Lost continents of understanding - 2

It's been a long while since I promised "tomorrow," but this series continues today with a review of the failure of Civil War history to come to grips with the institutional history of "general-in-chief."

Our story begins with what is probably the most neglected episode in American political history, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun's reorganization of the War Department into a bureau system after a bitter Congressional fight in the aftermath of the War of 1812. (This old NYT letter contains the essential facts.) The reorg is generally important because its logic has continued to provide a pattern for subsequent reforms. But it also has much to do with the Mexican and Civil Wars.

By removing essential military functions from military control and placing them in bureaus controlled by the secretary of war, Calhoun created an imbalance - in the name of efficiency - that he hoped to redress with the assignment of military operations to a general-in-chief. This was a position that would require precedent and tradition in order to solidify into a clearly defined role.

There is a decent run-down of the history of the office here.

The problem it presented was in mixing seniority into the definition of the post. Adams appointed a soon-to-be stroke victim to general-in-chief. Polk sought to eliminate Scott's eligibility for the position by reviving a higher rank and then appointing someone trustworthy to the place.

When Scott finally did assume the post, he was so much on the outs with the current administration (and SecWar Jeff Davis) that he virtually abandoned his place to mope about his home in New York for several years (within arms' reach of his political mentors Seward and Weed).

And so, when McClellan replaces Scott in November of '61, he inherits a broken institution, ill-formed, little used in the run up to the war, one he will have to re-engineer on the fly while simultaneously managing Lincoln, raising and training armies, and generally assisting different parts of the government in crisis.

With all this in mind, I was reading the devilishly hard-to-find Diary of Edward Bates recently and came in for a few surprises.

Attorney General Bates is generally portrayed, in Centennial one-liners, as the cabinet member who urged Lincoln to take command of the army himself. (This is phrased different ways, but generally points to assuming the general-in-chief role.) That's as much as I knew about the matter until now. Maybe Goodwin covered this in more depth in her epic.

In his diary, however, we find that as early as January 10, 1862, Bates is sick of this summary of his position - the historian's very own characterization! Bates says it is used to belittle his views. In a long diary entry he makes an interesting brief:

(1) He wants a full military staff reporting to and assisting the president, as many men and of whatever rank needed. In other words, he wants the president running military operations under the close advice of a significant staff specifically organized to support Lincoln's military duties in association with the existing staffs of the War and Navy departments.

(2) Senior generals (he mentions McClellan, Halleck, McDowell) who were recently company grade officers can be replaced by such if they object to this new arrangement.

(3) It is not the president's right to command but his duty and to do otherwise is negligence.

(4) "I see not the slightest use for a general-in-chief of the army."

I should add, Bates emphasizes commanding in "chief" not in "detail" although Lincoln was to reverse this emphasis by his actions. This vision of a president surrounded by handpicked military staff is very modern. By the same token, Lincoln's meddling style, his commanding in detail would have demanded a larger staff and more support than Bates might have had in mind. Lincoln also had a competence problem in Edwin Stanton who was not able to effectively collaborate with him except in the realm of bureau work.

Bates's diary entry, coming before the reassignment of Cameron (which surprised Bates), is replete with references to earlier conversations in which he urged this course on the president or his colleagues. In other words, the point in the master narrative at which Bates is usually allowed a place on the author's stage comes after the relief of McClellan and yet, Bates had been urging the same course of action from the time of Scott's retirement at least.

The diary paints these urgings as Bates's favorite long-term cause. The picture of Bates banging this drum at every opportunity goes a long way to explaining such anomalies as:

* The recruitment of Ethan Hitchcock to head a military staff under Stanton.
* The attempt of Lincoln to run the war with just Stanton's staff and the bureau chiefs.
* Lincoln's satisfaction, if only partial, with the way Halleck defined his position.
* The peculiar situation of the McDowell-Franklin team in the counsels of the cabinet.
* The rejection of g-i-c candidates in succession before Halleck's time: N. Buford, E.A. Hitchcock, Ben Wade and others we have yet to learn of.
* Lincoln's persistence in treating McClellan as his personal military aide until December of 1861.
These individual points all deserve greater explanation which must be deferred to a later time.