Lincoln, Churchill, & Soldiers

Abraham Lincoln and Soldiers and Sailors

About 725,000 Americans, North and South, died in the Civil War. In World War II, about 726,000 military personnel from the United States (400,000) and the United Kingdom (326,000) were killed. By the end of the way, the Allied Army in Europe stood at 4.5 million soldiers. About 62,000 British civilians were killed. Those casualties – although catastrophic – are dwarfed by the total number of World War II casualties – estimates of which usually begin at 48 million. In the Soviet Union alone, about 20 million died. In Poland, nearly 6 million. In China, about 10 million. As the Allied invasion of Sicily commenced on July 10, 1943, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill played cards with his daughter-in-law to pass the time. Pamela Churchill recalled Churchill saying: “So many brave young men going to their death tonight. It is a grave responsibility.”

President Abraham Lincoln had a strong and almost mystical devotion to ordinary American soldiers. He closed a letter to New York City Mayor George Opdyke : “Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bear his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause — honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.”1 Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that “Anything that savored of the wit and humor of the soldiers was especially welcome to Lincoln…any incident that showed that ‘the boys’ were mirthful and jolly in their privations seemed to commend itself to him.” Lincoln told some soldiers he encountered at [Alexander] Gardener’s photographic studio: “Soldiers come first everywhere, these days. Black-coats are at a discount in the presence of the blue, and I recognize the merit of the discount.”2 Lincoln enjoyed “a very special relationship with Union troops, who affectionately called him ‘Uncle Abe’ and ‘Father Abraham.’ His unpretentious manner, common looks, and homespun ways appealed to ordinary soldiers, who felt a kinship with him,” wrote Lincoln scholar William E. Gienapp.3

Robert Brewster Stanton saw Lincoln review soldiers under George McClellan, probably in the fall of 1861: “This was one time when I saw him, as he rode down the line, when his face ‘seemed never to change. His eyes then were not listless, his whole countenance beamed with one expression—that of pride in the thoroughly organized army that he believed would bring victory.”4 Gienapp observed: “When he reviewed the troops, he did not cut a dashing figure on horseback (one of Grant’s aides said he reminded him of ‘a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes’), but the men spontaneously broke into cheers as he rode by.”5 Lincoln never forgot, however, the price and tragedy of war. President Lincoln wrote the daughter of a friend who had fallen in battle: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to us all; and, to the young, it comes with the bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it….Perfect relief is not possible, except with time.”6

At the beginning of their respective conflicts, both President Lincoln and Prime Minister Churchill worried that their countries’ soldiers might not be good enough to compete with their adversaries.7 Lincoln’s respect for active soldiers did not mitigate his concern about leakage from the front ranks. In November 1862, he told two Chicago visitors that they should observe the number of soldiers on northbound trains. “You will find the trains and every conveyance crowded with them. You won’t find a city on the route, a town, or a village, where soldiers and officers on furlough are not plenty as blackberries. There are whole regiments that have two-thirds of their men absent – a great many by desertion, and a great many on leave granted by company officers, which is almost as bad. General [George B.] McClellan is all the time calling for more troops, more troops, and they are sent to him, but the deserters and furloughed men outnumber the recruits. To fill up the army is like undertaking to shovel fleas.”8

It wasn’t just the battle-readiness of the Americans that the British worried about. After a series of devastating reverses from 1940 to 1942, British leaders also worried about the ability of their own soldiers to stand up to Germans. Even Churchill observed in 1942: “If Rommel’s army were all Germans, they would beat us.”9 In February 1942 after the fall of Singapore without a fight, Churchill’s friend Violet Bonham Carter observed Churchill, “and for the first time in their long friendship she had found him depressed. He was querulous about criticism, unhappy at not consenting to take office, worried by the absence of alternative Ministers whom he could invite to join the Government. But underneath it all was a dreadful fear, she felt that our soldiers are not as good fighters as their fathers were.” Churchill said: “We have so many men in Singapore, so many men – they should have done better.”10 Similarly, by 1862, northerners had to struggle with the notion that perhaps the Confederates were better soldiers than their Union counterparts.

In July 1862, Generals Irvin McDowell and Winfield Scott argued that Union troops were too green for battle. President Lincoln said: “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.”11 In June 1942, the Roosevelt Administration arranged for Prime Minister Churchill to observe American troops training at Camp Jackson in South Carolina. “The troops were obviously green, and in reply to a question by the Prime Minister, I ventured the opinion that it would be murder to pit them against continental soldiery. Churchill agreed that they were still immature, but added that they were magnificent material who would soon train on.”12

Eight months later, Churchill wrote King George VI to praise the soldiers of the 8th Army “comprising together about 160,000 men….perhaps the best troops in the world. I look confidently forward to their entry into action….It may well be that the enemy is wasting strength on a false assumption that we are all as green as the Americans, and will give [General Bernard] Montgomery an earlier chance” at military success. Churchill added: “I need scarcely say that no word of mine is intended in disparagement of the Americans. They are brave but not seasoned troops, who will not hesitate to learn from defeat, and who will improve themselves by suffering until all their strongest martial qualities have come to the front.”13

Soldiers on leave often stopped by the Lincoln White House – to attend a reception or seek an interview. Lincoln’s respect for enlisted men ran deep. Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled: “Whenever he appeared in the portico, on his way to or from the War or Treasury Department, or on any excursion down the avenue, the first glimpse of him was, of course, the signal for the sentinel on duty to ‘present arms.’ This was always acknowledged by Mr. Lincoln with a peculiar bow and touch of the hat, no matter how many times it might occur in the course of a day; and it always seemed to me as much of a compliment to the devotion of the soldiers, on his part, as it was the sign of duty and deference on the part of the guard.”

On June 21, 1864, President Lincoln visited the Union war front near City Point, Virginia. According to journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader, “On the way out many persons recognized Mr. Lincoln. The news soon spread, and on the return ride, the road was lined with weather-beaten veterans, anxious to catch a glimpse of ‘Old Abe.’ One cavalry private had known him in Illinois. Mr. Lincoln shook him by the hand, as an old familiar acquaintance, to the infinite admiration of all bystanders.”14 When Union army units returned home, they often paraded through Washington. Speaking to the 148th Ohio Regiment in August 1864, Lincoln said: “I admonish you not to be turned from your stern purpose of defending your beloved country and its free institutions by any arguments urged by ambitious and designing men, but stand fast to the Union and the old flag.”15

Homer Anderson, who had been working at a Sanitary Commission hospital near City Point, Virginia, recalled that on April 8, “President Lincoln came to our hospital to see the sick and wounded. All the soldiers who were able to be about were formed in a line of single rank, front face, and the President walked the full length of the long line and shook the hand of each man and said a word to him. Then he went through all the tents and shook hands with every man who occupied a cot.”16 Another witness to Lincoln’s visit was French journalist, the Marquis de Chambrun: “Our visit began with the hospitals of the Fifth Corps. Mr. Lincoln went from one bed to another, saying a friendly word to each wounded man, or at least giving him a handshake. It was principally the Fifth Corps’s mounted infantry which had been in battle under Sheridan during the preceding days; it had fought incessantly from Petersburg to Burkesville, over a distance of more than a hundred miles, and the enemy’s fire had made cruel havoc in its ranks. The greater number of wounds were located in the abdominal regions, and were therefore of a serious character, and caused much suffering.

“During these moments, when physical torture makes one nearly lose all self-control, the American displays a sort of stoicism which has nothing of affectation. A control, nearly absolute, over himself is the distinctive trait of his nature; it manifests itself in all phases of his life – in the depth of the wilderness, as well as upon the field of battle. His life is an incessant struggle, and when he falls in that struggle in which his life is at stake, he will suffer without complaining, for by complaining he would deem that he is lowering himself. Strange men they are, whom many approach and cannot understand, but who explain to him who does understand them the true greatness of their land.
Following Mr. Lincoln in this long review of the wounded, we reached a bed on which lay a dying man; he was a captain, aged twenty-four years, who had been noticed for his bravery. Two of his friends were near him; one held his hand, while the other read a passage from the Bible in a low voice. Mr. Lincoln walked over to him and took hold of his other hand, which rested on the bed. We formed a circle around him, and every one of us remained silent. Presently the dying man half-opened his eyes; a faint smile passed over his lips. It was then that his pulse ceased beating.17

Teenage Robert Brewster Stanton, who volunteered in the army hospitals in the nation’s capital, later wrote one of Lincoln’s visits: “As he alighted from his carriage and entered the building, particularly toward the end of the war, I was impressed by the sadness of his countenance. It seemed as though all the suffering in that hospital had come out to meet him and had entered into his face. As he went along the rows of cots, pausing here and there and leaning over some especially suffering lad to speak a kind word or two, the sadness of his face did not entirely disappear, but over it came a light and such a bright, cheering, though gentle smile that his whole countenance was illumined by something more than human interest, as sympathy and love came out to the boy, from his very soul. Those were some of the times when I felt that no one could see in that charming face anything except beauty.”18

Prime Minister Churchill took office the very same day in May 1940 that German forces began their onslaught on the low countries and eventually France. Ten British divisions were serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. “There will be many men and many women in this island who, when the ordeal comes upon them, as come it will, will feel comfort and even a pride, that they are sharing the perils of our lads at the Front – soldiers, sailors and airmen – and are drawing away from them a part….of the onslaught they have to bear,” said Prime Minister Churchill in the first BBC broadcast on May 19, 1940. “Our task is not only to win the battle, but to win the war – for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.” Churchill combined both a realistic assessment of the challenges British faced with an optimistic assessment of British determination, saying “if the French retain that genius for recovery and counter-attack for which they had so long been famous; and if the British Army shows the dogged endurance and solid fighting power of which there have been so many examples in the past – then a sudden transformation of the scene might spring into being.”19

Like Lincoln, Churchill entertained a deep respect for the sacrifices made by his country’s soldiers. Churchill “never liked hearing of human losses and sufferings, and he did what he could – more, sometimes, that his commanders liked – to minimise them,” wrote historian Geoffrey Best.20 “Mr. Churchill…rarely failed to inject into most conferences some element of emotion,” recalled General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “One day a British general happened to refer to soldiers, in the technical language of the British staff officer, as ‘bodies.’ The Prime Minister interrupted with an impassioned speech of condemnation – he said it was inhuman to talk of soldiers in such cold-blooded fashion, and that it sounded as if they were merely freight – or worse – corpses! I must confess I always felt the same way about the expression, but on that occasion my sympathies were with the staff officer, who to his own obvious embarrassment had innocently drawn on himself the displeasure of the Prime Minister.”21

There were always echoes of the Crispin-Crispian Day speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V in the prime minister’s wartime rhetoric. Churchill said to the soldiers of the Eighth Army near Tripoli on February 3, 1943: “After the war when a man is asked what he did it will be quite sufficient to say ‘I marched and fought in the Desert Army.’ And when history is written…your feats will gleam and glow and will be a source of song and story long after we who are gathered here have passed away.”22 Churchill liked nothing so much as visiting troops – especially as near the front as generals would allow him. In late July, 1944, Churchill visited the growing Allied beach head in France. After Churchill’s visit, one British officer wrote to thank him for his visit to an artillery battery: “I know how much you enjoy getting near the battle, but also I would like to tell you how tremendously pleased, heartened and honoured every soldier was by your visit. It means very much to them that you should wish to come and see them at work in their gun pits.”23

Churchill had long worried about the success of the Normandy invasion scheduled for the spring of 1944 and insisted on a long-build up and preparation before it could be mounted. Othereise, he faced slaughter and defeat. Historian Andrew Roberts wrote: “As the Normandy landings and their immediate aftermath showed, numerical superiority and complete control of the air were necessary for victory, which even then in view of the Germans’ formidable capacity for counter-attack was not a foregone conclusion. However unpalatable it might be to admit it, the statistics allow no doubt: soldier for soldier the German fighting man and his generals outperformed Britons, Americans and Russians both offensively and defensively by a significant factor virtually throughout the Second World War.”24 Churchill pushed British troops to fight. But he also pushed to make sure they had adequate provisions. Churchill’s concern for British soldiers included their spirits. In late October 1944 while visiting Naples, Churchill wrote: “The Americans are said to have four bottles [of beer] a week and the British rarely get one…..Let me have a plan with time schedule for this beer.”25

For Churchill and Lincoln, their relationships with soldiers and seamen were personal – and their feelings were reciprocated. They respected men who fought, regardless of their uniform. After the Yalta summit conference in February 1945, Churchill reviewed a Russian honor guard: “I inspected them, using my usual method of looking every single man in the eye as I walked along the line. This took a long time as there was at least two hundred – both ranks. This was much commented on favorably in the Russian press. These were the flower of the Soviet armies.”26

Both Lincoln and Churchill appreciated of the valor of fighting men. The night President Lincoln was shot, the play’s cast was scheduled to sing “Honor to Our Soldiers.” The night’s tragedy was that the cast never got to sing it. There can be no doubt, however, that both Lincoln and Churchill never ceased to believe it. “I do not suppose that at any moment in history has the agony of the world been so great or widespread,” said Churchill to his daughter in February 1945 at the Yalta summit conference. “To-night the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the World.”27

For Further Reference

  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VII, p. 32 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George Opdyke, December 2, 1863).
  2. John L. Cunningham, Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment, 8th New York Volunteers Infantry, p. 52.
  3. William E. Gienapp, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography, p. 175.
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 344 (Century Magazine, February 1920).
  5. William E. Gienapp, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography, p.175.
  6. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 16-17 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862).
  7. Historian Trevor Dupuy noted: “On a man for man basis the German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 per cent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had local air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.” Trevor A. Dupuy, A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1907-1945, pp. 253-254.
  8. Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War, pp. 555-557.
  9. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 287, 219.
  10. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 211 (February 12, 1942).
  11. Reinhold Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln, p. 290.
  12. Hastings Lionel Ismay, The Memoirs of General The Lord Ismay, p. 256.
  13. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 348.
  14. Benjamin P. Thomas, editor, Three Years with Grant as Recalled by War Correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, p. 233.
  15. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 529 (Speech to 148th Ohio Regiment, August 3, 1864).
  16. Homer Anderson, “When I saw Lincoln, Address at the Sixth Annual Lincoln Banquet,” February 12, 1909.
  17. Adolphe Pineton, the Marquis de Chambrun, Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln.
  18. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 352 (Century Magazine, February 1920).
  19. Winston Churchill, BBC broadcast, May 19, 1940.
  20. Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War, p. 186.
  21. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 242.
  22. Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 295
  23. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 860 (Letter from William Stirling, July 23, 1944).
  24. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 581.
  25. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1036 (October 23, 1944).
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1220.
  27. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1182.
Posted in Essays