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Dr. Larry Arnn On Lincoln’s War Years

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HH: It is the last radio hour of the week, and that means it is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. Sometimes, he has one of his colleagues. Not this week, because like last week, we are focused on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, in which Dr. Arnn is deeply versed. If you missed our post-Thanksgiving special on Lincoln, three hours on President Lincoln’s political philosophy, it’s now up at And all of the Hillsdale Dialogues are at There’s also a button at, and of course, everything that Hillsdale does is at Dr. Arnn, I hope your weekend after Thanksgiving was a good one.

LA: Really great.

HH: Remarkable reaction to the Lincoln thing.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: That was a good show.

LA: Yeah, wasn’t it, though?

HH: It was, but we didn’t talk about his war leadership. So I asked for an encore.

LA: Okay.

HH: And the reason I did is what we did, we got up to 1861 and his Inaugural address, and we did cover the Gettysburg address and the Second Inaugural, but we didn’t really talk about how he ran the presidency.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And let’s just, let’s start there. When you consider his years in the White House, how would you sum them up?

LA: Well, first of all, the words, you have a good instinct there, because the words that Lincoln spoke, he spoke in the middle of the greatest tragedy in American history, and the cost was terrible. And Lincoln was this lawyer who’d been a prosperous lawyer, and who’d run some newspapers, kind of run them. He was part owner. And that was his administrative experience. And he comes to Washington, and he’s inaugurated in early March, 1861, and seven states have seceded, and four more are about to. And so there were 11 confederate states with a population of five million free people and four million slaves. And then there were 20 states left in the north with a population of 20 million. But the Capitol was almost surrounded. And if Maryland had gone, it would have been surrounded. And Maryland almost did. And it didn’t, in part, because Lincoln intervened. He said of his interventions, he arrested some people and held them. And he said of that, he said I would have arrested the Maryland legislature itself if I would have thought that would have been effective. So right away, Lincoln is very decisive. Lincoln calls for an army. And eventually, a very large army would form, you know, over a million people. But he’s first called for 47,000, and then upped it to 75,000. And he didn’t really have any way to know whether anybody would come. And the two great generals who were around, who had experience and reputation, one of them was the very aged Winfield Scott. And he was the general of the army for a while. And the other was Robert E. Lee, a descendent of what the Lees of the American Revolution, and a collateral of George Washington, who grew up in a house where George Washington often went. It overlooks Arlington Cemetery now.

HH: The Custis-Lee mansion, right? Beautiful place.

LA: That’s right. And Lee turned it down with a famous letter, in which he says he does not believe the Constitution admits of secession, and he does not believe that this case admits, justifies revolution. But I cannot raise my hand against my home and my family. So Lee, Lincoln is inaugurated, and we talked about his First Inaugural address, and then the effect of that is, and his call up of troops, and the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, that four more states left. And it’s worth saying that in those states in particular, there was a lot of division. Part of the reason we have a West Virginia today is that West Virginia, probably by majority, was against secession. And much of Virginia itself was. But the confederacy moved its capital to Richmond, which had some influence over that. And then the place where I’m from, at the bottom, at the eastern edge of the Ozarks, up in the Ozarks, not many people wanted to secede. And there were other mountainous places in Tennessee, too, scattered around the South, where it was a very divisive thing. And it’s worth noting that secession from the confederacy was suppressed by force in Tennessee.

HH: It’s also worth noting, Dr. Arnn, I think, that this struggle that we’re about to talk about goes by many names. I call it the Civil War, but I once went to Charleston and picked up a newspaper on the occasion of the raising of the Hunley, the Confederate submarine, that referred to it not in quotations, but as the last remnant of the glorious cause.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And it’s called the War Between the States, and it’s called by us the Civil War, the war for the Union. It’s got so many different names. Is there anything else like that?

LA: No, it was, it’s, you know, the echoes of it are everywhere today, you know, in race relations, too.

HH: Yes.

LA: But it was bitter and terrible, and we lost, like at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, we lost more, the Union lost more soldiers, they lost more than the confederacy on that day, and they lost more soldiers than the United States had lost in all of its previous wars on that one day.

HH: It’s odd that you would bring that up. My, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt’s great-great grandfather was the man who almost lost Shiloh by not delivering Grant’s order in a timely fashion. He went on to become General Knepfler, the only Jewish general on the Union side of the Civil War, but he almost lost Shiloh. And that was such a bloody war. Antietam was like that as well, wasn’t it?

LA: That’s right. So Antietam is the worst day for casualties in American history. Gettysburg is the worst battle in American history, from the point of view of killed and wounded. And the Civil War is much the worst war, after two world wars and Korea and Vietnam, for casualties, North and South, 600,000.

HH: That is remarkable.

LA: 50,000 in Vietnam.

HH: You know, Dr. Arnn, we just celebrated the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s reelection. How in the world, given American’s antipathy to body counts today, did he ever win reelection with such a straggering…

LA: Well, there’s a great statement, there are two reasons, I think. One of them is Lincoln himself and his powers, and the other was the war turned in 1864, because in the race against him was a fired general, of whom there were very many, George McClellan. And to him, he was a very competent general, and the troops loved him probably better than anybody they fought for. And Lincoln once wrote him a note and said if you’re not using the army this week, can I use it? And that’s the thing about Lincoln. You want to talk about how he ran the war, without much experience, although he’d been a soldier a little bit in the Indian War, or the Native American war, whatever you want to call it. He commanded this war, and the generals worked for him. And it’s worth making a point about that, because generalship is a kind of expertise. And you know, we live in an age in which science is supposed to tell us what to do, and those who know science rule in so many things. And that’s just a form of the same problem that arises with generals. And you see in Lincoln’s correspondence, which is very worth reading with the generals, that he understands he doesn’t know as much about generaling as they do. What he knows is politics. And that means not just how to get reelected, that means the needs of the nation. Churchill writes famously, the distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit, true politics and strategy are one. And that means that if it really were true that every question was a technical question, war and peace, then those who have credentials to know the answer would be the ones who rule. But Lincoln was trying to judge the purposes of the Union, and save them, and the needs of the nation in the war. And so he had a lot of generals who wouldn’t fight very much, and he had a lot of generals who got beat. And he thought time’s a-wastin’, this is costing a lot, we need to not just engage with the enemy. We need to beat him.

HH: So when it came time to cast a vote for reelection, he had won the confidence of the people that he knew how to general the generals?

LA: Well, after Antietam, you know, I think I might have quoted it last week, because it’s one of my favorite lines. The great historian, Bruce Catton, wrote after Antietam, he said and so the war expanded. But also, it came down to just two men – Lincoln and Lee, who had the awful ability to make men love them, and the ruthlessness to tell them what to do. And that quality in Lincoln had a lot to do with his ability to master the cabinet and keep the war going, and pick the right generals, which finally he did, in my opinion. But then the other thing that saved him was William Tecumseh Sherman, because everybody learned during the war, and maybe Sherman learned as much as anybody, because much of the war, people forget this, because the battles in Virginia where the Confederacy was capitaled, and close to the capital of the nation in Washington, D.C., those were the most bloody, and they were the largest battles. And that ground was very difficult. You go across the Potomac if you’re trying to invade the South, and you go through a tough area called the Wilderness. And then you get into a series of parallel valleys with openings in them.

HH: Stand by on that geography when we come back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – – –

HH: And before we go back to the geography of Virginia, Larry Arnn, I have to tell you W., George W. Bush was my guest last week, and I remember meeting with him in the Oval Office with some other talk show hosts once. There is a very famous portrait of Lincoln there. And you probably had the same conversation. And he said, as I’m sure he said to many hundreds of other visitors, 41 is first in my heart, but 16 is first in my head, because I am a wartime president.

LA: Yeah.

HH What do you think he meant by that?

LA: Well, you should get that really great book I mentioned by a man named Richard Mellon and page through it. It’s full of, it’s a large coffee table kind of book, and it’s full of beautiful photographs of extremely well-reproduced of Lincoln, and just page through and watch him age. He was an old man when the war was done, and he was shot, and that’s because, you know, he said once I’m driven to my knees. I have nowhere else to go. And it was, you know, he was fighting, he was, first of all, he was killing Americans, and suffering the deaths of those in his army. And you couldn’t be sure, because in the first two years, they lost. So the way the war went, if people look at a map, they’ll see what I’m about to say is important. Virginia was crucial ground, because the two capitals were there, and it was very difficult ground. And the Union forces got beat there over and over and over again until 1864. But the war really turned in the west. And in 1861, they took New Orleans, and they started up the Mississippi. And then in 1863, they had two big victories from July 1 to July 4th, one at Gettysburg, a three-day battle, and one at Vicksburg, where Ulysses Grant, who fought many bloody battles in the war to a tie, never lost one, and won many. And he took Vicksburg by siege, and then the Mississippi was in Union hands. And once that happened, they could maneuver much better.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And the Confederacy was severed in two. And so that changed everything. And then that set the…and Grant, in my opinion, was a very great general. And there’s a great painting, by the way, and Bruce Catton writes about that painting. We have it up in the college, a reproduction of it, on the presidential yacht in the Potomac. It shows Lincoln and Grant and Sherman, and Phil Sheridan, the Cavalry commander, sitting. And Catton writes of that scene, when those four men sit down together, now we knew who was going to win the war.

HH: You know, that’s so fascinating, and you were talking last segment about the geography. They were all such masters of geography. Even Lincoln, who I guess being a farm man, would have been used to thinking in terms of what was easy to climb and what was not. But today’s war is so much more mobile. But as you said last segment, they had to traverse this horrible ground. And I don’t recall where I read this, but the wilderness that you had mentioned at the end of it was such an awful place to fight, maybe the worst place any battle was fought during the war.

LA: Yeah, and made much worse by the fact that Robert E. Lee was waiting behind it. And so it was very hard to go through, and you didn’t really want to get there anyway. And here’s a general point about the war. This is something that Churchill writes a lot about, about later wars, too. This is the first really modern war in this sense. And General Longstreet, number two in the Confederate army for most of the war, and a brilliant man, he understood this. Firepower had changed. Now they had rifles, and they weren’t repeating, yet, but they could load them faster. And so all of a sudden, withering fire was just overwhelming. And in general, the battles went that the one behind the wall and on the higher ground won the battle. And that gave an advantage to the Confederacy, because they, the North had to go down there and take the land back. Now Lee was very good at that kind of warfare, but also a tremendous maneuver general. And the really great battle, I think, in my opinion, and his greatest battle, is Chancellorsville, where in 1862, Joe Hooker, of whom Lincoln said he has his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be. He had written to him, from my headquarters in the saddle. He was a very good general, but he wrote of this battle that he lost confidence in himself, because he got his army through the Wilderness, and with a very large majority, he was excellently positioned against Lee, and was simply going to overwhelm him if he had attacked. And he waited. And Lee did the crazy thing of dividing his army in two and leaving a smaller force, and he was already smaller in front of the Union army, and he sent Stonewall Jackson around to the left looking for a flank. And they found it and destroyed the Union army. And there goes Joe Hooker. And what replaced him, eventually, was Meade and then Grant. And Grant was, first of all, when he got his nose bloodied, he just kept coming. That’s what happened at Shiloh. That’s what happened at Cold Harbor in 1864, which those battles in 1864 around Richmond and south of it were previews of the trench warfare of World War II. And then one has to think about Sherman, because Sherman, in my opinion, and in the opinion of one of my teachers and friends, Victor Hanson, Sherman figured out something about modern war. And he, on the way down to Atlanta, coming down from Memphis, which they had taken, he’s up against Johnston first, and then General Hood. And he assaults General Johnston at the time, and loses a lot of men, and resolved not to do that anymore. And instead, he started maneuvering to get position.

HH: It’s interesting. This is the sesquicentennial of those maneuvers right now.

LA: Oh, yeah, that’s right, right now, right now. And he took Atlanta, and he emptied the city. He made every man, woman and child leave. And if you want to see what educated men who are fighting each other to the death are like, you should read the correspondence between Sherman and General Hood about that fact. It’s extremely interesting.

HH: I’ve never heard of that correspondence.

LA: Oh, yeah. Hood writes that it’s indecent what you’re doing. And Sherman replies to him, it’s indecent what they’re doing, because this is a country of which we’re all part, and they’re taking part of it away. And they will feel the cost of the war. And all they have to do is stop and we can have our country again, and they can have their rights. And it’s very, and three letters between them, each side.

HH: Those are fascinating. I’ll have to look those up after this program. You know, we’re, next week is the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Nashville. But I was unaware that Hood and Sherman corresponded. It was an interesting, I clerked for a judge who had 10,000 books on the Civil War. It captures people. He said it was the last war fought between men of extraordinary education and literacy. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think he meant pervasively so.

LA: Well, Victor Hanson makes the case that George Patton was such a man. And Sherman and Grant were very interesting guys.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – – –

HH: And Hillsdale was itself a participant in the war. I meant to say that last week, Larry Arnn. I believe your campus emptied of almost every able-bodied young man at the time the war came.

LA: Somewhere between four and five hundred, which in percentage is bigger than anybody except the military academies, and in absolute terms, only Yale can we find that had more. And you know, several Congressional Medal of Honor winners, one multiple Medal of Honor winner, and you know, several dozen of them in the peach orchard at Gettysburg. And they had a lot to do with it. They were in the Iron Brigade, which lost two-thirds of its numbers on the second day at Gettysburg. And so, go ahead…

HH: So you mentioned that Lincoln aged. How, I actually don’t know how anyone would endure the casualty counts of a war like this.

LA: Well, it was, you know, the funny answer is just like in the first world war, it was hell, and terrible, but also they did. Churchill writes of the first world war, he says nothing daunts the valiant heart of man. He seemed in modern times to have resources that were as great or greater than at any time. And it’s amazing what they did, both sides. And you know, they didn’t always hate each other, either. In fact, they often did not.

HH: And Lincoln did not shield himself from this. What I do know about the war mostly comes from reading the popular histories, not scholarship. But I know that he would go out among the men and visit battlefields and see the carnage.

LA: Yeah, and you know, pay particular attention to executions for desertion, looking for ways of mercy, and draft dodgers were shot. He stopped a lot of that, looked into the individual cases.

HH: Why do you bring that up? What point are you making there?

LA: Well, just that Churchill, sorry, Lincoln cared about life. And this wall wore on him in part because of the cost of it. And you know, he had made his arguments, we went through some of them last time, about why he didn’t think it was right to just let them go. He thought they were taking things with them that they didn’t own alone, and that they were changing a great experiment in liberty into an experiment in slavery.

HH: You know, there’s also a recent book by Rich Lowry, a friend of yours and mine, in which he wanted people to understand he wasn’t just a wartime general. He also did the railroad at this time, and free trade, and the Homestead Act, which is, as you’ve often pointed out, elegantly short and overwhelmingly comprehensive.

LA: He gave away 10% of the land area of the United States to about between two and a half to three million people. And the thing is 1,400 words long.

HH: Isn’t that amazing?

LA: And I say they gave it away. People had to pay $10 bucks. And they had to be citizens or registered to become citizens, they had to be head of a household, man or woman, or 21 years old, and they had to live on it and work it for five years.

HH: Don’t you think that’s what we ought to do with Detroit? Honest to goodness, I proposed it before that if you just said if you are able-bodied with tools and you will build on the land, we’ll give it to you.

LA: Yeah, that’s, I do think, and see, the direction of the country is different about that. The federal government is right now busy taking over a whole bunch more land. And if you look at a map of the United States, it starts, and you see it colored in, darker colors for private land, and lighter colors for publicly owned land. It’s all dark in the east, and of course, it’s not only a geographic chart, it’s also a time chart, because the parts that came into the Union later are increasingly owned by the government. And what’s neat about the Homestead Act, just like the Northwest Ordinance is, it’s driven by the conception that it’s good for people to own property and work it, and make their living on it. And so their idea about the land was give it away and then let people work it. and it’ll be a great, free place.

HH: And Lincoln superintended that. I don’t know when he signed it, but he superintended it amid battles and war reports. That’s what’s amazing.

LA: 1864. Yeah, he did, and it’s his, I believe, it’s one of the few greatest pieces of legislation in the history of the world. And it speaks so clearly about, it’s just like reading, by the way, the fundamental acts about education in early America. And what none of them, they all state higher purposes for education and greater necessity for it than we state today, but none of them involve central control of it.

HH: Very well said.

— – – – – —

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, we’re recording this and airing it the first time in 2014 at the conclusion of weeks of racial bitterness and animosity of the sort we haven’t really seen in many, many years, since 1992, really, in the Los Angeles riots. It’s been awful. And Lincoln, of course, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He was friends with Frederick Douglass. He worked very hard not only to win the war, but to allow for the country to reform after it, a project undone in the course by his assassination. He always, he improvised a lot of that, did he not?

LA: Oh, yeah. See, Lincoln’s Constitutional position had been that the federal government does not have power to interfere with the domestic institutions, including slavery, of the states. And so in the fall of, late fall of 1862, he conceived an idea that he implemented in the first of January, 1863, and that was as a war measure, he said, for the states in rebellion, and that means not in Kentucky, for example, that was not in rebellion, that the slaves were proclaimed emancipated. And that was a military necessity, he said, and he had the power to do it for that reason. And that’s why he didn’t do it in the border states. And it’s interesting, that isn’t one of Lincoln’s ringing and beautiful documents, of which there are so many. It is couched in terms that make it read like a military order. And it had a big effect, because it meant, first of all, there are five million free people and four million slaves in the South, and they’re all listening. And in addition, it affected Europe, because now it’s clear, you know, in 1861, there was a tough time when Britain threatened war against us for arresting on the high seas some Southerners that are on their way to treat with Britain. And Lincoln let them go, and let them go to London with the words one war at a time. But that means that the British were tending in the Southern direction, with which they had much greater economic interest. But when it became a war, and more explicitly about slavery, it was hard for them. And you know, they…

HH: So…

LA: William Wilberforce had done his stuff by then.

HH: A prudential act by a statesman in the middle of this. In our six minutes left, I’m just curious as to if he ever in your reading buckled? Did he, I know when his son died, it was horrifically sad. But did he ever think I should treat with the South?

LA: No. He was under very heavy pressure from the Congress at the time. That’s what that film, Lincoln, is about, by Steven Spielberg, I think, directed it, even. And it’s good. And what’s going on is that there’s a lot of pressure in the Congress to sit down and talk with the South at this stage, and late in the war, and Lincoln works, and Lincoln wants the Congress to pass what became the 13th Amendment. He wants them to do it right now, and you know, put it out to the states, the ones not in rebellion, to ratify. And he wants to get done with that thing, right, and change the Constitution so it’s illegal. And so they put into that thing, the ones who wanted the war to stop, that he had to agree to treat with these Southerners. And Lincoln delayed them all the way up the river. And then he got his vote, and then he didn’t talk to them.

HH: did he ever talk to Lee?

LA: And that was, that was a very artful thing.

HH: Yeah, well, he was artful on every front. Did he ever sit down with Robert E. Lee?

LA: No, No, no he didn’t, and of course, he was killed. And Lincoln was for a very, Lincoln wanted, he was ready to let anybody back in the Union who would swear an oath of allegiance. He issued during the war a general pardon to everyone who would do that. And he wanted, any 10% that did that and recognized the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, if they would do those two things, then they could elect people to Congress, or elect a governor and a state legislature, and they could start being states again just like all the other states. And that was his basic idea about reconstruction. There wasn’t much else to it, although later, when he saw, we talked about his appeal to some black leaders that they should emigrate to another country with an e, and they said no, they didn’t want to. Then he said to Nathanial Banks, who conquered much of Louisiana and was its governor, they should propose some way to work their way out of their relationship of master and slave, and into their new relationship. So he could understand that there was going to have to be a civil rights movement. And leaving those out of account, Lincoln, he says in the Second Inaugural address that we talked about last time, he says, you know, to bind up our wounds, and they’re our common wounds. And he wants the nation to be whole and rededicated to its principles of equal rights for all.

HH: Now…

LA: And that’s what stained him, I think.

HH: It’s hard to project, and he’s murdered on April 14th, 1865, only a week after the war ends, or the surrender at Appomattox is not actually over. So reconstruction, if ever he would have imagined it, did not happen. But how would it have been different, Larry Arnn, had ne not been assassinated, in your view?

LA: Well, there are two differences. One was Lincoln was politically very strong by now. He had won the 1864 election by a lot, for those two reasons I said, one of them the taking of Atlanta by William Sherman. But the other was he was for a proper dedication to the principles of the Union as they’re stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And then he’s for being a nation again. And so you know, there was, reconstruction has been difficult. I mean, in some ways, if you forget about the South, because it’s not just a Southern problem anymore, in a way, reconstruction goes on today when you talk about that racial bitterness that’s in the country right now. And I think it’s on a ground that’s been introduced mainly since the Civil War, but it’s still there. And Lincoln, you know, was eloquent in talking about getting past that and learning to live under the principles of our nation. So I think he would have been a better force than anybody who replaced him, who you remember, Andrew Johnson had never been elected president, and never was. So he didn’t have the clout that Lincoln had.

HH: When we come back next week, I want to spend an hour on Reconstruction and what went wrong, and the race issue, and how it went oh, so wrong, and how Lincoln might not have gotten it so, so very wrong. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, always a great pleasure, all of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, or go to

End of interview.


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