Leadership Perspectives

A great leader's hiring decisions can undermine the mission: How Lincoln's choices of generals almost lost a war


The following is adapted from the unpublished manuscript of For Freedom and Humanity: The Civil War Journals of Owen Thomas Wright by Brent Duncan, PhD.


Doris Kearns Goodwin (2018) recently published a book that features Abraham Lincoln as one of the iconic leaders in American history: Leadership: In turbulent times. I was honored to receive a copy from my staff, who inscribed it with: "We couldn't think of a more fitting book... that would reinforce all you do for us..." Something I try to encourage in myself, employees, and students is striving for success despite the environments we are in and the leaders we work for. Part of this involves shifting perspectives to see ambiguity as an opportunity to define our own direction, and stress as a tool for productivity and growth. I've been a Lincoln scholar since I was a kid, so attribute much of that philosophy to lessons I learned from him.

As a child, I "discovered" a discarded box under a trash pile that contained some tattered booklets, old pictures, and small trinkets. Opening one of the booklets, I was barely able to make out the following in faded handwriting:

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting President Abraham Lincoln. 

At that moment, that box became mine!

Scanning back to the first page of the booklet, I read,

On the 5th of June, 1861, I volunteered in defense of the most sacred rights of freedom and humanity. 

At that moment, the contents of the box became my mission.

These were the Civil War journals of my gg-IMG 01212grandfather, Owen Thomas Wright. As a 19-year old idealistic son of a Methodist minister, Owen was one of the first to volunteer when Lincoln called for troops, survived the front lines of many major battles and minor skirmishes of the Army of the Potomac. He became among the last to muster out after he escaped from a Confederate prison into the swamps of North Carolina, became a catalyst of a guerilla war between the Lowry Gang and plantation society in Lumberton (Townsend, 1872; Evans, 1995), left for dead with malaria, recaptured by Confederate militia, then rescued by Sherman's troops one month after the war ended. Researching the events around Owen's journal provides a ground-level perspective on many aspects of the entire Civil War, including some interesting insights into Lincoln and other Union leaders during the Civil War.

Lincoln has become known as a great leader with a healthy dose of perseverance. While discussing the challenges of succeeding in a graduate management program as working adults, I discuss with my students a quote from the father of neurology Santiago Ramón y Cajal: (1996, 309) 

Perseverance is the virtue of the less brilliant.

Cajal (1996) believed that through perseverance, the "less brilliant" can transcend our own potential and even surpass those who are naturally inclined to greatness but lack the discipline and perseverance to go beyond mediocrity. But, those who have perseverance and brilliance can skyrocket beyond all of us. I think Lincoln was one of those. Unlike many who have natural ability and the work ethic to excel, he had something that few leaders seem to possess: humility. However, this combination of positive characteristics was balanced against a tendency to hire inadequate and incompetent generals who struggled against an inferior enemy with few resources. Lincoln's choice of generals in the first three years of the Civil War seemed to turn what was expected to be a short series of skirmishes into a protracted and tragic war.

At the early stages of the Civil War, retiring chief of the Union Army General Winfield Scott convinced President Lincoln that General George B. McClellan would best serve as his replacement. McClellan had a youthful enthusiasm and had some recent victories in a campaign to drive Confederates from Virginia, creating an opportunity for the western counties to secede from Virginia after the plantation-holding aristocrats in the eastern counties seceded from the Union. McClellan ultimately proved too cautious, usually grossly overestimating the strength of his enemy, and frequently failing to pursue when his enemy was within his grasp.

A fervent Democrat, McClellan did not like Lincoln. While Lincoln was humble, McClellan seemed to suffer from delusions of grandeur; seeing himself as the savior of the country and Lincoln as a barrier to fulfilling his God-given purpose. When Lincoln eventually dismissed him for consistently losing battles to a far inferior enemy and failing to follow orders to pursue the enemy (Abraham Lincoln Association, 1989), McClellan blamed his failings on Lincoln and became the Democratic candidate to unseat Lincoln in the next election.

Meanwhile, the contempt McClellan felt for Lincoln showed early in his tenure as the general in chief. Arriving in Washington D.C. for the grand celebration to honor the new general, McClellan would not call on Lincoln at the White House. So, Lincoln walked across town and personally called on McClellan. McClellan retired without acknowledging the president. Not exactly a good way to start their relationship. And it deteriorated from there. 

Lincoln chose Ambrose Burnsides to replace McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln mistook Burnside's hesitance and declarations of incompetence as humility, leading to tragic results in Fredricksburg. This led to Lincoln's selecting Joseph Hooker, who had the opposite temperament of Burnside. While Burnside was self-deprecating and lacked confidence, Hooker was flashy and supremely self-confident and had spent considerable effort undermining his superior, Burnside. Lincoln was willing to overlook that and give him the chance to prove his muster.

Hooker reorganized the Army and boosted the morale of his troops. This was the point where Owen had the "distinct pleasure of meeting President Abraham Lincoln." During a Grand Review, Lincoln personally inspected the freshly reorganized and motivated Army of the Potomac in Chancellsorsville, Virginia. However, despite Hooker's impressive display, a surprise attack from an inferior enemy in his first major battle at Chancellorsville led to a disastrous stampede to retreat, with a dazed Hooker among the first to evacuate the field of battle. 

The failures of Lincoln's generals took a heavy toll on the morale and lives of soldiers, who wished for their own Lee, Jackson, or even a Napoleon to lead them. The front line soldiers were not alone in questioning the competencies of the generals. Reading his letters and proclamations to these leaders, Lincoln asked questions and recommended actions that the leaders sometimes seemed to ignore (Abraham Lincoln Association, 1989).

Continued military failures contributed to media attacks of Lincoln that were vicious even by today's standards. An anti-war movement opened a new battlefront within the Union, with Copperheads plotting Lincoln's ouster and demanding peace at any cost. Public sentiment started to reflect the images portrayed by the media and Lincoln's enemies at home, especially as emerging photography technology started showing brutal images of war.

In true Lincoln style, perseverance ultimately won, preserving the Union and putting the country on a track toward ensuring the "freedom and humanity" for which Owen and his companions had volunteered to fight. Although a simplification, it can be argued that the Union won through attrition, outlasting an enemy whose inferior resources further dwindled as the war dragged on, accelerated by more capable and relentless military leadership Lincoln selected later in the war.

Important contemporary questions that emerge for today are:

  • What role can humility and perseverance play in improving or impeding leadership effectiveness?
  • How can hiring choices threaten to undermine the mission of our organizations?
  • At what point can perseverance become an escalation of commitment to a failed course of action?


Abraham Lincoln Association (1989). Lincoln: Speeches, letters, miscellaneous writings, presidential messages, and proclamations. New York, NY: Library of America.

Cajal, S. R. (1996). Recollections of my life. Philadelphia: PA. MIT Press.

Duncan, B. (2018). For freedom and humanity: The Civil War Journals of Owen Thomas Wright. Unpublished manuscript.

Evans, W. M. (1995) To Die Game: The story of the Lowry Band, Indian guerillas of reconstruction. Syracuse: NY. Syracuse University Press.

Goodwin, G. D. (2018). Leadership: In turbulent times. New York: NY. Simon & Schuster.

Townsend, G. A. (1872). The Swamp outlaws, or, The North Carolina bandits : being a complete history of the modern Rob Roys and Robin Hood. New York: NY. Robert M. DeWitt.

Images: Sketch of Lincoln reviewing the Army of the Potomac with General Joseph Hooker in Chancellorsville is a sketch by Edwin Forbes in the Library of Congress. Scan of entry from Owen Thomas Wright's Civil War Journal by Brent Duncan, PhD.


(C) 2019 by Brent Duncan, PhD. All rights reserved. This article is adapted from the unpublished manuscript of For freedom and humanity: The Civil War Journals of Owen Thomas Wright by Brent Duncan, Phd and is provided through donnach.com only for the private use of my friends, colleagues, and students. Republication or use outside of personal reading is strictly forbidden without the express permisison of Dr. Brent Duncan.