Brian Dirck Interview
Professor of History / Abraham Lincoln blogger
For more than 5 years, Brian Dirck has dedicated much of his time to the creation of a most-informative blog on one of the greatest U.S. Presidents - Abraham Lincoln. He is a professor of history at Anderson University, an author and historian and his keen knowledge of the Civil War comes through clearly in his writings.
Brian's site, the A. Lincoln Blog is filled with interesting insight into the man who led the country through its most devastating conflict, and delves deeply into all things Abraham Lincoln.
Even with a very busy schedule, Brian was kind enough to answer some questions for us to help enrich the offerings of Total Gettysburg.
1) We'd like to take a moment to thank you for agreeing to an interview with us Brian. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work on the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.
I am a professor of history at Anderson University, a liberal arts college located in central Indiana. I grew up in Missouri and Kansas, listening to stories about the border wars from my grandma, so my interest in the Civil War dates from an early age. I got my B.A. from the University of Central Arkansas, where I was fortunate enough to be taught history by Gregory J. Urwin, an excellent teacher and writer about U.S. military history and the Civil War (currently at Temple). He encouraged me to pursue my interest in Civil War history, and I went on to earn my M.A. in history from Rice University, and my Ph.D. in history at the University of Kansas.
My time at Kansas gave me my interest in Lincoln. While there I studied under Phil Paludan, one of the leading Lincoln scholars of our time, and I worked as his research assistant on various Lincoln-related projects. I pursued this interest in my dissertation, which was a comparative study of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (and the basis of my first book), and when I began my academic career at AU I continued working with various topics related to Lincoln. I also have secondary fields of specialty in U.S. legal and constitutional history, which formed the foundation for my studies of Lincoln's constitutional thought, and my book on his law practice, "Lincoln the Lawyer."
2) Abraham Lincoln was known to be a "hands-on" president in military matters during the American Civil War? Do you feel this was hurtful or helpful to the Union side?
Great question. I suppose it depends on which time period you want to focus in his presidency. Lincoln's hands-on approach really didn't work all that well in the first part of the war, when he was still learning his job and didn't quite yet know what he was doing. You know, he had absolutely no executive experience prior to 1860; he was basically learning as he went. But then, the whole country was doing on the job training, since no one had ever tried to coordinate a war effort that big before. In those early days, Lincoln tried to do too much, tended to fritter away his valuable time on tasks better left to others, and sometimes meddled in the military chain of command, causing confusion.
But as the war continued, Lincoln proved adept at learning from his mistakes--one of his greatest attributes as president. He never was a good administrator, but he did learn to delegate a bit better. He also got a much better Secretary of War in Edwin Stanton, whom Lincoln could trust with the day-to-day operations of the war department.
3) General George Meade was appointed by Lincoln as commander of the Army of the Potomac just 3 days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. Explain this decision by Lincoln and do you believe this benefited the Union army?
Well, I don't think he really had a choice. Meade's predecessor was Joe Hooker, "Fightin' Joe," who had a reputation for aggressive tactics and energy. This was just the sort of general Lincoln wanted, and he gave Hooker a lot of leeway in planning what would become the Chancellorsville campaign in the spring of 1862. But Hooker was soundly beaten by Lee at Chancellorsville, and he was really never the same after that. Hooker lost a lot of his fire, and Lincoln came to believe that he could not trust "Fightin' Joe" to fight with much energy, enthusiasm or even competence. As Lee advanced into Pennsylvania, causing panic, Lincoln felt he had no choice: Hooker had lost his confidence, and seemed confused and unsure of himself. Lincoln had to get rid of him, and Meade turned out to be a good choice.
4) After achieving victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade was criticized by Lincoln for not "finishing off" the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Do you feel Lincoln was justified in feeling this way?
I tend to part company with many other Lincoln historians, because I think in this case Lincoln was not fair with Meade. We have to remember that, prior to the war, Lincoln had almost no military experience. He did not understand that very often victory did nearly as much damage to a Civil War army as defeat. Officers were dead or missing, the army's command structure was often damaged, unit cohesion was gone, supply systems were severely disrupted, and the men were normally preoccupied with simply identifying all those thousands of dead and wounded men in their midst. In the aftermath of Gettysburg's carnage, it was I think unreasonable to expect the Army of the Potomac to pursue Lee aggressively, and in demanding that Meade do so I think Lincoln showed his inexperience.
5) Describe the immediate impact of the Gettysburg Address delivered by Lincoln in November 1863.
Hard to say, actually. So much of that speech is shrouded in myth and legend. One legend has it that the audience was disappointed, and that Lincoln himself said something like, "that speech won't scour." At the other extreme, a legend has it that the audience was hushed with awe and wonder at the greatness of the moment. I suspect the truth is somewhere between. Available evidence suggests the audience (and Lincoln) was pleased with the speech. Newspaper accounts varied according to a given newspaper editor's politics: Democrats disparaged it, Republicans praised it, of course. The keynote speaker, Edward Everett, was impressed with Lincoln's speech. But it was not seen I think by anybody at the time as a watershed moment; it only became such in the months and years after the speech.
6) Total Gettysburg strives for conservation through education in protecting American Civil War Battlefields. Please tell us why you feel it is important to teach others about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War 150 years later.
Oh, there are so many reasons. We are still living and reliving the reverberations of that war, 150 years later. Much of what it meant and the changes the war caused were foundational for modern American society. And Lincoln? He certainly made his mistakes, and I'm not one for lionizing him, or anyone else, as an American demigod. But he was one the nation's greatest presidents, and we can learn so much from studying his leadership.
Thank you again Brian for taking the time to speak with us. We highly-recommend you visit the A. Lincoln Blog and see for yourself what a truly great resource it is.
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