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Democracy at War, Part I

Modern democratic war was the warfare of mass armies; the logical end, writes John Terraine, was a weapon of mass destruction.

On April 30th, 1864, President Lincoln addressed a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant, the general-in-chief of the armies of the United States.

Grant was about to commit the Army of the Potomac, the following day, to a crossing of the Rapidan River which would, as it turned out (and as he intended), be the beginning of the last campaign of the Civil War.

Lincoln wrote:

‘Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express to you in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done, so far as I understand it.

The particulars of your plans I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant, and pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you.

While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine.

If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it. And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.’

This was, as an American historian has written, ‘a perfect statement of the command relationship he expected to exist between himself and Grant’.

It is also, for the student of modern democracies at war, full of ironical overtones.

Lincoln’s words to Grant recall others, on other occasions.

In May 1917, for example, the French and British civil and military leaders met in Paris to reshape plans in the aftermath of the well-nigh disastrous opening of General Nivelle’s offensive on the Aisne in April.

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