A Legacy of InsubordinationBy JONATHAN STEVENSON
When he took office, Abraham Lincoln faced the greatest strategic challenge of any American president before or since
There were good historical reasons for the conflation of military and political power through the first half-century of the republic. George Washington’s singular legitimacy as the nation’s first president was based on his performance as a general. But the framers were also more fearful of military power in the hands of political leaders, which they associated with the British monarchy and European despotism, than political power in those of military leaders. Thus, the constitution embodied a republican preference for militias of loyal citizen-soldiers over standing armies that discouraged politically neutral military professionalism.
Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy reinforced these biases by championing the military capability and disposition of the common man, and the latter encouraged the officer corps’ active involvement in politics as an antidote to social stratification. The relative absence of major conflict and
Although a conservative form of it had begun to emerge in the increasingly separate South before the Mexican War, its broader influence was limited. With no clear distinction drawn between political and military competence or institutionalized emphasis on professional military education — West Point, established under Jefferson, was essentially an engineering school before the Civil War — there was ample room for the president, by virtue of his power to nominate high-ranking officers, and Congress, with the Senate’s confirmation authority, to exert political influence over military affairs through the appointment process. And in the 1840s, the momentum of Manifest Destiny combined with increasingly acrimonious debate over slavery to make the Mexican War an extraordinarily political one.
Impelled by Democratic President James K. Polk’s irrepressible drive to continental hegemony, that war was one of thinly veiled aggrandizement, orchestrated by goading vain Mexican leaders into contesting recently annexed
Yet Whig generals of high military competence dominated the army’s officer corps. Polk, a suspicious Machiavellian, endeavored to use them to military effect without enwreathing them in too much political glory, and to check their appeal by securing new appointments of Democratic generals. But it was never lost on the Whig generals that their successful prosecution of a Democratic war would fuel their own subsequent political advancement at the expense of the Democrats. Furthermore, the Democratic officers that Polk did elevate — in particular, Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, Polk’s personal friend, and Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson – turned out to be military mediocrities. (Pillow would later be remembered for losing the Battle of Fort Donelson for the Confederacy, Patterson for losing the First Battle of Bull Run for the
As war loomed, Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, looked like the Democrats’ strongest prospective political challenger. When he blanched at hastening the initiation of war for the sake of full preparation, Polk took the opportunity to make Gen. Zachary Taylor, who seemed a less prepossessing Whig, field commander for the Mexican campaign. But in autumn 1846,
Operationally agitated and politically threatened by
His rationale was strategic
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the
In the second year of the Civil War, the Mexican War habit of insubordination would find its most egregious expression in
Lincoln, musing that he might like to “borrow” the army that McClellan wasn’t using, demoted him from general-in-chief in March 1862 and removed him from command altogether the following November. A century-and-a-half later, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s reported perception of President Barack Obama as “uncomfortable and intimidated” and confession to being “disappointed” in him in light of a “painful” strategy review — which would get him fired — paled in comparison.
McClellan fought with distinction in the Mexican War under Scott as a junior officer at
This experience plus McClellan’s native superciliousness translated into contempt for civilian management of war. Small wonder that once a general he assumed the operational autonomy that Scott and Taylor had arrogated to themselves. But there were fewer excuses for it when the main theater of war was only a day’s ride from
Even so, historians have treated McClellan quite charitably; he has rarely been judged a traitor or derelict of duty, merely insubordinate and strategically misguided. This may be because, in retrospect, his reluctance to spill American blood seems virtuous against the backdrop of the Civil War’s tragically gory eventuality, and because his conservation of military resources for a decisive campaign arguably yielded a successful strategy of attrition, albeit unwittingly.
Furthermore, as the conduct of the Mexican War showed, civilian control of the military — like other constitutional aspirations — had not taken root during the first 80 years of the republic. Before the Civil War, both the president’s role as commander-in-chief — even though it was enshrined in the constitution — and the military’s functional relationship to the president were ill-defined and tainted by political intrigue. It would take a great president driven by a great conflict to produce an enduring and workable model for civil-military relations.
Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs