The Value of a Leader

New York Journal of Commerce, May 28, 1861

A cool head and a large measure of knowledge are essential qualifications in the leadership of a great movement, like that in which the people of this country are at present engaged. By a singular combination of circumstances, the leaders on both sides of the military operations possess these indispensable qualities; and we may expect, therefore, that the war, so far as its conduct may be left to their discretion, will be carried on with distinguished judgment and ability.

It is a fortunate circumstance for the people of the United States, that General Scott has been spared to crown a long and useful life, by the active duties of Commander-in-Chief of the forces raised to carry on the present war. But while this is cause for thankfulness and for congratulation, the thought is forced upon us, that this veteran officer is far advanced in years, and that in the ordinary course of nature we need not be surprised, any day, at his failure in health, or at the sudden termination of his long and well spent life. General Scott is now about seventy-five years of age. Without disparagement to others, he may be and is universally pronounced the greatest military man in the country, and perhaps in the world. Surely he has no superior in all the attributes of a great commander, and his mark is visible in all the outlines thus far made public of the present campaign. Instead of listening to the impatience and the ill-digested schemes of pretended patriots and self-inflated writers, who assumed to advise respecting the conduct of the war with as much assurance as they would plan a political contest, he has deliberately and systematically moved forward with his own comprehensive plans, swerving neither at the instance of Cabinet officers, nor the insolence of militia colonels spoiling for an opportunity to "wipe out" the enemy at a single dash.

General Scott knows his adversary, and thus knowing, has the good sense to abstain from unnecessary collision until his resources are such as to warrant the chances of success. A great General is always sparing of human life, and knows how and when to strike in a manner best suited to achieve a victory with little cost of blood. In resisting the determined appeals of the fanatical portion of the people to rush upon the Confederate army, he has no doubt been governed by the most profound sense of responsibility for his position, as well as by the highest considerations connected with military tactics. Upon the inauguration and prudent management of the war may depend the very existence of the Government, and General Scott is not the man to hazard these at the bidding of hotspurs and tyros in military service. However, the delay incident to the full preparation for a war of the first magnitude, may possibly open up the way for peace—may offer some solution of the great problem now in the course of elucidation, involving the principles of free government, and the happiness of thirty-one millions of people. If, while he is preparing in the most judicious manner for the great conflict which seems almost inevitable, Providence shall so overrule the actions of statesmen and of the people as to avert a civil war, who shall say that the mind which has had the firmness to resist the angry cry for speedy vengeance is not directed by humane motives and a wise appreciation of the momentous issues involved in the struggle?

All men have weaknesses, and we do not suppose General Scott free from them. His weakness in former days was ambition for civil preferment, a desire to occupy the highest civil as he had already done the first military position which his country can confer. That day has, however, gone by. His great age admonishes him that he can never occupy the Presidential Chair, even if the Government shall be so preserved as to permit of a successor to the present incumbent; and he has no motive save that of a patriotism never questioned and a love of country and its institutions never doubted, to guide his present action. To crown an eventful life with the wreath of true patriotism, and to depart with a consciousness of having fulfilled his great mission, may be supposed to be his sole aim and purpose in the discharge of his present highly responsible undertakings.

It is an unhappy thought connected with this subject, that the failure of General Scott in health or strength, would leave the Government without any adequate head for the military department. Neither the President nor any of his Cabinet officers, possesses the military knowledge or the comprehensive scope of mind for grasping the great question now in the hands of the head of the army. Nor is it easy for those best acquainted with the material of our army, to point out any officer suited to succeed General Scott, in the trying position in which he is placed. In the regular army we know of no one at all equal to the situation; and if we look among the newly created Generals, where able statesmanship may be found, it might be difficult to find combined in the same individual the military and civil qualifications demanded for such an exigency. General Dix would be allowed credit for a large share of the latter, and General Butler, who has already distinguished himself to some extent in both capacities, might be looked to with some confidence. But none of the names which could be mentioned would inspire the confidence felt in the experience and the admirable qualities of General Scott, for whose prolonged life and mental and physical vigor the aspirations of our countrymen will ascend to the God of nations.

The value of a leader is also powerfully illustrated in the present attitude and condition of the States which have seceded from the Union. General Davis was by no means an original secessionist, but when the sentiment of the South culminated in the formation of a Southern Confederacy, he cast his fortunes with the people among whom he had lived, and in whose service he had long occupied prominent positions. Passing by the original and zealous promoters of secession, a demand was made for a leader of known ability and experience, whose statesmanlike and military qualities should fit him for conducting affairs of the Confederate States through a trying crisis, and the choice fell upon the man best suited to the emergency. In all our plans and suggestions for conducting the war, and in casting about for a leader in the not improbable event of the failure of General Scott to go through the struggle, we must keep in mind the important fact, that the Confederate States are moving under the lead of a cool, sagacious, scientific, experienced statesman and General, in the prime of his mental powers; and although not physically strong, yet devoted in all that he is and has, to the undertaking which by common consent he has been chosen to lead.

Let us not, then, undervalue the importance to the country and to the cause of free government, in the present crisis, of a leader whose comprehensive knowledge and lofty patriotism enable him, despite the clamor of official and non-official intermeddlers, to lay the foundations for a humane, wise and enlightened conduct of a war which may not under present circumstances be avoided, but which it is to be hoped may terminate in an early and honorable peace.