Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, 1862 (printed c. 1890)

Alexander Gardner
Albumen silver print

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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He won’t fight!”

Lincoln never said why he grew a beard. Perhaps he was girding himself for war, as the ancient heroes had done, making themselves look fierce; facial hair (and long hair, generally) came into vogue among both armies. Lincoln had to earn the trust of professional military men, and growing a beard was one way of becoming part of the group.


However, Lincoln’s generals were not very competent. Lincoln was bedeviled by George C. McClellan—a magnificent organizer who was reluctant to fight—but the alternatives were even worse. But after the Battle of Antietam ended in a draw on September 17, 1862, Lincoln finally relieved McClellan after trying to goad him into action.


Unlike his generals, Lincoln grasped the essential point of modern war: the destruction of the other army. Eventually, he would find the instrument to achieve this in the person of Ulysses S. Grant.

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