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Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Letters of Counsel to His Generals

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

President Lincoln meeting Gen. McClellan at Antietam, 1862

President Lincoln meeting Gen. McClellan at Antietam, 1862

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, he took the helm of a nation in crisis. Seven slave-holding Southern states had already proclaimed their independence from the United States, a step the new president was determined would not stand. And that meant civil war.

In 1860 there were only 16,000 men in the entire United States Army. When the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 more. By the end of the war in 1865 US forces would number more than a million.

Lincoln Inherited an Army With Practically No Generals

This rapid, almost explosive growth created a need to greatly expand the nation’s officer corps. At the beginning of the war, there were only five generals in the whole army. Two of them would defect to the Confederates. The remaining three were relatively old men at the time, and none of them would play any significant operational role in the war. So, Lincoln had to start from scratch. Men with prior military experience, even at the level of a Major or Captain, would soon find themselves newly minted generals with responsibility for thousands of recruits.

Inevitably, this influx of inexperienced general officers caused problems. Big problems. One of the biggest and most lamentable was the frequency with which some of the new generals demonstrated that their egos far outweighed their military skills.

Using letters to mentor generals

President Lincoln well knew that he had no choice but to work with the material at hand. An important part of his task as Commander In Chief was to guide and train his corps of generals, even as he sifted through the mass of undistinguished officers looking for the few diamonds who would eventually help him win the war.

Historian David Work on why Lincoln needed new generals

A major way in which the president exercised his responsibility to guide and train his generals was through the letters he wrote them. To me these letters offer a dramatic window into the knotty issues Lincoln was forced to deal with, as he sorted through the various personalities and egos of the men upon whom the military fortunes of the nation depended.

Here are four examples of President Lincoln’s letters to his generals in which he offered them practical wisdom, encouragement, and as necessary, rebuke. Those who received and acted on his counsel became much more effective in their roles. Those who didn’t eventually fell by the wayside.

1. Major General David Hunter, December 31, 1861

David Hunter was a West Point graduate and army Major who, because of his strong anti-slavery views, became a friend of Abraham Lincoln before the war. In fact, when Lincoln was elected president, he invited Hunter to accompany him on his inaugural train ride from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington.

Major General David Hunter

Major General David Hunter

Once the war began, Hunter’s friendship with Lincoln served him well. He was appointed in quick succession a colonel, brigadier general, and finally major general of volunteers in the U. S. Army.

But Hunter wasn’t satisfied. He thought he deserved more, and sent Lincoln a testy letter on December 23, 1861 crying that he felt “very deeply mortified, humiliated, insulted, and disgraced.”

His complaint? He was assigned to a command at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas consisting of only 3000 men, while Don Carlos Buell, a Brigadier General and therefore of lower rank, commanded 100,000 in Kentucky. Hunter fumed that he had been “deprived of a command suitable to my rank,” and complained that the Kentucky assignment should have been given to him instead of Buell.

Under intense pressure as he attempted to organize an unprepared North to effectively fight the war, this rather childish outburst was almost more than Lincoln could bear. His reply to Hunter was a masterpiece of supportive, but straightforward and candid advice. In essence Lincoln told him: shut your mouth and get on with the job!

DEAR SIR:--Yours of the 23d is received, and I am constrained to say it is difficult to answer so ugly a letter in good temper. I am, as you intimate, losing much of the great confidence I placed in you, not from any act or omission of yours touching the public service, up to the time you were sent to Leavenworth, but from the flood of grumbling dispatches and letters I have seen from you since…

I aver that with as tender a regard for your honor and your sensibilities as I had for my own, it never occurred to me that you were being "humiliated, insulted, and disgraced"; nor have I, up to this day, heard an intimation that you have been wronged, coming from any one but yourself…

I have been, and am sincerely your friend; and if, as such, I dare to make a suggestion, I would say you are adopting the best possible way to ruin yourself.

"Act well your part, there all the honor lies." He who does something at the head of one regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.

Your friend, as ever,


This was not the only rebuke Hunter suffered at Lincoln’s hands. In 1862 Hunter was in command of the Department of the South, comprising the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. He issued an order emancipating all the slaves in those states, and began enlisting them into the Union Army. Lincoln, knowing that the Northern public was not yet ready for emancipation, immediately rescinded Hunter’s order.

Yet Hunter took Lincoln’s rebukes in good spirit, and never lost his regard for the President. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hunter served in the honor guard at the funeral. And in a reversal of the trip he had taken with Lincoln four years earlier, he accompanied the body of the martyred President on the train that carried it back to Springfield.

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2. Major General George McClellan, April 9, 1862

George B. McClellan was one of the most enigmatic figures of the Civil War. He was at first considered (most of all by himself) a military genius. Given overall command of Union armies at the young age of 34, he did a masterful job of organizing and training the main Union force, the Army of the Potomac.

Major General George B. McClellan

Major General George B. McClellan

But as a general McClellan had a fatal flaw – he wouldn’t fight. He habitually wildly overestimated the number of Confederate troops arrayed against him, and spent more time calling for reinforcements than in actually confronting his outnumbered foe in battle.

By the Spring of 1862, McClellan’s lack of battlefield results had become glaringly apparent to both politicians and the public in the North, and it soon became clear that patience with the "Young Napoleon" was running thin.

As McClellan began what was supposed to be a major advance against Confederate forces and toward Richmond (the Peninsula Campaign), President Lincoln suddenly decided to retain one of McClellan’s army corps in Washington to insure that the nation’s capital would not be left defenseless. McClellan was incensed, and with the campaign just getting started, blamed Lincoln for the defeat he was sure would ensue.

The President, who recognized McClellan’s qualities as a brilliant organizer of troops, and had for that reason been extremely patient with him, now felt compelled to write him a letter making it clear that McClellan’s excuses could no longer help him.

My dear Sir.

Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much…

After you left, I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field battery, were all you designed to be left for the defence of Washington… My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected…

And once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted, that going down the Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty -- that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, entrenchments, at either place. The country will not fail to note -- is now noting -- that the present hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated.

I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.

Yours very truly


But McClellan didn’t act. He continued to be extremely cautious on the battlefield. Although he won a strategic victory against Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the battle of Antietam in September 1862, his failure to follow up his advantage by vigorously pursing as Lee retreated was the final straw for the president. In November of 1862 Lincoln finally replaced him. Humiliated, McClellan tried to take his revenge by running against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864. He lost in a landslide.

President Abraham Lincoln in 1862

President Abraham Lincoln in 1862

3. Major General Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863

“Fighting Joe” Hooker was nothing if not self confident. As a subordinate general in the Army of the Potomac under its commander, Ambrose Burnside, Hooker publicly critiqued and complained about Burnside’s decisions, with a very evident desire to take his place.

Major General Joseph Hooker

Major General Joseph Hooker

When Burnside himself asked to be relieved of the command, Hooker got his wish. President Lincoln appointed Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. But he wanted Hooker to know that his backstabbing was known and not appreciated. If he was to be effective as a commander, Hooker needed to change his ways.

Major General Hooker:


I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.

I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.

I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.

The government will support you to the utmost of it's ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

Unlike McClellan, Hooker actually appreciated Lincoln’s counsel. He later told a reporter, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”

But Hooker didn’t win victories. He was stampeded by Robert E. Lee into a humiliating and unnecessary retreat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, lamenting later, “For once I lost confidence in Hooker.” Lincoln replaced him with George Meade in late June of 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.

4. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, August 3, 1864

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

In Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln finally found the general he had been looking for from the beginning of the war. Grant was a fighter, and had mounted brilliant campaigns at Vicksburg and Chattanooga that caught the imagination of the Northern public. In 1864 Lincoln appointed him General-In-Chief over all the Union armies.

Grant and Lincoln were on the same wavelength concerning what it would take to win the war, and Lincoln almost always approved Grant’s strategic plans. But he also recognized that Grant, coming from the Western theater of the war, where he was accustomed to having his orders immediately and competently obeyed, might not understand just how bureaucratically calcified the Washington military establishment was.

So, when Grant directed that the army’s chief of staff, General Henry Halleck, put Philip Sheridan in command of a Union army in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with orders to track down and destroy the Confederate forces threatening Washington from that direction, Lincoln sent Grant a letter (by telegraph) of wise counsel concerning what it took to get things done in Washington.

I have seen your dispatch in which you say “I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.” This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move.

But please look over the dispatches you may have received from here, ever since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of “putting our army South of the enemy” or of “following him to the death” in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.

Grant, who was with the Army of the Potomac just outside Richmond, got the message. He replied, “I start in two hours for Washington.”

The Power of a Letter

Lincoln’s confidence in Grant was not misplaced. Grant showed himself eager to follow the counsel he received in several letters Lincoln sent him. The result was that although it took longer than either at first hoped it would, the two of them working together, along with the excellent cadre of subordinate leaders that finally emerged through Lincoln's appointments, were finally able to strangle the Confederacy and win the war.

And that victory, when it came, was due in no small part to wise and fatherly counsel Abraham Lincoln provided in his letters to his generals.

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 19, 2019:

Thanks, John. I'll look forward to seeing your Antietam article.

John Dove on September 19, 2019:

Hi Ronald-- I read your article with great interest. In Lincoln's own words you show the struggles of leadership. One of the battles you mention is the Battle of Antietam. I plan to visit the battlefield later this month and write a Hub about it. All the best -- John

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 01, 2018:

I think you're referring to a comment Lincoln made privately in 1862 about Gen. MacClellan, who was notoriously reluctant to actually fight.

“If General McClellan isn't going to use his army, I'd like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something."

Debra Hawkins on October 01, 2018:

I recall the gist of a message sent to one of Lincoln's Generals about "if you are not going to use your men, then send to me" or some words to this effect. However, I've not been able to find this exact quote. Can you help me?

Thanks in advance

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 15, 2014:

Rchrdsnc, you're right. Lincoln was a militia officer, and liked to joke that the only blood drawn among his company was by the mosquitoes. But he knew people, perhaps in large part due to his experience as a lawyer and one-term congressman. I think that was his real genius. Thanks for reading.

Carl Richardson from Midwest USA on February 15, 2014:

I find it interesting how Lincoln rose to the occasion in the Civil War. His only prior experience, I believe, was the Black Hawk War in the 1830s.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 13, 2014:

Thanks, BC Messplay. And I certainly agree about Lincoln.

Thomas Messpaly Jr. from Waukesha, WI on February 13, 2014:

Lincoln has been my favorite president since I was young. Great article, it was written very well.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2014:

hardlymoving, I think Lincoln is definitely a model of great leadership. I'm glad the article had an impact. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2014:

Thanks, Patty. I agree about Lincoln being our greatest leader. Without him I think the nation might well have failed to win the secession crisis and been dismembered.

hardlymoving from Memphis, TN on February 12, 2014:

Superb article! Rarely do I find anything worthwhile reading and remembering days later. Moreover, the examples of leadership back then can be studied and utilized today ... something, which I believe, is disappearing in corporate American.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 12, 2014:

Lincoln is my favorite American leader, so thinks for this Hub. Rated Up and shared.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2014:

Thanks so much, heidithorne. I appreciate your kind words.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2014:

Thanks, amiebutchko. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Would you believe I took those photos myself?

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 12, 2014:

RTalloni, as you say, I think Lincoln is a source of some great lessons on leadership. Thanks for reading and commenting, and for the congrats!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 12, 2014:

What an amazing hub about one of the most amazing leaders our country has ever known! And big congrats on Hub of the Day! Well deserved, as always, for your historical insights.

Amie Butchko from Warwick, NY on February 12, 2014:

Very interesting and well written. Enjoyed the history and the pictures. Great hub!

RTalloni on February 12, 2014:

Congratulations on your Hub of the Day award for this insight into the heart of a man whose example of leadership yet stands as a guiding light.

sybol on December 11, 2013:


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 07, 2013:

Thanks, sybol. The letters reveal a leader who, despite his humble beginnings, was never overawed or intimidated by those under his authority. He set a standard and expected them to adhere to it.

sybol on December 07, 2013:

This article really gives more insight on the type of man Lincoln was.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 06, 2013:

Thanks, MsDora. I think what struck me first about these letters was how Lincoln didn't mince words. He told each man exactly what he needed to hear!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 06, 2013:

How different life was back then--Lincoln having the time to write, not a short note, or a coded message, but a detailed letter. His candidness is impressive. Thank you for this piece of history.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 06, 2013:

Thanks, Mel. I'm glad to have contributed to a good lunch!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on December 06, 2013:

No doubt that part of Lincoln's genius was his superb, poetic mastery of the English language. This hub made for very entertaining lunchtime reading. Excellent job!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 06, 2013:

Thanks for reading, cmoneyspinner1tf. With you I think Lincoln expressed his character through his writing. That's why, to me, his letters to his generals are so fascinating. They give real insight into Lincoln the leader and the man.

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on December 06, 2013:

I think Lincoln was a writer because it was such a sober-minded thinker. Although I have not read all of his written material, I believe his writings clearly shed a light on his personality and character. Even the stuff he wrote that he never really intended for anybody to read. (I read somewhere that he suffered from depression and often wrote long letters to ... ??? To himself.)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 05, 2013:

Thanks, Eric. It is sobering to think that all these men had the lives of thousands of other young men in their hands.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 05, 2013:

I myself my good friend find it in all good fortune that I have read such good words. They serve me well and in comfort. As the battles we face are more in our heads than in the fields where good men die for our decisions.

In this hub you have taught much and surrendered yourself to good and noble history, to which we must stand proud. Lincoln may have wrote the words but you brought them alive again. Bravo

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