Home / General / A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of <i>Elusive Victories</i>, Part I

A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of Elusive Victories, Part I


Andrew Polsky’s terrific new book Elusive Victories is a detailed history of presidents at war that confronts a crucial paradox: the unilateral authority of presidents to initiate military conflicts has increases, but the flexibility to make subsequent decisions (including, crucially, the ability to reverse an unwise decision to go to war in a timely manner) has not followed. (He also has a new blog devoted to presidential politics.) Given the ongoing importance of Polsky’s argument, I thought I would invite him for a conversation about its implications. Today, we’ll start with the overarching thesis of the book and his chapter on Lincoln.   Part II will be next, so if there any questions you want asked, feel free to put them in the comment section:

LGM:   In the core argument of your book, I see some interesting parallels with Stephen Skowronek’s classic The Politics Presidents Make.   Skowronek argued that while contemporary presidents have access to a much greater array of resources than 19th century presidents had, even the more recent “reconstructive” presidents like FDR and Reagan don’t have anything like the ability to alter the country’s basic political framework that Jefferson and Jackson had.  Your book complicates the well-known increase in the president’s unilateral power to initiate military operations by arguing that this increase in brute power has not been accompanied by a commensurate power to achieve either military or political objectives associated with warmaking.  Do you see parallels between your book and Skowronek’s argument?

Yes, absolutely, I see strong parallels.  That isn’t a coincidence – Skowronek’s work has long shaped mine.  He describes three “logics” operating to shape presidential opportunities, and the first two – the constitutional and modernizing patterns – operate on wartime presidents much as they do on the presidency as a whole.  Indeed, they may be more empowering during international crises and military conflicts.

Skowronek also identifies a recurring logic to presidential leadership, grounded in the vitality of a dominant partisan political order and a president’s relation to that order.  This “political time”, as he refers to it, defines the opportunity structure in which a president is situated.  I also describe a recurrent pattern that might be called “war time.” Presidents begin a conflict with broad authority and a wide scope for discretionary action, a situation that resembles Skowronek’s “reconstructive” presidents that you mention.  Over the course of a conflict, their ability to shape events declines sharply, so they better resemble some of the presidents he identifies as occupying impossible leadership situations.  George W. Bush in Iraq in 2007 starts to look a lot like Herbert Hoover in 1931.

LGM:   You argue that Lincoln’s superiority as a military leader over Jefferson Davis had a major impact on the Union victory — can you explain to our readers what these advantages were?   One thing that struck me reading the chapter is that even though Lincoln was very effective, the fog of war comes through as well.   Not only did Lincoln made mistakes, decisions that were perfectly reasonable at the time ended up not working — it’s hard to believe any president would have foreseen in 1861 that Grant would be a vastly more effective general than McClellan, given the latter’s apparently superior credentials.

AP: On paper, Jefferson Davis should have been the superior wartime leader – he had the ideal background, including combat experience and familiarity with military organization from his time as Secretary of War.  In the event, though, he proved far too conventional in his military thinking and failed to capitalize on the South’s significant advantages, notably its vast territory that invited a flexible defense rather than trying to hold a territorial line.

You are absolutely correct that both presidents started the war with no knowledge of the turns it would take.  Its scale, time, and cost were beyond almost anyone’s comprehension in April 1861.  Mistakes were inevitable, on both sides. Lincoln’s gifts included flexibility and a capacity (usually) to learn from his mistakes.  Yes, the McClellan choice made very good sense in 1861.  But Lincoln was prepared to shed a general if he failed, especially if he was a Democrat by mid-1862.  Davis remained wedded to the same senior generals he picked in 1861 and stuck with commanders long after they had been found wanting, and his choices of replacements were often even worse.  Of his initial top commanders, only Lee deserved continued confidence.

LGM: Another way of looking at the Grant/McClellan problem is that Lincoln’s decisions turned out to be perversely perfect.  In a sense, McClellan was exactly what was needed in 1861/2, because to achieve political objectives that could justify the Civil War the Union had to win, but not win before moderate Republicans came to believe that radical objectives were politically and militarily essential.  Do you think there’s anything to Mark Graber’s argument that we have tended to underestimate the contingency of the Union victory, and hence tend to be too optimistic about the ability of war to secure human rights or other attractive political benefits?   Can we see the problems that confronted LBJ and George W. Bush even in the successful wartime leadership of the Great Emancipator?

I share the view of most historians that Union victory was anything but foreordained.  The stronger side, measured by resources, often fails to prevail in a war – look at the United States in Vietnam.  At several points during the Civil War, the Union seemed close to defeat, plunging Lincoln into despair.  So, although McClellan’s incompetence contributed to emancipation (by letting public opinion in the North swing in favor of a war against the South’s “peculiar institution”), Lincoln surely would have traded that for some battlefield victories in summer 1862.

Wars are poor instruments for securing human rights or other desired political benefits because these results are extraordinarily difficult to assure by military means.  I group political outcomes such as emancipation or building a stable democracy under the heading of “peace building.”  It has been an area in which presidents have performed poorly in most conflicts.  I try to unpack the heading “contingency” to specify the common reasons for a lack of success in securing the kind of postwar order a president seeks.  These include failure to start planning early enough, a resurgence of congressional assertiveness at the end of a war, allies pursuing their own agendas, and the desire of the American people to return to peacetime concerns.

Lincoln and FDR came closer to achieving their peace building objectives than have most presidents.  Yet I maintain that each still failed in important respects.  It may not have been possible for anyone to have done better in their circumstances.  And here’s the sobering thought: both were exceptional wartime leaders.  In most wars, we find ourselves led by mere mortals.

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  • Robert Farley

    I don’t agree that the decision to defend the South along territorial lines was bad, or at least that it was worse than other potential options. The South wasn’t merely defending its independence; it was defending a particular way of social and economic life. Allowing Union armies to penetrate deep into the South fatally and permanently disrupted that socio-economic system; black slaves began to run and revolt as soon as Union armies approached, even before emancipation became official Union policy.

    Since the greater part of Southern military and economic strength was bound up in the institution of slavery, this didn’t represent a value trade off for Davis; undertaking a Fabian strategy that would allow deep Union penetration of the Confederacy simply meant defeat.

    This is not to say that conventional territorial defense of the Confederacy was ideal against an opponent with more men, industrial capacity, and resources, but it was the best of a series of bad choices.

    I also think we need to talk clearly about what we mean by “Union close to defeat.” I don’t know specifically what moments he’s talking about here, but even during the worst periods of the Potomac theater of operations Union forces were making major gains (holding territory, disrupting Southern agriculture) in other parts of the Confederacy. The Mississippi was effectively owned by the Union well before the fall of Vicksburg. To the extent that the Confederacy could have “won” at any point after the fall of New Orleans, it would have been across a much smaller geographic space that the states that seceded in 1861. Unless Lee had taken and held Washington, the Confederacy had very few chips to trade for the Western (and coastal) territories under Union control.

    • Just Dropping By

      even during the worst periods of the Potomac theater of operations Union forces were making major gains (holding territory, disrupting Southern agriculture) in other parts of the Confederacy.

      +1 This is a point I’ve made on various alternative history forums and discussion threads over the years — absent a knockout blow against Washington, D.C. in the first year of the war or major foreign intervention in 1862-63, there’s no realistic chance that the Confederacy proper would have ended up controlling the trans-Mississippi states/territories even if the Union gave up on trying to recapture the entire “South”.

      • sherparick

        If Johnson/Hood had forced Sherman to terminate his Atlanta campaign, Early had held the Valley against Sheridan, resulting in McClellan and the Peace Democrats winning the 1864 election, the South would have won the war with slavery restored. Perhaps the treaty would have given a right of free passage down the Mississippi, but any deal would have required a Union withdrawal from all occupied Southern territories. Likewise, prior to Antietam, Perryville, and Corinth, the Southern recovery in late summer/fall 1862 appeared to show they had won the war (for the South a stalemate was winning), and Britain and France came very close to intervening.

    • ploeg

      I don’t know specifically what moments he’s talking about here, but even during the worst periods of the Potomac theater of operations Union forces were making major gains (holding territory, disrupting Southern agriculture) in other parts of the Confederacy.

      The Union might not have made slow progress during most of the war, but there were only a handful of times in which the Union went backwards. The comparison with Vietnam is telling. With Vietnam, the metrics that were offered to the American public were demonstrated to be bogus by the Tet Offensive. With the ACW, the metrics were clear and demonstrable. The Union might not have made as rapid of progress as many would have liked, but after First Manassas demonstrated that the war would not be quick, the public adjusted their expectations accordingly.

      If anything, the ACW demonstrates how hard it is for the American public to disengage from a war once the country is committed. In the end, the Republicans were willing to settle differences with political rivals to ensure the success of the Union (Fremont withdrawing from the race after Blair was removed from the cabinet, Lincoln taking a Democrat as his VP). Even if McClellan had won the election, it seems locksure that the CSA would have demanded the return of all of the seceded states and all of the escaped slaves, and they would probably have demanded Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland as well. To demand any less would have endangered the southern socio-economic system (as Rob says). Under those circumstances, the Union would have had no choice but to continue the war (though the postwar period would likely have turned out very differently).

      • ploeg

        The Union might not</del have made slow progress…

    • Bertie

      But “defend the borders” and “Fabian strategy” aren’t the only options. There’s another alternative: use your interior lines and railroads to shift forces around; try to achieve concentration of force against the invading armies as they come in.

      This isn’t just hindsight theorizing; the Confederates actually did this once — Chickamauga — and it worked.

      • John

        What were the other favorable opportunities for such a strategy? Late 1863 was a fairly unique time during the war because the Army of the Potomac basically did nothing for 10 months after Gettysburg. But usually you’ve got pressure going on multiple fronts at once.

        • rea

          the Army of the Potomac basically did nothing for 10 months after Gettysburg

          Not really true, although the campaign they tried didn’t accomplish much.


          • John

            Yeah, I know that’s not technically right, but, aside from the period between Bull Run and the Peninsular Campaign, it was certainly the least active period of the war in that theater.

      • rea

        the Confederates actually did this once — Chickamauga

        See also First Bull Run and Shiloh for other examples.

        • rea

          I’ll add, the obvious time to try this was in May-June 1863, by using eastern troops in an attempt to break the siege of Vicksburg rather than invade Pennsylvania. Lee didn’t like the idea, partly because he cared about Virginia rather than the Confederacy, and it was not until his defeat at Gettysburg that the Chickamauga transfer occurred.

          Note that Confederates didn’t have as much of an “interior lines” advantage as you might think, due to the much superior union railroad net and greater number of troops. See the second day of Shiloh, and Chattanooga.

          • Colin Day

            I’ll add, the obvious time to try this was in May-June 1863, by using eastern troops in an attempt to break the siege of Vicksburg rather than invade Pennsylvania.

            One problem with this is that the Confederate general who would have commanded such troops was J. E. Johnston, who was not the most aggressive Southern officer.

            • rea

              There was some talk of sending Lee–he wouldn’t leave the Virginia theater, though.

              • Colin Day

                Which may be a huge knock on Lee. He was brilliant at defending Virginia but not the Confederacy as a whole. Grant, on the other hand, was perfectly willing to go east after spending most of the war out west.

            • ploeg

              Johnston’s tendency was to trade space for time and attack when he had the greatest advantage. Johnston did so at Seven Pines and was planning to do so at Peachtree Creek before he was replaced by Hood. An extra corps would have stiffened Johnston’s resolve.

              The problem was that any troops that Lee sent might not have made it in time to make any difference, and would probably have been too few in any case. It took nearly two weeks for the first 5000 of Longstreet’s troops to get from Virginia to the lines of Chickamauga, and it took an additional week before the rest of Longstreet’s corps made it. It doesn’t seem likely that a corps could have been moved from Virginia to Mississippi in less than a month. Grant started his campaign on April 29th and had siege lines dug around Vicksburg a month from then.

              • John

                The move would have to take place after Chancellorsville, because otherwise you’re leaving Virginia dangerously open to the Army of the Potomac’s attack. So they’re not getting to Mississippi until mid-June at the earliest. Then Johnston has to get his shit together and move on Vicksburg before Pemberton surrenders on July 4. Certainly cutting it very close.

                • ploeg

                  Right. And by that time, Grant was dug in around Vicksburg, well supplied by the Union fleet in the Mississippi, and reinforced to 77,000 troops. Johnston and Pemberton might have had about 60,000 troops between the two of them, but Pemberton was bottled up in Vicksburg and could not coordinate with Johnston. Bragg in eastern Tennessee was expecting his own problems and could not help. Johnston might have tried something if he had more troops, but the odds would not have been good.

              • Colin Day

                But should Johnston have risked an attack anyway?

      • ploeg

        10,000 troops marching four abreast, with rows spaced three or four feet apart, will stretch for about 1 1/2 miles. Add room for guns and caissons and the horses to draw the same. Add more room for wagons to carry supplies after you detrain and the horses to draw the same. That’s a lot of rolling stock. Also note that, while you’re assembling the trains to move a corps from point A to point B, points C, D, E, F, and G will not have use of those trains to resupply, which might be a problem if any of those other points are attacked.

        Moreover, the South’s railroad system was poorly situated to support such mobile warfare. Most of the system was constructed to transport cash crops from the interior to the ports. Even at the beginning of the war, the shortest way from Richmond to Nashville was through Chattanooga. And getting around didn’t get any easier as the war progressed, as rolling stock wore out and wasn’t replaced.

        • ploeg

          Also note the different gauges of track in the linked map. Changing gauges meant changing trains.

          Also, most trains at the time didn’t go straight through major cities. You had to be towed through town by horse or walk from the train station at one end of town to the train station at the other end. Some major rivers were not yet bridged, so you might need to get off the train and take the ferry.

          • John

            Also notice that with Corinth under Union control (iirc), the only direct route from Richmond to Jackson is blocked.

    • John

      I was going to make the same point about a Fabian strategy, and why Davis’s decision to reject it made perfect sense.

      I will also say that the most obvious way for the South to win is not a foreign intervention, but a Confederacy that holds out long enough to bring about a Democratic victory in 1864. It’s hard to know how likely that is, though, or if a McClellan administration would have actually made peace with an independent Confederacy.

      I do think the possibility of foreign intervention is actually really low. If you actually look at what British politicians were saying, even the most pro-Confederate (Russell, Gladstone) were not actually calling for British intervention. And Palmerston realized that a war on behalf of slavery was politically impossible because of anti-slavery sentiment in Britain. Derby, the opposition leader, did not hold a position very different from Palmerston’s, and there were strong pro-northern elements within the government (Granville, Argyll, Lewis). Besides the Trent Affair, which might genuinely have led to a war, it’s hard to see how you get to a genuine British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy.

      And while Napoleon III was more enamored with the idea of intervention, it seems pretty clear he would not have intervened on his own. And the other European powers were distinctly unfriendly to the Confederacy. It’s hard to see how foreign intervention is anything more than a fantasy.

    • mpowell

      The question I have here is why does Washington DC even matter? Assuming most of the government is able to escape capture, I don’t see what the problem would have been. I didn’t think DC was a major city in 1860. Holding DC seems like it might have become a pretty obviously hollow symbolic victory in short order.

      • rea

        McClellan had much your opinion of the matter. Lincoln thought that the inability to hold the national capital would wreck his government’s credibility. I trust Lincoln’s judgment on this kind of political matter more than I do McClellan’s

        • ploeg

          Also, holding Washington DC meant holding Maryland. If you abandon Washington, where are you going to set up your defenses short of the Susquehanna? It was better to set up your defenses around what was essentially an armed camp back in the day.

          • mpowell

            Well, there’s a difference between saying, “we should try to hold Washington” and “if we don’t hold Washington we’ll lose the war”. I’d easily concede the former, it’s just the latter that I don’t buy. I’m sure it raises a political shitstorm for Lincoln if he loses DC, so it’s not a position he’s going to abandon easily, but I don’t know if it means the war is over as long as things are in hand in time for the elections in 1864.

            • ploeg

              You might not lose the war if you don’t hold Washington, but as established, there were tangible advantages to holding Washington (if for no other reason than having it serve as an armed camp that protects more populous cities further north). And there was never a real reason to expose the capital to the threat of capture (and indeed, very few times at which the capital was directly threatened). Certainly McClellan didn’t have a good reason to demand that the troops defending the capital should come down and help him attack Richmond when McClellan wasn’t making full use of the troops that he already had.

              • rea

                McClellan hallucinated that he was badly outnumbered.

    • wengler

      Dammit, I wanted to make these points but then you went ahead and made all of them first.

      The nearly 100 percent loyal US Navy should get more credit than it does. A whole lot of water around the South that could have been exploited had they any sort of naval forces.

    • Brian


      Before I comment, let me just say how impressed I am by the quality of comments on this site. You have the most intelligent and best educated readership I’ve seen on the net.

      There’s no question that emancipation followed the Union armies. But it was rolled back when the Confederates reoccupied territory–see the essay “Who Freed the Slaves?” in McPherson’s Drawn With the Sword, for example. If the South had been willing to fight a Fabian campaign, it might ultimately have exhausted, not Northern resources, but Northern will to fight. British and US forces occupied large portions of the colonies and of South Vietnam in those respective wars, but once the cost of pursuing the wars grew too high, the occupiers left. In the South that would have meant the reimposition of slavery. Just as the path to victory for the VC/NVA in Vietnam was undermining popular support for the war among the American public, the path to victory for the South was to make it too expensive in lives and treasure for the North to continue. This almost happened in August and September of 1864, as several readers have pointed out. The North was nowhere near the objective exhaustion of its resources–indeed, in December, 1864, Lincoln’s address to Congress pointed out the overwhelming military and naval superiority of the North. But the will to fight wavered in light of the cost of the overland campaign. It’s not hard to envision that happening if in both the Western and Eastern Theaters the South had inflicted casualties on Northern armies, while denying the chance of outright victory by refusing set-piece battles.

      Of course, counterfactuals are by their nature neither true nor false. You might argue that the North had the resources to make its occupation of territory quasi-permanent, and the consequent economic consequences, in freed slaves as well as lost agriculture, etc., would have worn down the South before the cost of war wore down the North. You might also argue that the only way the South could inflict sufficient casualties on the North was to fight pitched battles (though Southern losses, even in victory, were proportionately greater than Northern losses–the “Attack and Die” argument).

      One thing is clear to me, though, and that is the contingency of Northern victory. Again I cite McPherson, who argues convincingly that “will to fight” on the part of both the North and the South varied in proportion to victory in the field. And the outcomes of battles are almost always contingent. They may depend on somone dropping some cigars wrapped in military orders, or, as the interminable arguments over whether Jackson would have taken Cemetary Hill had he lived show, if a volley in the dark had missed its target.

  • Medrawt

    I’m nothing like an expert on the Civil (or any) War, but I was also pretty curious about the terms here. The Union was close to defeat, I presume, in the sense that having lost some high profile battles in high profile areas support for continuing the war might have been undermined. (How much might influential types in DC and NYC and Philly really care about victories in Mississippi?)

    I think really the notion that “the stronger side, measured by resources, often fails to prevail” doesn’t mean all that much unless “prevail” is really scrutinized under a microscope. The terms of victory and what’s acceptable are set by the combatants, and I suspect many of not most of the examples you could find of a more powerful country failing to prevail are examples where the cost of getting the other side to agree that they lost is either higher than the more powerful country feels it’s worth paying, either literally (money and blood) or in terms of what would be left when the dust settled (to go the extreme: the US could definitively win a war with any nonnuclear power by blasting the country into oblivion, but for a host of reasons, that’s generally not considered on the table). So unless you go into what specifically the Union would and wouldn’t have considered acceptable in terms of loss incurred on the way to victory, I don’t know how reasonable a statement this is to apply to the Civil War (of course, maybe the book does just that!).

    • John

      There’s also the advantages of breaking apart coalitions. The coalitions facing France under both Louis XIV and in the French Revolutionary period were typically stronger than France, but they were weakly held together, and the French were generally able to secure victory (or at least avoid defeat, in the case of the War of the Spanish Succession) by getting their enemies to fight among themselves.

      But there’s certainly examples of the side which has fewer resources prevailing in wars based on pure military victory. Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 would probably qualify (although the division of Austrian resources to fight a completely pointless campaign in Italy might level things a bit); France was probably still the stronger power than Prussia, at least on paper, in 1870. And those are wars going on at almost exactly the same time as the American Civil War.

      • Medrawt

        Sure. But I presumed – maybe incorrectly – that what was intended was a reference to the US in Vietnam, or Everyone in Afghanistan, which I think would be questionable comparisons to the Civil War unless you go through the work of demonstrating how the intentions of and acceptable/unacceptable outcomes for the superior power are in fact similar in a way I don’t see.

  • Joe

    Robert Farley’s comment underlines the limited options on the table for Jeff Davis, so though I think Lincoln was the better leader, you still have to address the Overton Window there.

    One value of McClellan is that he was good at getting the army into fighting shape. In the West, initiative was particularly important early given the large rewards possible. In the East, it might have been helpful by mid-62, but earlier, you needed to get the forces in fighting shape.

  • Mike

    Well, FDR had thirteen years and Lincoln four, cut down just at the moment the broad and constitutional politics were starting to get interesting. Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a pathetic human being and worse politician. The cause was left rudderless at a critical point.

    • Spuddie

      FDR has a much better successor by all accounts.

      Truman understood the nascent post-war environment much better and was more committed to domestic civil liberties. The man gets the short shrift by many historians.

      • rea

        All my life, and I was born 2 years after Truman left office, conventional wisdom has been that Truman was unfairly underrated.

  • rea

    the unilateral authority of presidents to initiate military conflicts has increases

    Is that really true? Because (dating back to Washington sending the troops to deal with the Northwest Indian Confederation) the history of this country is full of military conflicts unilterally initiated by the executive branch, even if you don’t count wars like the one in the 1790s against France, or the recent one against Iraq, which were undeclared but had a fig leaf of Congressional authorization.

    • TT

      …but the flexibility to make subsequent decisions (including, crucially, the ability to reverse an unwise decision to go to war in a timely manner) has not followed.

      I’m very interested in this idea as it applies to public opinion as a whole. I’m not at all well versed in studies of opinion polls on Iraq from 2003 to the final “withdrawals” in 2011, but my sense is that Bush’s decision to increase troop levels and (allegedly) change tactics wholesale in early 2007 was much more in step with overall public opinion, and thus constrained by said opinion, than either his acolytes or his opposition acknowledge. Is that true?

      It seems that what made the decision about the surge “controversial” was that Bush was apparently going against elite military and policy opinion, as well as Congressional opinion. But, while no doubt very real in certain quarters, I also think that, again, opposition to the surge within the military and policy communities was not nearly as unanimous as the likes of Peter Feaver would have you believe.

  • Colin Day

    What about the 1862 midterm elections? If Lee had still been north of Washington in November, 1862, how would Union citizens have voted? An anti-war Congressional majority in both Houses might have been problematic.

    • chrisM

      The 38th Congress elected in Fall 1862 (back then elections did not all take place on the same day, and Senators, elected by state legislators, were particularly grab-bag) were called for a special session March 4th-14th, 1863, but did not convene for their first regular session until December 7th, 1863. Presumably if they did not have a pro-war majority Lincoln would not have called them to the Special Session and their first meeting would not have been until December 1863. They might have made life difficult for Abe, but they wouldn’t have a chance to start doing so until quite late in the war. (Note that the long delay between election and first meeting was not due to the war- that was custom at the time.)

  • I wish the interview had been more about the core argument about the President’s powers to shape, direct, and end wars.

    I think there might be a conflict between the branches in Obama’s second term as the President decides to end the war against al Qaeda and Congress, especially if the Republicans hold Congress, does not want to end it.

  • Hey, Scott, how about throwing up a link, or at least a footnote, defining Skowronek’s three logics?

  • If you guys keep this going, I’m going to be very sorry I left my copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground at the office today.

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