Following my visit to the Lincoln Memorial, I decided to read “Tried by War,” an analysis of Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief and manager of generals. He was a poor judge of generals well into 1863, when he appointed George Meade to command the Army of the Potomac as the Confederacy began its invasion of Pennsylvania, culminating in Gettysburg. That battle cost the South the war, but Meade threw away a significant part of the victory by failing to pursue and destroy Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces.
Though Meade won the Battle of Gettysburg, my view, based on this book and others, is more that Lee lost it. He lost it by fighting it. The reason for invading Pennsylvania could not be to occupy it; the Confederate forces lacked the requisite power. Rather, it was to draw out and destroy the Army of the Potomac. This was a means to an end, which, as always, was political: to maneuver eastward, cutting off Washington, D.C., from the rest of the Union. Isolating Washington would have shattered what confidence the country had in Lincoln and collapsed support for the war in the North, which was rife with anti-draft and anti-war riots. While I regard Lincoln as a sublime human being, the Union saw in him an incompetent blowhard.
Lee was focused on destroying the Union Army. The problem was that he would not likely destroy all of it, and the North had the resources to field additional armies. His objective was erosion of the Union’s political will, and the battle was the means. Perhaps another defeat of a Union Army would have toppled Lincoln’s power, but isolating Washington was the near certain key to Southern victory.
James Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted aide following Stonewall Jackson’s death, implored Lee to bypass Gettysburg and the Army of the Potomac, swing south, and position his army north of Washington, between the city and the Union forces. Longstreet urged Lee to deploy the army on ground that favored defense, forcing Meade to attack under circumstances favoring the Confederacy, to reopen the door to Washington. Meade held the high ground at Gettysburg (the doing of John Buford) and therefore won a war of attrition against repeated Southern assaults over flat and exposed field.
Lee refused. While he was caught in the Napoleonic doctrine – the decisive offensive regardless of terrain, the morale of the attacking force overwhelming the opponent, who is psychologically weakened by being on the defensive – Longstreet understood that ground had become everything, given maturing artillery and advancing infantry weapons. Meade didn’t win; Lee lost.
This disturbs me. Geopolitics argues that outcomes do not turn on the random decisions of people. Yet, in reading this book, I don’t think it was a random decision. Lee was nostalgic, longing for the past. In a sense, that was the whole Southern cause. Lee and the South longed for a past of manners and servants, of gallantry and courage. Lee wanted a Napoleonic victory and had no use for Longstreet’s ignoble strategic defensive.
Lincoln, and the general he finally found in Ulysses S. Grant, knew that the past was past, that war had become inglorious, and that the path to victory was marshaling mass and supplies, trapping the enemy, and forcing him to attack entrenched positions. That notion of warfare was unavailable to Lee not only for lack of resources, but also because the entire conquest of the Confederacy was a search for a past that had never been.
The purpose of the state defines the nature of its war-making. Lee could not bear winning the war as Longstreet suggested. Lincoln and Grant were happy to win the war any way they could. The South thought it stood for principle. The North stood for success. The outcome flowed from that.
I should add that my young colleague Jacob Shapiro rejects my view on Gettysburg. He can be excused by the fact that he was born and reared in Georgia and was poorly educated on the Civil War.
George Friedman, founder and chairman
I confess to being that type of American who considers Winston Churchill a personal hero. I have memorized many of his speeches. I have always been intoxicated by the myth of the man who knew what Hitler was when his political peers did not; who, with his blood, toil, tears and sweat, led the United Kingdom through one of its darkest hours and, eventually, to victory. It may then surprise that I had not read William Manchester’s magisterial biography of the man. There are two reasons for this. First, it is a serious commitment, no matter how excellent the writing (and it is excellent), to sign on for multiple volumes and thousands of pages on any topic, even on one’s hero. Second, and more to the point, I did not want reality to pierce the comfort of the myth. In a morally ambiguous world, the Churchill story has been true north for me.
I am only up to the year 1896 in Manchester’s narrative; Winston has just been deployed to India as a cavalryman. Even so, I have read enough to know that my fears were childish. Myths are toys meant to be broken. Churchill’s admirable qualities are well-known. But he had other qualities, which were no less essential to the man. He was a patrician who came from great wealth. He had attendants his whole life and felt little remorse at being rude to them. As Manchester notes, Churchill could not relate to the common man because his life experience had little in common with that of the common man. Based solely on his personal qualities, he is an unlikely hero. At times I find myself – dare I say it – disliking the man who for so long could do no wrong in my eyes.
Indeed, Churchill became Britain’s leader during World War II because he was the mirror image to Hitler. Manchester puts it best, describing Churchill as “a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his race … an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends … who could if necessary be just as cruel, just as cunning, and just as ruthless as Hitler but who could win victories without enslaving populations, or preaching supernaturalism.” Churchill saw the world in Manichean terms and his role as that of an exceptional man. The very qualities that might have made another man odious gave him the strength to be who he was. He excelled in the crucible of war. He was, to a great extent, a political failure in peace; peace did not require a man of his mindset and skill.
As I read on, my admiration for Churchill is in no way diminished for having a fuller picture of the man. His flaws have become endearing, and my esteem has grown. But I have also realized that the Churchill story I have always cherished is not really about Churchill; he is a character in a much broader narrative. In fact, I have a better appreciation for what Churchill said about himself at his 80th birthday: “I have never accepted what many people have kindly said – namely that I inspired the nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless, and, as it proved, unconquerable. It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” During the Battle of Britain, when all hope seemed lost, it was the British people’s will and determination (and the Royal Air Force planes that Neville Chamberlain had commissioned to be built) that carried the day.
Churchill was not Britain’s exception but its reflection. He led a nation that wished to be led. That he led it so well is to his credit. But the Churchill legend is that rare instance in which the reality is nobler than the myth, for it is about the heroism, not of a single man but of an entire people.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis