Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

I just recently finished reading Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. It was written by James M. McPherson. I believe it gives a good overview of President Lincoln as the commander of the Union Army. It also almost reads as a sequel to Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 by Harry Holzer which I also digested very recently.

The description of the book reads:

Though Abraham Lincoln arrived at the White House with no previous military experience (apart from a couple of months spent soldiering in 1832), he quickly established himself as the greatest commander in chief in American history. James McPherson illuminates this often misunderstood and profoundly influential aspect of Lincoln’s legacy. In essence, Lincoln invented the idea of commander in chief, as neither the Constitution nor existing legislation specified how the president ought to declare war or dictate strategy. In fact, by assuming the powers we associate with the role of commander in chief, Lincoln often overstepped the narrow band of rights granted the president. Good thing too, because his strategic insight and will to fight changed the course of the war and saved the Union.

For most of the conflict, he constantly had to goad his reluctant generals toward battle, and he oversaw strategy and planning for major engagements with the enemy. Lincoln was a self-taught military strategist (as he was a self-taught lawyer), which makes his adroit conduct of the war seem almost miraculous. To be sure, the Union’s campaigns often went awry, sometimes horribly so, but McPherson makes clear how the missteps arose from the all-too-common moments when Lincoln could neither threaten nor cajole his commanders to follow his orders.

Because Lincoln’s war took place within our borders, the relationship between the front lines and the home front was especially close—and volatile. Here again, Lincoln faced enormous challenges in exemplary fashion. He was a masterly molder of public opinion, for instance, defining the war aims initially as preserving the Union and only later as ending slavery— when he sensed the public was at last ready to bear such a lofty burden.

The book follows the progress of the war. As the conflict develops, McPherson demonstrates how Lincoln developed a national war policy and increasingly sought to get both the nation and the Union Army into his war plan. As noted by the book description, Lincoln had little military experience. He literally taught himself the art of war by reading books. Lincoln's greatness is perhaps a result of his success at self-tutoring as his plan worked in saving the Union.

Lincoln was often stymied by his generals. While Lincoln wanted almost continually attacks on the rebel Confederacy, his generals often were more subdued. Many did not see the campaign as one of destroying the rebel armies or of inflicting pain on the South. Further, out of necessity, Lincoln was forced to appoint (and then tolerate) many sub par commanders due to political considerations. If a border state politician could raise volunteers and help keep a state in the Union, Lincoln had to wait for the right moment to remove the resulting general from command.

Lincoln was rightly obsessed by the American Civil War. The fate of his presidency (and the nation) hung in the balance. McPherson does a good job in describing how Lincoln's policy of emancipation of slaves was driven by this. Lincoln believed that slavery was immoral but he ran on a campaign of allowing the South to keep slaves. In the early stages of the war, he did his best to reinforce this policy. However, as the war drew on, he believed that freeing slaves would cripple the Confederacy. When he thought the political timing was right, he moved in this direction but not before frustrating his abolitionist allies.

Lincoln also took liberties with the Constitution. He suspend the right of Habeas Corpus through out the nation. He arrested members of the Maryland state legislator to keep them from voting for secession. He seized rebel property (including slaves) without constitutional authority. Many political opponents wound up in jail without trials. This gave his enemies many visible complaints. As Lincoln pursued the war, he gave definition to what many consider are the war powers of an American President today.

Although Lincoln is now consider by most historians the greatest of American presidents, it is easy to see how a Union failure in the Civil War would have resulted in a different historical judgement of Lincoln. I think McPherson shows how risky (even if brilliant) many of Lincoln's decisions were. The war could have ended very differently and perhaps it was Lincoln haunting the telegraph office issuing military orders that made the final difference. McPherson had done a good job with this book and it is worth reading.


Matthew Wilder said...

I have heard of this book, and thought about purchasing it. I am a huge fan of Lincoln. I think I may buy it the next time I see it.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to email you about the Abe Lincoln bicentennial events going on in Philadelphia. Would you mind dropping me a line?

abe21 {at}

M said...

My e-mail is loren1mg {at}

Michael Lorenzen