As a student of American history, the horrific events surrounding the Civil War period have always fascinated me. This was an obvious turning point in our nation’s story. Alternative historians love to play the “what if” games with the Civil War, and there are many opportunities for that kind of historical game playing.
Without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln stands as the unrivaled and beloved figure of the period. His leadership instincts generally served him well. Biographies abound touting his under-appreciated and largely unrecognized abilities to lead during this most difficult time in our nation’s past. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is one such book which reveals the back story of Lincoln’s tenure as a wartime president. It was the basis for the recent award winning movie, “Lincoln.”
For all of his positives, Lincoln had major challenges finding a commanding general to lead his army in the field of battle. He hired and fired several generals before calling upon Ulysses S. Grant to take charge of the troops in 1864. This was a strategic change of leadership for sure. Grant began a war of attrition that the Confederate army could not match. Grant ground the Confederates down to a paltry number of fighting troops by the end of the war in April 1865. The concept of total war was now better understood by Americans.
One general who served as commander of the union army on two occasions was George McClellan. Known among some as an “American Napoleon,” McClellan knew how to train an army, and he also was a soldier’s general in the sense of seeking to spare lives and avoid what he considered unnecessary risks. This caused him to be too tentative and less aggressive than his president desired.
This cautious approach was a problem for President Lincoln. The political pressures on him for a quicker resolution of the conflict caused the commander-in-chief to urge McClellan to pursue the Confederate army, especially after the famous battle at Antietam. Lincoln was reportedly exasperated with General McClellan which precipitated his dismissal as commander of the union forces.
Historians like James M. McPherson emphasize the comment attributed to President Lincoln as he decided to dismiss McClellan. Lincoln was said to have described the general as one who had “a case of the slows.” This was the president’s homespun way of depicting McClellan as risk-averse when the Union general faced a head-to-head conflict with the renowned Robert E. Lee. That description stayed with General McClellan the rest of his life.
I am reminded that the inspired author of James called on Christians to have “a case of the slows.” This was not a call to inaction or indecision, as history depicts General McClellan, but rather James offers a challenge for us to exercise restraint and self-discipline. In the NIV, James 1:19 reads, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James, the practical and prudent voice, provides wise words of counsel for those who follow Jesus as Lord.
My father would often say, “When you are talking, you are not learning anything.” That was his way of telling me to be quiet and listen up. When we are quick to listen, we will more likely be slow to speak. This means we will be “all ears” to wise counsel and lessons needed to be learned in life. Being slow to speak means we are less likely to express anger. Anger is a natural human emotion, and it can be destructive in personal relationships, tarnishing our witness.
Now that the recent election cycle has ended, perhaps we can experience a revival of civility in personal discourse. Few would argue that this election has been the most vitriolic in lifetimes of most of us. Yes, we have had raucous campaigns in our history, but in recent times this one may well be the low point for civility. Some of that continues in the post-election period.
A reread of James 1:19 would serve us well. We could learn much about Christian civility in the conversations of our daily lives. Learning to listen better and to speak more wisely can enhance our witness for Christ. Learning to deal with our anger is also an important aspect of our Christian lives. In James 1:20, we read, “for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.”
In a different way from the Lincoln and McClellan saga, a case can be made for the “slows.” As we experience the holy season we call Advent or Christmas, let us do so by being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” That will make Christmas merrier and Christ more evident in our lives.