By James M. McPherson
New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, 329 pp.
By Leiland Tanner
Respected American Civil War historian James M. McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” is an engaging read suited for both the casual reader and the motivated student of Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. As McPherson’s most recent work, it is an intimate examination of the military leadership exercised by President Abraham Lincoln during his four years as Commander in Chief. McPherson writes this book as an analytical narrative calling upon nearly five decades of personal research in primary source documents, and in Pulitzer Prize winning fashion he is able to weave together an accurate and flowing account of the Civil War from a perspective that is often overlooked. As McPherson posits, “In the vast literature on our sixteenth president, however, the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander in chief is disproportionately far smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task.”
It was the whole of his presidential term that Lincoln devoted to military oversight in developing strategy, appointing leadership, and most crucially, setting precedent in defining his war time presidential powers. McPherson frames his book around these aspects of Lincoln’s career as commander in chief, pointing out the positive victories and accomplishments as well as the disastrous mistakes and failures, all the while focusing the main theme of the book on the fact that it was because of the decisions made and leadership executed by Lincoln that he was able to win the war against the Rebels and keep the Union intact. The book is organized into historically chronological chapters that begin with Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The first chapters deal primarily with Abraham Lincoln as the new president and the steep learning curve he faced when it came to mastering military strategy. McPherson dives into the military mindset of Lincoln as he struggled to assemble and organize an army with very little quality resources at all, and as he diligently studied tactics and strategies to better qualify the decisions he would make and further gain the support of the public in his military actions, a feat he desperately needed to be successful on any front of the war. In the following chapters, the bulk of the text is focused on Lincoln’s oversight of military campaigns and his constant internal war to fill and sustain leadership positions with men who would confront the enemy and carryout the president’s battle strategies. The name of General George B. McClellan in the text is one synonymous with a thorn in Lincoln’s side, and the conflicts between the general and the commander in chief during the first two years of the war are described in great detail.
It was a frustrating struggle for Lincoln of appointing and removing commanding officers for either their blatant disregard for authority or their inability to move on the enemy and accomplish simple military maneuvers. McPherson maps the complications of such issues for Lincoln by considering not only their strategic implications, but their political, economic, and psychological implications as well. In the case of General McClellan, there were numerous occasions in which Lincoln desired to remove him from his position as the general in command of the Army of the Potomac for his lack of desire to confront the enemy and his perpetual tendency to over exaggerate the quantifiable aspects of every situation. Yet Lincoln could not remove him because of the General’s deep-rooted relationship with his troops and their faithfulness to him. It became an internally tactical battle within the larger war that would provide the President many sleepless nights and fits of anger. Eventually Lincoln would remove McClellan and others of the same mold and replace them with cooperative Generals like Ulysses S. Grant who in turn acted on the President’s orders and won decisive battles that would contribute to the overall Union victory.
Among the most important decisions Lincoln would make as commander in chief were his interpretations of the president’s powers to bypass the checks and balances of the three-branch government. Lincoln stated, “as commander in chief of the army and navy, in time of war… I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds that cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.” Lincoln did just that during the war, he suspended the law of habeas corpus, created military courts, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. These actions are pointed out by McPherson throughout the text and are credited with both pivotally changing the war to the Union’s favor and also becoming a hot topic of constitutional debate among historians and politicians alike.
The last chapters of the book chronicle the final stages of the war in which peace talks are initiated between Lincoln and Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederate States. McPherson finds the title for his book from these discussions, in which both parties reassured one another that nothing less of an absolute victory by either side would end the conflict. Lincoln declares, speaking of Davis, “He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue that can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.” Decided by victory it was and because of the military strategy, devoted leadership, and undying determination of Abraham Lincoln. McPherson’s “Tried by War” displays the author’s impressive command of his sources and his creative brilliance by captivating the reader from start to finish. This scholarly monograph sheds new light on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and vividly displays his vital role in the outcome of the Civil War as the Union Army’s commander in chief.