The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

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Chapter 4. Clausewitz in America

There is little reason to question that the foreign military writer best known in the United States in the decades before the Civil War was Antoine-Henri Jomini. Jomini himself, however, occasionally mentioned Clausewitz. Although these references were usually critical, Clausewitz and Archduke Charles of Austria are virtually the only other theorists mentioned in the text of his Summary of the Art of War.

A detailed assessment of the impact of Clausewitz and Jomini on each other will probably have to await Jomini's biographer, but Jomini's Summary, the book for which he was best known in the United States, was obviously written in part as a reaction to On War. He made a number of adjustments in his presentation in order to adapt to what he evidently perceived (but would not acknowledge) as legitimate points in Clausewitz's argument. Thus Jomini's American and British disciples, if they read their master closely, were already receiving an indirect Clausewitzian influence.

The full extent of Jomini's critique (and thus also advertisement) of Clausewitz is often missed because the standard English translation today is the 1862 Mendell/Craighill version, in which there are only two direct references to him. Neither conveys very much beyond Jomini's disdain.[*1] The translation with which most American officers trained before the Civil War would have been familiar is the Winship/McLean translation of 1854.[*2] This version contained the extensive bibliographical note by Jomini, missing in the later translation, that discussed Clausewitz in more--and highly pejorative--detail. In itself, that discussion still does little to clarify Clausewitz's thoughts, but it is so prominent that one would think that it would have drawn some attention to his book. Evidently not. Perhaps Jomini's description of Vom Kriege as "pretentious ... a learned labyrinth ... metaphysical and skeptical" was enough to dampen any incipient interest.

The foremost American expert on Jomini was probably Henry Wager Halleck, Lincoln's chief of staff during the Civil War. "Old Brains," as Halleck came to be known, had translated Jomini's Life of Napoleon and was intimately familiar with the Summary.[*3] Halleck was definitely aware of Clausewitz and presumably had some notion of his ideas. His greatest source of inspiration may, however, have been neither Jomini nor Clausewitz, but Archduke Charles. Halleck's work on the law of war shows no sign of either Clausewitz's name or influence, despite many areas to which his arguments are relevant.[*4] On the other hand, Clausewitz's works are listed three times in the chapter bibliographies in Halleck's 1846 Elements of Military Art and Science, which repeat none of Jomini's negative remarks.[*5] He might also have seen Duparcq's commentary on Clausewitz; he certainly was aware of Duparcq's Eléments d'art et d'histoire militaire, since he had lent his name to advertisements of an 1863 translation.[*6] Clausewitz's discussion of civil-military relations might not have sat well with him, however: "We must regard ... particularly the civil and military authorities in the [enemy] state, for if the latter be made entirely subordinate, we may very safely calculate on erroneous combinations."[*7]

Despite Jomini's clear dominance in this period, there has been considerable speculation about an early Clausewitzian influence in America. Colonel Thomas Griess, for example, in his 1968 dissertation on Dennis Hart Mahan, observed that certain elements in Mahan's thinking about the relationship between war and policy seemed to go beyond those of his usual guide, Jomini. He questioned whether Mahan might have been influenced by Clausewitz, but this discussion was clearly speculative.[*8]

There have also been many suggestions that Lincoln was familiar with Clausewitz's theories, largely because those theories seem to many to be so compatible with his management of the Northern war effort. Nathaniel Wright Stephenson had Lincoln reading Clausewitz in his 1922 biography. So did Carl Sandburg in 1939. Even the fiction writer Gore Vidal, in his novel Lincoln, shows the President studying and applying Clausewitz's ideas.[*9] Few of these suggestions are accompanied by evidence, however, and some are highly ambiguous.[*10] T. Harry Williams accused "the modernist" interpreters of the Civil War of having "insinuated into interpretations of the war the idea that his victorious strategy was inspired by the theories of Clausewitz."[*11]

These suggestions have been rejected by others, again without evidence, based on the assumptions that On War was unknown in the English-speaking world until 1873 and that Lincoln did not read French or German.[*12] Vidal got around the latter problem by having John Hay translate. (Hay was Lincoln's personal secretary and later was secretary of state, from 1898 to 1905.) Hay's own published works, however, makes no certain reference to Clausewitz (although Hay's and John G. Nicolay's biography of Lincoln, published in 1890, makes some intriguing statements, discussed later). There were also several German-born generals prominent in the Union army. Julius Stahel (Számvald) was actually Hungarian, a former lieutenant in the Austrian army. Sigel had been a lieutenant in the army of the Grand Duchy of Baden; Schimmelfennig, a Prussian engineer officer; and Steinwehr, a lieutenant in the army of Brunswick. Among them, the only likely candidate as purveyor of Clausewitzian ideas to Lincoln is Carl Schurz (1829-1906).

Schurz, a native Prussian, did indeed mention in his memoirs that he had studied both Clausewitz and Jomini, evidently as a young revolutionary in Germany and again in 1861.[*13] He had participated as a student in Bonn in the revolution of 1848. Shortly thereafter he came as a refugee to the United States, where he soon joined the antislavery movement. As a delegate to the Republican convention of 1860, he supported Lincoln. He was rewarded with a posting as minister to Spain in 1861. From Spain, he offered the president the benefit of his military knowledge: "Some things I know by the personal experience gathered in a campaign before the enemy and of others I have acquired a knowledge by study."[*14] He soon returned and became a brigadier general of volunteers, fighting at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga. Schurz definitely had strong interests in both politics and war, particularly revolutionary war. He had reformist social views, which—as we have seen in the British case—often accompanied an openness to Clausewitz's ideas. He certainly had access to Lincoln.

"Schurz," wrote the British military commentator F.N. Maude to a correspondent in 1928, "was in frequent conference with Lincoln on politico-military matters just when McClellan was starting for the peninsula. This of course is not conclusive proof, but to my mind it helps to account for Lincoln's clear grasp of the fact that war is a phase of political action." Maude also saw Clausewitz's hand in a dispute between Lincoln and McClellan in which the president forced his general to organize corps-level headquarters: Although McClellan was "familiar with the army corps as the French then understood it ... he apparently was not familiar with Clausewitz's reasoning on the maximum number of divisions that can be handled, as such, through a single headquarters without the imposition of corps headquarters."[*15]

In the absence of better evidence, however, this argument tells us less about Lincoln, Clausewitz, Schurz, and the strategy of the Civil War than it does about the inherent uncertainties in the transmission of ideas. McClellan's reluctance to establish intermediate headquarters appears to have been in actuality a question of timing and personalities rather than of military theory. As for war and politics, the statement that "war is a continuation of politics by other means" is important not because Clausewitz said it but because it reflects a fundamental reality. That reality wouldd have been obvious to a professional politician in the throes of a political crisis that had led to war.

What is surprising is not this insight but that Lincoln should have had the self-confidence and strength of will to pursue it over the resistance of men with what must have seemed far better credentials than his own. Although such strength of character is consistent with Clausewitz's view of "military genius" (which has much more to do with personality than with intellect), we can be sure that it did not come out of any book, and most assuredly not at second hand. Lincoln hardly needed to read Clausewitz to have taken the approach he did, any more than Grant needed to read him to be a near-perfect exemplar of Clausewitz's concept of the ideal general. Lincoln's own writings on military subjects are couched in Jominian terms.

Grant's generalship is frequently called Clausewitzian, as often in a reproachful tone as in praise. Although the term is correct insofar as it is applied to Grant's temperament and Clausewitz's description of military genius, most such comparisons have emphasized the concept of absolute war and likened it to the brand of total war waged by Grant and Sherman in 1864/65. However, Grant's subtle perception of the interrelationship of war and politics provides a much better basis for connecting his ideas with those of Clausewitz. "If [to Grant] the Civil War was politics by other means, then Reconstruction was in some sense a continuation of the struggle to achieve through political means the aims for which the war was fought."[*16]

U.S. Army War College historian Jay Luvaas poked some fun at post hoc ergo propter hoc attempts to impute Union strategy to the Prussian philosopher's influence. For demonstration purposes, he invented a letter from Grant indicating that his actions had been influenced by conversations with a staff officer of German origin, who had quoted Clausewitz at some length. Luvaas's point, of course, was to demonstrate the difficulty of tracing the transmission of intellectual concepts, especially ones that are essentially common sense and thus liable to frequent reinvention.[*17]

The close parallels between Clausewitz's more extreme notions and W.T. Sherman's conduct of war have often been noted.[*18] (B.H. Liddell Hart, who admired Sherman and continually attacked the Prussian, naturally made no such comparison.)[*19] The intellectual Sherman would seem a much better candidate for that kind of speculation than either Lincoln or Grant, but it seems that no one has ever suggested that he had read On War.

In John Hay's and John G. Nicolay's biography of Lincoln, published in 1890, there is one passage that comes tantalizingly close to establishing some kind of a connection between Clausewitz's views and those of Lincoln's closest circle. Discussing the disaster of the first battle of Bull Run, Hay and Nicolay observed that

Historical judgment of war is subject to an inflexible law, either very imperfectly understood or very constantly lost sight of. Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess-board, always subordinating, often totally ignoring, the element of politics. This is a radical error. Every war is begun, dominated, and ended by political considerations; without a nation, without a government, without money or credit, without popular enthusiasm which furnishes volunteers, or public support which endures conscription, there could be no army and no war—neither beginning nor end of methodical hostilities. War and politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese twins, inseparable and interdependent; and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an Administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay, or rations.

Applied to the Bull Run campaign, this law of historical criticism analyses and fixes the responsibilities of government and commanders with easy precision. When Lincoln, on June 29, assembled his council of war, the commanders, as military experts, correctly decided that the existing armies—properly handled—could win a victory at Manassas and a victory at Winchester, at or near the same time. General Scott correctly objected that these victories, if won, would not be decisive; and that in a military point of view it would be wiser to defer any offensive campaign until the following autumn. Here the President and the Cabinet, as political experts, intervened, and on their part decided, correctly, that the public temper would not admit of such a delay. Thus the administration was responsible for the forward movement, Scott was responsible for the combined strategy of the two armies, McDowell for the conduct of the Bull Run battle, Patterson for the escape of Johnston, and Fate for the panic; for the opposing forces were equally raw, equally undisciplined, and as a whole fought with equal courage and gallantry.[*20]

This passage clearly reflects the practical experience of the war, and it is easy to ascribe the close parallels to Clausewitz's exposition on war and politics to the very nature of the idea being expressed. The reference to a "law of historical criticism" and the ensuing analysis, however, is so redolent of Clausewitz's discussion of "critical analysis" that some firm connection is easy to suspect. But such a suspicion must remain only that, for there is no clear reference to the Prussian theorist. In any case, by 1890 Clausewitz's works were readily available in English. There is no evidence that this analysis reflects the conscious thought process of Lincoln's cabinet in 1861.

Nonetheless, Halleck's references, Schurz's knowledge, Jomini's comments on Clausewitz (especially as reported in the 1854 translation), the 1843 translation of Clausewitz's study of the Russian campaign, Wellington's "famous" response to Clausewitz's Campaign of 1815, the French translations and commentary, Mitchell's work in England, and the appearance of the 1835 article on Clausewitz in Britain and in the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States make untenable the assumption that Clausewitz's name and important aspects of his theories were inaccessible to American political and military figures in the Civil War era. Thus a Clausewitzian influence on Lincoln or on others in his circle remains a real possibility. In the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, the question must remain open. 

NOTES to Chapter 5

1. Baron de Jomini, trans. Capt. G.H. Mendell and Lieut. W.P. Craighill [USA], The Art of War (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1862; reprinted, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971). Overt references to Clausewitz appear on pp. 166 and 178.

2. Jomini, trans. Winship and McLean, Summary of the Art of War. The copy I examined had been owned by Philip St. George Cooke, J.E.B. Stuart's father-in-law.

3. Henri Jomini, trans. H.W. Halleck, The Life of Napoleon (New York: D. Van Nostrand; London: N. Trübner and Co., 1864).

4. Henry Wager Halleck, Elements of International Law and Laws of War (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1872).

5. Halleck, Elements of Military Art and Science. I am uncertain whether Halleck read German, but he cited many German works.

6. Nicolas Édouard Delabarre-Duparcq, trans./ed. Brigadier General George W. Cullum, Elements of Military Art and History (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863).

7. Halleck, Elements of Military Art and Science, 136.

8. Colonel Thomas E. Griess, "Dennis Hart Mahan: West Point Professor and Advocate of Military Professionalism, 1830-1871" (Dissertation, Duke University, 1968), 317-326.

9. Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, Lincoln: An Account of his Personal Life (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1922), 286; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), v.3, 187; Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (New York: Ballantine, 1984), 248. For reasons I cannot quite fathom, Russell Weigley, "Military Strategy and Civilian Leadership," disagrees about the compatibility between Clausewitz's ideas and Lincoln's conduct of the war.

10. See, for example, G.F.R. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1898), 309. Henderson was being sarcastic about a Lincoln he despised; it is unclear whether he was actually suggesting that the president had read Clausewitz.

11. See T. Harry Williams, "The Return of Jomini: Some Thoughts on Recent Civil War Writing," Military Affairs, December 1975, 204-206. He cited no specific instances, but was probably talking about J.F.C. Fuller, among others. He may also have been referring to articles like Errol MacGregor Clauss, "Sherman's Failure at Atlanta," Georgia Historical Quarterly, v.53 (1969), no.3, 321-329. Clauss suggested that Sherman's campaign was a failure because it did not meet the standards set forth by Clausewitz in his Principles of War. See also Archer Jones, "Jomini and the Strategy of the American Civil War: A Reinterpretation," Military Affairs, XXXIV, December 1970, 127-131

12. U.S. General John McAuley Palmer, Washington, Lincoln, Wilson: Three War Statesmen (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1930), 233, states that Lincoln had, in fact, "made some study of German," but doubted that he could have read "so abstruse a book in the original."

13. Carl Schurz, ed. Carl L. [Lincoln] Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, v.2 (New York: McClure, 1907), 273.

14. Schurz to Lincoln, 13 August 1862, Lincoln Papers (Library of Congress). Schurz's advice to Lincoln contains no specific references or any particularly suggestive lines. Schurz was profoundly aware of political factors (see esp. Schurz to Lincoln, 5 April 1861), but then Schurz, like Lincoln, was a politician.

15. Letter, F.N. Maude to Palmer, December 10, 1928, John McAuley Palmer Papers (Library of Congress). Palmer developed the idea in Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, 233-248, 257-258. Palmer also discussed the idea with the British General Colin R. Ballard, who had published The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London, 1926; New York: World Publishing Company, 1952). Ballard rejected the notion, however. Ballard to Palmer, January 26, 1929.

16. Brooks Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chaper Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), xv-xvii, 266.

17. Jay Luvaas, "Clausewitz and the American Experience," unpublished lecture delivered at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, 1982-87.

18. E.g., Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 353-354.

19. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1929).

20. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, v.IV (New York: The Century Co., 1890), 359-360.

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