On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee was leading a Confederate army in retreat from Gettysburg when they were trapped against the rain-swollen Potomac River. The Union army, commanded by General George Meade, pursued the rebels. Abraham Lincoln ordered Meade to attack immediately. Instead, Meade dithered, the weather cleared, the river shrank, and Lee and his army escaped. Lincoln was furious and penned this letter to Meade:
I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few— no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.
Interestingly, Lincoln never sent the letter — it was found among his papers after his death. Lincoln generally praised his colleagues for their positive accomplishments and said little or nothing about their failures. Apparently, he wrote letters like the one to Meade to relieve his own frustrations — and perhaps to leave a record for history — rather than to humiliate his colleagues and create public acrimony.
As Douglas Wilson, a Lincoln scholar, pointed out in a recent article (click here), Lincoln was great communicator but not necessarily in the way we think. Some tidbits on how he worked:
Lincoln has always been one of my favorite presidents and I certainly enjoyed the recent movie from Steven Spielberg. Lincoln communicated effectively and was an expert at shaping public opinion. As the movie showed, he was also adept at cutting deals and rolling logs to achieve his greater goals. Not bad for a kid from the prairies.