Scholars take a fresh look at Abe Lincoln
by W. Winston Skinner
The American viewpoint of Abraham Lincoln has changed in the century-and-a-half since his presidency.
Most Southerners — as well as political opponents in the Union states — despised him and were critical in his lifetime. But by the mid-1950s, Lincoln had become almost universally revered.
Now, scholars are taking a new look at Lincoln and seeing a more human, less iconic, figure.
Dr. Kenneth W. Noe from Auburn University spoke on “Lincoln: the War President, Revisited” at the University of West Georgia’s Ingram Library.
Noe’s talk was part of a commemoration of Lincoln centering around an exhibit on display at the school’s library. The visit to Carrollton was a coming home experience for Noe, who taught there for 10 years.
“It’s been said that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about anyone other than Jesus and William Shakespeare,” said Noe, who holds a PhD from the University of Illinois.
Noe said he is not a Lincoln scholar. Instead, his research focuses on soldiers and other “ordinary folk” from the era Lincoln rose to power.
“Since leaving grad school in the 1980s, studies of Lincoln have become more complicated,” he said, noting that two popular books about the president, though written from different perspectives, have a negative viewpoint of him.
Some things about Lincoln will never be fully known. Trying to decipher his political words and actions inevitably creates friction about what was in his heart and what were “trial balloons” he felt necessary at the time.
Trying to clarify Lincoln’s racial views is difficult, as they seemed to be evolving even at the time of his death — both with regard to the South’s freedmen and those who had previously enslaved them.
One of the few places most scholars find consensus is on Lincoln’s role as a president in wartime.
Lincoln entered the White House with little military experience and with a political career that had mostly been in Illinois — and almost entirely focused on domestic issues. During his brief time in Congress, Lincoln and Alexander H. Stephens of Ga. were among “the young Indians,” a group of Whigs who hoped to use their anti-war voice to embarrass the Polk administration.
Despite his lack of preparation, Lincoln “won the war,” Noe said.
Lincoln “learned military history,” the scholar said. “He slowly learned what it took to move and manage armies.”
Lincoln “ran through a few generals” before connecting with Ulysses S. Grant. “Together they won the war,” he said.
Lincoln’s gifts as a commander-in-chief are so great, one 1960s historian said if Lincoln had been the Confederate president and Jefferson Davis the U.S. president, the Confederacy would have won the war.
Noe centered much of his talk on concepts from “The Grand Design” by Donald Stoker.
“Stoker says some things that may jar you if you are familiar with traditional Civil War accounts,” Noe said. “He’s not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom when it comes to Lincoln.”
Among Lincoln’s strong points as a commander were being able to articulate his goal, have a strategic vision, and being willing to do whatever was necessary to accomplish a task.
“Lincoln’s goal of preserving the Union never wavered,” Noe said. “What armies should be doing, he got right.”
Lincoln showed willingness to take bold steps to win the war. One example was his allowing black soldiers to enlist.
“When William Tecumseh Sherman marched across Ga., it was with full political support from Lincoln,” Noe said.
Noe also listed negative aspects of Lincoln’s leadership — an impatience with generals, a lack of grasp of logistics, interference in the chain of command, an absorption with the war in the eastern U. S. and an obsession with liberating the Union supporters in East Tennessee.
“Lincoln was impatient with his generals. He wanted results, and he wanted them yesterday. He was a tough man to work for," Noe said.
Lincoln “never seemed to grasp logistics” — what it would take to move 100,000 soldiers much less feed them, care for their mules and horses and keep their wagons rolling.
“In the first two years of the war, Lincoln was indecisive and unwilling to fire commanders,” Noe said. “As the war moved into its final two years, Lincoln moved too far in the other direction.”
“This wonderful strategic vision seemed to be wasted because Lincoln was never able to impress this vision fully upon his generals,” Noe said.
Noe tested Stoker’s ideas about Lincoln by looking at the Kentucky Campaign of 1862 which Noe had researched, turning his work into a book.
“The Kentucky experience suggests Stoker is on to something,” Noe concluded. “You could have the same complaints during the Kentucky campaign with Jefferson Davis,” Noe said. “If we’re going to criticize Lincoln, we ought to criticize Davis.”
Noe shared a quote about “the vision thing” from George H. W. Bush. “Lincoln had the vision thing,” he said. Lincoln was skilled at setting goals, managing politics and maintaining support “for war during the winter of 1863 and 1864, which was the low point.”
Lincoln “managed to harness the industrial base of the country” for the war effort, Noe said. “He won the war by functioning — by and large — as an effective commander in chief. He won the war.”