Tried by War: Lincoln as Commander-In-Chief
Penguin Press, 2008
Towards the end of the American Civil War, Confederate General Jubal Early led a surprise attack on Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln walked down to the fortifications along the Potomac to support his troops and survey those of the enemy. Peeking over the parapet with his trademark stovepipe hat, America’s tallest Commander in Chief was a tempting target to sharpshooters, causing one soldier to yell, “Get down you fool!”
The soldier was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would go on to become one of the most revered Justices of the US Supreme Court. The man he had reprimanded and failed to recognise was, of course, the President of the United States.
Holmes was not the first officer to scold Lincoln over the course of his presidency. Many had called Lincoln worse things than “fool”—and they had not insulted him out of care for his safety. George B. McClellan, the commanding Union officer at the beginning of the war, called Lincoln “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon” and “the original gorilla”. Nathaniel Banks, a Major General who owed his commission to Lincoln, once sent his wife to the White House to berate Lincoln for pressuring him to attack. On the eve of the doomed Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, paid a visit to McClellan’s home to discuss the upcoming military campaign. The butler politely informed them that McClellan would not meet with them.
The press was no better. Horace Greeley, the abolitionist leader and mercurial editor of the New York Herald, excoriated Lincoln for being too moderate in 1862, and then criticised him two years later for rejecting a negotiated peace that would have left slavery intact.
Lincoln’s own party thought about dropping him in 1864 in favour of a candidate who would draw support from Democrats. They made plans to usher in Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, who welcomed the chance to unseat his boss, and even approached Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s commanding general at the time.
James McPherson’s recent book, the 2009 Lincoln Prize Winner Tried by War, attempts to tell how Lincoln, despite all these obstacles, won the war. McPherson wrote what many consider to be the best single volume history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom. He also has the distinction of being the first historian to unearth and examine systematically hundreds of thousands of extant letters written by soldiers during the war. That time-consuming effort led to his remarkable book, For Cause and Comrades, which used soldiers’ own words to understand why they decided to enlist and fight in the Civil War.
The disappointment, then, is even more acute when McPherson fails to give us the engrossing portrait that the subject and the rabid Lincoln readership demand. Tried by War is long on narrative and short on analysis. What we get is little more than a correspondence log between Lincoln and his generals. The story of Lincoln’s relationship with his Generals has been told before and is reiterated here at the expense of more interesting and fertile topics.
McPherson could have written about how Lincoln taught himself military strategy, just as our great autodidact-in-chief taught himself Euclidean geometry and the law before. While McPherson does mention this effort in the introduction, we do not know what Lincoln read nor do we see the homework play out over the course of the war.
Nor does McPherson explore Lincoln’s championing of new technology—hot air balloons for observation, repeating rifles and ships made of iron. Some of these technologies were foolhardy, but others, like the rifles and the ships, were decisive throughout the war.
McPherson fails to defend Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts, such as his suspension of habeas corpus, his jailing of political opponents and his marshalling of recruits and supplies before Congress approved them. The author gives us an honest account of these acts, but not a historian’s evaluation. Anyone writing on Lincoln’s wartime record has to assess other historians’ criticisms of Lincoln’s violation of civil liberties and executive overreach. McPherson does not.
Nor does McPherson explain why he thinks it was Lincoln’s military leadership and not that of Ulysses S. Grant that brought the war to an end. This blind spot is particularly striking, considering the book’s content illustrates the indispensable role that Grant played. As Grant was given command of armies further and further east, and thus closer and closer to the main theatre of war, the Union met with more and more success. Before Grant, Lincoln lacked a commanding general worthy of his soldiers—a fact that Lincoln often admitted. Grant’s tenacity, as much as Lincoln’s, won the war.
The same is true for Lincoln’s other generals in the second half of the war. Would Lincoln agree with McPherson that he—and not his generals—provided the leadership necessary to win the war? William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Philip Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah and George Henry Thomas’s progress in Tennessee in the summer of 1864 all helped Lincoln win the election later that year. Before his generals’ victories, Lincoln said: “I am going to be beaten and, unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.” As McPherson admits, Sherman marched to the sea in spite of Lincoln’s doubts.
Lincoln’s hagiographers do him a disservice. For Garry Wills, the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln created modern American political rhetoric. For many, Lincoln freed the slaves. Now, thanks to McPherson, America’s 16th president single-handedly won the war. Lincoln’s legacy does not need these inflated claims to flourish. One does not need to airbrush Abraham Lincoln to make him look good. Few contest that Lincoln conducted the war with considerable political acumen, military foresight and personal fortitude, but Lincoln himself would recoil at the idea that it was he, and not the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians who, like him, fought and died to renew the country’s freedom.
While Lincoln’s contemporaries criticised him, subsequent generations often have failed to see him for who he truly was. Our Lincoln is obscured by the contingencies of contemporary historiography and the unending publication frenzy. These days, historians want to shrink Lincoln’s brain. Others want to shrink his stature. Hagiographers want to canonise him anew.
That is why there is a glut of Lincoln books and a dearth of Lincoln scholarship. If McPherson had explored the innovative ways Lincoln used his war-making powers, assessed the fair criticisms of the Lincoln administration and rendered the vital roles played by Lincoln’s generals and others, Tried by War would have helped correct that imbalance.
Instead, McPherson has unwittingly written a book that is a cautionary tale for those who will one day write about Lincoln. To remove Lincoln from his time—rob him of his innovation, omit those who helped him and ignore those who criticised him—is to distort him beyond recognition. Then, like the young Oliver Wendell Holmes, we see someone, but not the man he was, nor the time that made him.
Andrew Hammond  is reading for an MPhil in Comparative Social Policy at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.