach, the appointment of political generals with mediocre military records set a tone for the enhancement of the national strategy with the help of mobilizing their electorate to support the efforts of the Union during the Civil War. On the war’s eve, the American Army included around 16,400 men, one thousand of whom were officers commissioned by the government (McPherson). Of these thousand officers, around twenty-five percent resigned and joined the Confederates to fight against the Union (McPherson). However, one year in the war, the volunteer army of the Union had expanded to include 637,000 men, which is an indicator of Lincoln’s efforts not being pointless. Such a massive mobilization would have been impossible without the participation of ethnic leaders and prominent local politicians in whom civilians saw tremendous support.

Another important point in Lincoln’s leadership approach related to the national strategy during the war becoming a policy. This point was associated with the problem of slavery and the ideas of emancipation. During the first year of the civil war, one of the primary objectives of Lincoln was to preserve good relationships with Northern antiabolitionist Democrats and border-state Unionists in order to have a stable war coalition. He had a fear that the balance that existed in three border slave states may lean in the direction of Confederates in case if his administration spoke about emancipation too early (McPherson). When General John Fremont issued a military order that allowed freeing Confederates’ slaves in Missouri, Lincoln made a decision to revoke the order to avoid aggression from the states that he needed to keep in the war coalition. Lincoln believed that such a decision regarding emancipation could upset the Southern states and turn them against the Union and thus increase the prospects of losing Kentucky. According to Lincoln, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky went, we cannot hold Missouri, nor as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol” (qtd. in Mackey 39).

Nevertheless, with the growing insistence of antislavery views of Republicans, Lincoln made a decision to make tremendous changes in the existing national strategy. Instead of pleasing the Northern Democrats and the Border States, Lincoln chose to activate the majority of antislave proponents from the North that elected him and include the potential human resources of African Americans through issuing the proclamation of freedom for slaves in rebellious states (Emancipation Proclamation) (McPherson). During his speech given to the members of the cabinet, Lincoln talked about the necessity of acting deliberately: “Decisive and extreme measures must be adopted,” he stated (qtd. in McPherson par. 9). For him, emancipation was a military necessity that could help in preserving the Union, so slaves had to be freed to avoid failures during battles (Snyder).

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Lincoln’s Change in Leadership

When at the beginning of summer 1683 Lincoln faced some issues of the country is severely divided by the Civil War and the Union Army losing two major battles (Govindarajan and Faber), he also encountered opposition from his own party that stated that Lincoln was too indecisive in his attitudes. However, after three months, the opinions about him shifted significantly, with the New York Times expressing gratitude for the President being a ruler that managed to adapt to the needs of time quickly while staying honest, discreet, and steadfast (Holzer and Symonds 89). Thus, a question arises: what did Lincoln do to shift his leadership approach?

During the summer of 1863, Lincoln found out that there were two significant challenges: recapturing the opinion of the public and reestablishing the control of the Union Army (Govindarajan and Faber). After realizing this, Lincoln made two big decisions: getting rid of the beliefs that no longer worked and leading his followers in an entirely different way. The first bulk of beliefs Lincoln got rid of were his relationships with generals. Up until that moment, Lincoln did not make firm orders to his generals but only gave suggestions, which were predominantly ignored (Govindarajan and Faber). After a set of frustrating exchanges with ineffective generals, the President abandoned his submissive style of leadership and started giving direct orders to generals, so they saw who was really in charge. For example, to oppose the attitude of General Joseph Hooker, Lincoln made a blunt statement: “I have not intended differently; but as it seems to be differently understood, I shall direct him to give you orders, and you to obey them” (qtd. in Burlingame 502). Fairly soon after the change in his style of leadership, the Union achieved a set of victories (Gettysburg and Vicksburg) due to the army’s attempts of being proactive in following President’s orders.

With regards to winning over the public, Lincoln encountered the impatience of American citizens with the war and the government. Thus, he had to make a change in his relationship with Americans. By analyzing the success of his letter-writing campaign to gain the support of the British for the Union, Lincoln decided to implement the same strategy in his country (Govindarajan and Faber). 500,000 copies of one of his letters alone were read by at least 10,000,000 American citizens, which shows the tremendous success of the campaign, as reported by Govindarajan and Faber in their Harvard Business Review article. It is noteworthy that President Lincoln’s outreach to the public was very effective since it helped him to sustain significant support from people up until his assassination on April 15, 1865. Thus, Lincoln made a decision to abandon the conventions that existed in the past and managed to establish a better quality of relationships with the military officials as well as the public of the United States, which points to his impressive leadership skills.


It was commonly accepted that Lincoln did not experience much criticism from anti-slavery supporters. However, Lincoln faced opposition from Copperheads (conservative Democrats) who idealized Jefferson and Jackson. Despite some misconceptions, Copperheads did not sympathize with the South. However, they thought that the Civil War would end if the Union gave Confederates what they wanted before cessation (including an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protected slavery) (Weber). Therefore, apart from the supporters of slavery, Lincoln was criticized by other groups that did not necessarily support slavery but did not agree with Lincoln’s intentions to preserve the Union by going to war with the South.


Abraham Lincoln was the first President of the United States that created a high command, an organization that helped to unite the resources of all people in order to develop a strategy for winning the Civil War. His ability to adapt and make changes to fit the demands of time made him stand out from other leaders. Lincoln’s lack of experience in military combat was regarded as an advantage since he was not tainted by the traditional military dogma and was successful in using a practical approach and common sense that contributed to the achievement of success in the Civil War. Lincoln was effective in shifting his views on military leadership when the previous efforts to lead the Union’s Army were unsuccessful. From being lenient and accepting of the views of generals, Lincoln turned into a strict leader who demanded respect and obedience from his subordinates. There was no doubt that Lincoln was driven by the belief in personal freedom and equality for all citizens of the United States. By abandoning the set conventions of the past, Lincoln applied logic to the assessment of the successes of his predecessors and managed to capture the hearts of the public by removing the gap between citizens and the leader of the country.

Works Cited

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life. The John Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Donald, David. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era. Vintage, 2001.

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Govindarajan, Vijay, and Hylke Faber. “To Win the Civil War, Lincoln Had to Change His Leadership.” HBR, 2016. Web.

Holzer, Harold, and Craig Symonds. New York times Book of the Civil War 1861-1865: 650 Eyewitness Accounts and Articles. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2010.

Mackey, Thomas. A Documentary History of the Civil War Era: Volume 1, Legislative Achievements. The University of Tennessee Press, 2012.

McPherson, James. “Lincoln as Commander in Chief.” Smithsonianmag, 2009. Web.

Nesbit, Robert. Wisconsin: A History. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Snyder, Michael. “Civil War History: Ellsworth Samuel Green, Company C, 24th USCT.” Posttsmerc, 2017. Web.

Weber, Jennifer. “Lincoln’s Critics: The Copperheads.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 32, no. 1, 2011, pp. 33-47.

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