Lincoln and Churchill: Pacing and Prodding

Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were pacers.  Lincoln paced in hall of the second floor of the White House, usually at night.  Churchill paced in the Great Hall of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s weekend getaway – even later at night and sometimes into the morning.

When they paced, they thought, they worried, they strategized, and ruminated on how to push their respective countries along the road victory. Soon after the Confederates bombed Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, President Lincoln mobilized America for war, but Union troops from the North were slow to arrive in Washington.  On the afternoon of April 23, Lincoln paced the second floor of the White House for about a half hour before he halted and looked out the window facing the Potomac River.  “Why don’t they [the troops] come!  Why don’t they come!” complained the President.[1]

Once the Union troops arrived in the region around the federal capital, Lincoln would have reason to complain about why they did not win.  Union defeat seemed to follow bloody Union defeat.  When in May 1863, Lincoln received news of the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, he became “so broke, so dispirited,” reported journalist Noah Brooks. “My God! my God! What will the country say? What will the country say!” the President lamented as he paced the White House floor.””[2]

As an historian, Winston Churchill was sympathetic to General McClellan and critical of Lincoln’s handling in 1862 of his slow commander of the Army of the Potomac.  As Prime Minister, Winston Churchill became even more impatient in handling his commanders in the Middle East — General Archibald Wavell in 1941 and General Claude Auchinleck in 1942.  At Chequers in late July 1940 what was dubbed the “Mad Hatter’s Dinner Party,” an impatient Churchill declared: “You soldiers are all alike: you have no imagination.”[3]

“I’m certainly not one of those who need to be prodded; in fact, if anything, I am the prod.”  For Winston Churchill, there was no respite from total war.  When General Hastings Ismay asked late one night if he could go to bed, Churchill responded: “Well, if you don’t care who wins the war, go ahead.”[4]

Working with Churchill was not a job for the fainthearted.  General Edmund Ironside observed in early July 1940: “It is difficult to tackle Winston when he is in one of his go-getter humours.”[5]   The Prime Minister’s bodyguard recalled: “Churchill likes to take the military clank out of heavily decorated aides and flunkeys, when he thinks they need it, by jabbing them in the belly or blowing smoke into their faces, so instead of clanking fearsomely they merely tinkle sweetly like toys.”[6]

An aide recalled that one morning Churchill “needed some special information from the Admiralty.  He asked me to telephone the Admiralty offices and get a Captain So-and-so.  The captain was a super-conscientious naval officer, as proud of his four stripes as he was of his meticulousness in office matters.  I handed the phone to Mr. Churchill when the captain was on.  ‘Good morning, Captain.  This is Winston Churchill.  I want you to look up for me – ‘I’ll call you back first thing this afternoon, Mr. Churchill.’  ‘No, I’ll wait,’ said Winston and he left the telephone open, immediately laying it down on the bed before the captain could say anything that Winston could hear.  He grinned at me mischievously.  While the Prime Minister went on working, the captain began to dig.  He was soon back with what Churchill wanted.  Three minutes.  He thanked him and hung up, then grinned at me again.  ‘They can always find it faster if they have to find it themselves.’”[7]

All in the British government were subject to the Prime Minister’s prodding and his reversals of judgment.  When a Churchill colleague “put to the War Cabinet a suggestion for a bold military stroke, Oliver Lyttelton dissented on the grounds that it would take two months to prepare,” wrote historian David Dilks.  “The infuriated Churchill said ‘I have never heard in all my life a more idiotic suggestion advanced by a senior Minister of the Crown.  Always an excuse for doing nothing.’  There then raged for hours an argument when [Deputy Prime Minister Clement] Atlee would probably have settled in 15 minutes….At last the Prime Minister summed up: ‘In short, we unanimously adopt the idiotic suggestion of the Minister of Production.’”[8]

In 1940, Churchill pushed to have reinforcements of British forces in Egypt made by a convoy through the Mediterranean rather than the much longer but safer trip around the horn of Africa.  “I am not impressed by the fact that Admiral [Andrew] Cunningham reiterates his views.  Naturally they all stand together like doctors in a case which has gone wrong.  The fact remains that an exaggerated fear of Italian aircraft has been allowed to hamper operations.”[9]

Churchill told aide John Martin that his mantra was “Keep jogging along.”[10]  Movement was important.  Churchill bodyguard Walter H. Thompson wrote: “Winston is never discourteous but always impatient [in dealing with secretaries].  He will give an unintelligible, if somewhat weary, repetition of words not distinguishable at the first hearing.  One has to measure the probability of his impatience by the look and the sound of him.  Many times a guess, however wild, is infinitely preferable to asking, ‘What did you say, sir?’  Winston’s impatience, without ever showing the least rudeness, can produce the most primitive wrath.  It is hard to explain how the one can be so extreme without a suggestion of the presence of the other, but it is true.”[11]

Churchill hated delay and inaction.  At a Defence Committee meeting in August 1941, the Prime Minister advised General Claude Auchinleck in North Africa that “the war could not be waged on the basis of waiting until everything was ready.  He thought that it was a frightful prospect that nothing should be done for four and a half months at a time when a small German army was having the greatest difficulty in so much as existing….He was ready to authorise quite exceptional measures if by any means a battle could be brought on earlier than November.”[12]

Churchill continued to press his Mideast commander. On October 18, 1941 Churchill telegraphed Auchinleck: “It is impossible to explain to Parliament and the nation how it is our Middle East armies had to stand for 4½ months without engaging the enemy while all the time Russia is being battered to pieces.  I have hitherto managed to prevent public discussion, but at any time it may break out.”[13]

The impulsive Churchill was more volatile than Lincoln.  Lincoln’s patience was legendary but not inexhaustible.  “A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit,” said Lincoln in early 1865.  “Let him attempt to force the process and he may spoil both fruit and tree.  But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at the length falls into his lap.”[14]

The President’s patience and perseverance required constant application.  “What shall I do,” asked Lincoln plaintively in January 1862.  “The people are impatient; Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever.  The bottom is out of the tub.”[15]  In an attempt to get General George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac into prompt action, Lincoln issued “General War Order No. 1″ proclaiming a general advance for February 22, 1862.  Shortly thereafter, Lincoln removed the procrastinating McClellan from overall command of the Union armies.  Patience would yield to action, then perseverance.

Both Lincoln and Churchill were opportunists in the best sense — constantly looking for likely opportunities to achieve victory.  “He is an unwise man,” said Churchill in the autumn of 1941, “who thinks that there is any certain method of winning this war.  The only plan is to persevere.”[16]  Lincoln aide John Hay observed in late 1862 that “if the Tycoon [Lincoln] had kept his fingers from meddling with the war, we should now have had neither war nor government, I think.”[17]

[1]  Donald Herbert Donald, Lincoln in the Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 110.

   Noah Brooks,  Abraham Lincoln, p. 358.

  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 685.

  Richard T. Holmes, Churchill’s Bunker, p. 108.

  Roderick MacLeod and Denis Kelly, editors, The Ironside Diaries, 1937-1940, p. 383 (July 9, 1940).

  Walter H. Thompson, Assignment: Churchill, p. 98.

[7]  Man of the Century: A Churchill Cavalcade, p. 164.

  David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 55.

  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 772.

  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 817.

   Walter H. Thompson, Assignment: Churchill, p. 184.

   Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1150.

   Winston S. Churchill,  The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, p. 481.

  Michael Burlingame, editor At Lincoln’s Side, pp. 50-51 (Letter from John Hay to Charles Halpine, August 14, 1863).

   James A. Rawley, A Lincoln Reader, p. 182.

   Walter Reid, Churchill 1940-1945, Under Friendly Fire, p. 122.

  Michael Burlingame, editor At Lincoln’s Side, pp. 50-51 (Letter from John Hay to Charles Halpine, August 14, 1863)

Posted in Essays