Lincoln's fatherly consideration of his citizen soldiers


At a time of declining enlistments in the United States Army and worries about morale, it's instructive to look back at a period that shaped the modern American military. The Civil War showed how an aroused citizenry could provide the raw material for a mighty national force.

Before the 1860s, a small corps of professional officers and militias of a few thousand had usually sufficed. The million plus soldiers mustered at the behest of Abraham Lincoln established a military tradition that, as William Davis argues, made possible the later huge undertakings of the 20th century. Those early legions in blue attested the sacrifices Americans could make in the defense of freedom.

In "Lincoln's Men," Davis's central theme is that the sacrifices might never have been made, and the battle for national unity won, but for the extraordinary leadership of Lincoln. It's a theme that has been ably explored in other books. What makes this work useful is its tight focus on the relationship between "Father Abraham" and the common soldier.

The relationship had roots in Lincoln's own experience as a militia officer in the Black Hawk War of the 1830s, which put down a minor Indian uprising. Though he saw no combat, he learned how independent-minded and unruly a band of American volunteers could be.

Lincoln also sensed how hard military service was on the families back home. As the Civil War gained momentum, he was asking for a three-year commitment from 300,000 men at a call. And the calls had to be repeated time and again.

The president's compassion for his men under arms knew virtually no bounds. He became renowned for his refusal to sanction the execution of men who deserted, were insubordinate to officers, or fell asleep on guard duty.

The latter category gave rise to a famous account that was immortalized in a poem, "The Sleeping Sentinel." Davis points out the inaccuracies in the popular version (for instance, it was General McClellan, not Lincoln, who actually pardoned private William Scott of the 3rd Vermont Infantry).

But Lincoln did intervene in the case, and it wasn't that different from countless others in which he directly ordered the release of condemned men, often sending them back to the lines with an admonition not to repeat the offense. Here was a merciful "father" indeed.

His lenience outraged many officers. "I see other things," Lincoln explained. "I feel how the man may have been exposed to long watches with no opportunity for proper rest, and so sleep steals upon him unawares. I would not relax the discipline of the army, but I do want to be considerate of every case." And so he was, of many thousands of them.

It was a measure of Lincoln's sense of fairness and justice that once he decided to allow free blacks to form regiments and join the battle, he saw to it that their pay and the benefits accorded their survivors (including wives from marriages concluded under slavery and thus lacking legal standing) were on par with the rest of the Army.

Lincoln didn't come to the White House a fervent abolitionist. But the Emancipation and black enlistment came, inevitably, as a matter of moral inclination and military necessity. Those moves enraged some of the president's "children" in uniform, inflaming the blatant racism of the times.

Later, when Lincoln made a point of reviewing black troops, some white soldiers reviled him for doffing his hat to these newly free men.

But, as Davis illustrates through hundreds of excerpts from soldiers' diaries and letters, the majority of Union men remained loyal to their chief - despite his tussles with the arrogant, but popular McClellan and his determination to expand the then tiny sphere of racial tolerance. He became a virtual father whom the men trusted implicitly to have their well-being always in mind.

Near the war's end, not long before his assassination, Lincoln asked, "How many more lives of citizen soldiers are the people willing to give up...?"

That term, "citizen soldiers," has also been applied to the many thousands who gave their lives in World War II. It defines the relationship of democracy's defenders to their country, and its leader, in any age.

Lincoln knew, instinctively, that the commander in chief's compassion for those under arms had to keep pace with the dangers they were being asked to face. It's a point no president can ignore.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

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