McPherson’s talk on Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief is fascinating. I hear frequently about presidents learning and improving on the job, most notably Barack Obama’s apparently increased confidence/competence in regards to foreign policy. This Washington Post editorial is just one of many articles on the topic:

Although it is perhaps difficult to measure Pres. Obama’s successes or failures in real time, we have the luxury to look back and reflect on Lincoln’s actions. What we can see is a president who evolves with experience, but nevertheless, as McPherson notes, maintains three specific goals throughout the war:

1. refusing to compromise on his policy of preserving the union, despite his generals’ fixation on the CSA as a foreign country
2. mobilizing northern resources efficiently and destroying enemy resources
3. putting into place a team of military commanders who actually did destroy enemy armies

Lincoln was not successful early on, but ultimately was able to get his generals to do what he needed them to do. Whereas others shied away from the idea of war, he saw it as a necessary political tool. Lincoln believed in the Union, and was ready to do whatever it took to preserve it.

McPherson ends with a great essential question: Was Lincoln the only person who could have effectively restored the Union? I’m not sure how this research project would work, but perhaps students could examine the qualities and beliefs of contemporary figures — Douglas and McClellan stand out — and locate primary sources relevant to their potential policy positions. Would Stephen Douglas have preserved the Union? Would McClellan?