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Evaluating Lincoln as a commander in chief with limited military experience, tracing the ways in which he worked with, or against, his senior commanders and reshaped the presidential role.

As is so often the case when you have a book written by such a partisan author you have to be able to excise the source material presented – and there is a fair amount of that even if it is carefully culled – and form your own opinions. All the way from his huge miscalculation that turned sectional rivalry into a shooting war to the mania with which he pursued it after the public and personal tragedies had left him unhinged the civil war is a record of felonies compounded upon one another like no other event in 19th century American history.  It is all too bad that he did not heed his own words of criticism of President Polk whom he accused of seeking  “military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood”.

Tried by war : Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief  James M. McPherson Lincoln Abraham 1809-1865 Military leadership New York : Penguin Press, 2008 Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. xv, 329 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., map ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 273-314) and index.  Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

James McPherson recounts how Lincoln worked with — and often against — his senior commanders during the defeat of the Confederacy and created the role of commander in chief as we know it.

Abraham Lincoln arrived at the White House with no previous military experience (apart from a couple of months spent soldiering in 1832), but thought himself  the greatest commander in chief in American history. James McPherson discusses this often misunderstood and profoundly influential aspect of Lincoln’s legacy. In essence, Lincoln usurped the role 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. It is one thing for a Washington, or an Eisenhower, to assume the role but from Adams through Bush non combatants, part time and indifferent soldiers in the office have more often led to large casualty lists than great and swift victories and Lincoln was no exception to the rule.

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 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 worst butchers to follow his orders and propogate greater slaughter of the young men under their command. After all his primary tactic was not too different than the human wave tactics of such military geniuses as Stalin, Mao and the Ayatollah Khomeni.

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 relying on subverting 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 no longer ready to fight, brother against brother, when it was finally realized that all the South wanted was to preserve the republican virtues of the founders.

Following the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009 Tried by War offers a revelating portrait of leadership by ineptitude during the greatest crisis our nation has ever endured. How Lincoln overcame feckless generals, fickle public opinion, and his own paralyzing fears is a story at once suspenseful and horrifying when you consider that he squandered the wealth it had taken the nation a century to build and destroyed a generation.


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