What Would Lincoln Do?

If Abraham Lincoln’s experience is any guide, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s fate will be determined by President Obama’s judgment of how his firing would affect the war in Afghanistan.

For months during the Civil War, Lincoln chose to ignore insolent behavior by Gen. George McClellan, who served at times as the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the general in chief of the Union Army, arguing that his breaches of protocol were worth tolerating as long as he was exerting a positive influence on his forces.

For example, one night in 1861, Lincoln went with his secretary of state, William Seward, and his young aide John Hay to McClellan’s house. Told that the general was out, the three waited in the parlor for an hour. When McClellan arrived home, the porter told him the president was there, but McClellan passed by the parlor and climbed the stairs to his private quarters. After a half hour more, Lincoln again sent word, only to be informed that the general had gone to sleep.

Hay was enraged, writing in his diary of the “insolence of epaulettes” and “the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.” To Hay’s astonishment, Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” He would hold McClellan’s horse, he’d once said, if a victory could be achieved.

McClellan’s bad behavior did not end. In letters to his wife, he regularly referred to Lincoln as “the original gorilla.” He considered the cabinet “some of the greatest geese I have ever seen,” and called Seward “a meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy.” Still, Lincoln kept him on.

When a critic in Congress demanded McClellan’s firing, Lincoln asked who should replace the general. “Why, anybody,” the senator replied. “Anybody will do for you,” Lincoln said, “but not for me. I must have somebody.”

So McClellan remained, until in November 1862 Lincoln finally lost faith in his commander’s commitment to the mission, his fighting spirit and his ability to prosecute the war to ultimate victory. Only then did he fire “the young Napoleon.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.