Bates on the general-in-chief

This passage is excerpted from Edward Bates's diary entry of 1/10/62 as rendered by editor Howard K. Beale. I have removed opening remarks on the lack of "preparation and forethought" in the management of the War and Navy departments and modified the punctuation a little where it became too odd. Emphasis is in the original:

Again I urged upon the Prest. to take and act out the powers of his place, to command the commanders - and especially to order regular, periodical reports, shewing the exact state of the army, every where. And to that end I renewed formally, and asked that it be made a question before the Cabinet (my proposition, often made heretofore) that the President as "Commder in Chief of the Army and Navy" do organize a Staff of his own, and assume to be in fact, what he is in law, the Chief Commander. His aids could save him a world of trouble and anxiety - collect and report to him all needed information, and keep him constantly informed, at a moment's warning - keep his military and naval books and papers - conduct his military correspondence - and do his bidding generally "in all the works of war."

It is objected (by both the Prest. and Sec of War) not that the thing is wrong or undesirable in itself but that the Generals wd. get angry - quarrel &c!! I answer - Of course the Genls - especially the Chief - would object - they wish to give but not receive orders - If I were Prest., and I found them restive under the command of a superior, they should soon have no inferiors to command. All of them have been lately made of comparatively raw material, taken from the lower grades of the army officers or from civil life. The very best of them - McClellan, McDowell, Halleck, &c until very lately never commanded more than a battalion. They have no experience in the handling of large bodies of men, and are no more to be trusted in that respect than other men of good sense, lately their equals in rank and position. If, therefore, they presume to quarrel with the orders of their superior - their constitutional commander - for that very reason they ought to be dismissed, and I would do, it in full confidence that I could fill their places with quite as good men, chosen as they were chosen, from the lower grades of officers, from the ranks of the army, or from civil life.

There can be no lawful, just or honest cause of dissatisfaction because the President assumes, in practise, the legitimate duties of his place - His powers are all duties - He has no privileges, no powers granted to him for his own sake, and he has no more right to refuse to exercise his constitutional powers than he has to assume powers not granted. He (like us, his official inferiors) cannot evade his responsibilities. He must show to the nation and to posterity, how he has discharged the duties of his Stewardship, in this great crisis. And if he will only trust his own good judgement more, and defer less to the opinions of his subordinates, I have no doubt that the affairs of the war and the aspect of the whole country, will be quickly and greatly changed for the better.

I think it unjust to those Genls. to impute to them such unsoldierly conduct. Very probably, they would object and grumble in advance, in the hope of deterring the President from that course (for no man takes pleasure in having his own conduct closely and constantly criticized) but the resolve, once taken, would work its own moral and peaceful triumph. For those generals are, undoubtedly, men of sense, prudence and patriotism, and for their own, as well as their country's good, would obey their official superior, as cheerfully and heartily as they expect their inferiors to obey them. If, however, contrary to professional duty, to the moral sense of right, and to sound logic, they should act otherwise, that fact would be proof positive of unfitness to command, and for that cause they ought to be instantly removed.

If a Major Genl. may be allowed to complain because the President has about him a staff - the means and machinery of knowledge and action - why may not a Brigadier complain that his Major Genl. is so accommodated? The idea seems to me absurd. The very thought is insubordinate and smacks of mutiny.

My proposition assumes that the President is, in fact as well as theory, commander in chief (not in detail) of the army and navy; and that he is bound to exercise the powers of that high post, as legal duties. And that he cannot perform those duties intelligently and efficiently by his own unassisted personal powers - He must have aids, by whatever name you call them; for they are as necessary to the proper exercise of those official functions as the bodily senses are to the proper perception and action of the individual man. If it be the duty of the President, as I do not doubt that it is, to command, it would seem to follow, of necessity, that he must have, constantly at hand and under his personal orders, the usual means and machinery for the performance of that duty, with knowledge and with effect.

In at least one important sense, I consider the Departments of War and Navy as constituting the Staff of the Commander in Chief, and it does seem to me highly important that he should have, always near him, intelligent and confidential persons, to facilitate his intercourse with that multitudinous staff.

If it be not the President's duty to command, then it is not his right, and prudence would seem to require him to renounce all control over the affairs of war, and cast the responsibility upon those who are entrusted with the actual command - But this he cannot do, because the constitution forbids it, in declaring that he "shall be Commander in chief."

I see not the slightest use for A General in chief of the army. When we had peace with all the world, and a little nucleus of an army, about 15,000 men, and had the veteran Liet. General Scott as our first officer, perhaps it was well enough to give him that honorary title. But now we have a war spreading over half a continent, and have many armies, reaching, in the aggregate to over 600,000 men, it is simply impossible for any one general, usefully and well, to command all those armies. The army of the Potomac alone is quite well enough for any man to command in detail, and more than almost anyone can do, with assurance of good success.

The President being a Civil Magistrate and not a military chief, and being the lawful commander in chief of the army, needs, more than any well trained general can need, in his intercourse with and his control of the army, the assistance of active aids always near his person. And I indulge the hope that he will find it right to appoint and organize just such and so many as his exigencies may seem to require; and I say all this in the confident belief that his own reputation, now and hereafter, and the present and permanent good of the Country, do require such an organization.