The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Presidents on the Battlefield

In May 1862, both Union and Confederate troops might possibly have seen their commander-in-chief watching as they deployed for battle.

"For President Abraham Lincoln" - A campaign button from 1864

“For President Abraham Lincoln” – A campaign button from 1864 (Library of Congress)

Norfolk and Seven Pines/Fair Oaks

US President Lincoln was at Fortress Monroe early in the month. On May 7th, he ordered the USS Galena and two other ironclads up the James River, where they would battle Confederate forces at Drewry’s Bluff. On the 8th, he discussed landing troops under cover of naval fire with his flag officer; Confederate positions were shelled that day, although the landing didn’t take place.

On May 10 Lincoln accompanied his commanding officer General Wool to Willoughby Point, where Federal troops began their march against Confederate positions in Norfolk. Later in the day, the president got so angry at troops who weren’t taking part in the attack that he bounced his tall hat off the floor in disgust and then dictated orders for them. At 11 p.m., General Wool arrived to tell Lincoln of Norfolk’s surrender and occupation, and the president finally called it a day by telling his flag officer, “You are quite right in supposing the movement made by you and therein reported was made in accordance with my wishes verbally expressed to you in advance.” (“The Lincoln Log“)

Jefferson Davis, first president of the new Southern Confederacy

Jefferson Davis, first president of the new Southern Confederacy, 1861 (Library of Congress)

On May 31, 1862, CS President Davis “hastily dispatched [his] office business, and rode out toward the Meadow Bridge” to watch as the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Joe Johnston, attacked US General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, which was now close enough to Richmond for the Yankees to hear that city’s church bells (and for a man to ride out to the lines in the middle of a work day).

Things were not as well ordered on the battlefield for Davis as they were for Lincoln at Fortress Monroe. In fact, Davis’s description of his personal experiences there conveys a fine sense of just how hard it was to figure out what was happening during the messy battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, volume II, pages 121-124). However, the president did send couriers to General Magruder, directing him to attack an enemy position, and that attack was carried out.

Precedents: Washington and/or Madison?

Until 1862, the only sitting presidents who had been present on a battlefield with troops had been George Washington in October 1794 during the Whiskey Rebellion, and James Madison at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, in August 1814.

I’m not a historian, so I can’t say for sure whether either of those presidents actually “led troops in battle,” but have heard some say that Washington was the only president who ever did so, while others say the same about Madison. It sounds to me as though Washington reviewed the militia before they went in to put down the insurgency, while in 1814 President Madison was present at Bladensburg, but his secretary of state, James Monroe, was the one who issued a few orders (apparently unhelpful ones).

In neither case does it sound as though the president acted like a general at the head of a line of troops heading in to fight, and this makes sense.

Washington was putting down an insurrection, and while his summoning up the militia apparently was a popular decision, he had to take into consideration a possible political backlash in the future if he were seen actually leading troops against other Americans.

Madison was present at Bladensburg (which wasn’t exactly a high point in American feats of arms, to say the least), but he left the field when the American line began to collapse and was not captured, which in itself was a success. If he had fallen into British hands, they wouldn’t have had to march on Washington and burn and pillage the place until stopped by the forces of Nature.

Let’s assume that both presidents Washington and Madison can be considered to have led troops in the field. Should we also add Lincoln, at least, if we are discussing strictly US presidents who have led troops? I think so, and in spirit would also add Jefferson Davis, who on May 31, 1862, had enemy troops just about as close to him as the British were to the White House on August 24, 1814, and who did go out to the battlefield as a result and issue some orders.

None of those four men, it sounds to me, was any sort of a Napoleon figure leading a charge, but they all showed up on the battlefield at a crisis when the future of their country was in doubt. That’s how I would define leadership. Let’s leave it to the historians to decide to what degree, and also how much their presence may have influenced the eventual outcome of the matter.

Washington reviewing the militia in 1794

History: Not always what it looks like at first glance. (Source: )

Categories: American Civil War

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