Tried by War
Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
By James M. McPherson
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594201912, 384pp.)
Publication Date: October 7, 2008
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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James McPherson, a bestselling historian of the Civil War, illuminates how Lincoln worked with--and often against-- his senior commanders to defeat the Confederacy and create the role of commander in chief as we know it.
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.
As we approach the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in 2009, this book will be that rarest gift--a genuinely novel, even timely, view of the most-written-about figure in our history. Tried by War offers a revelatory portrait of leadership 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 inspiring.
James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is the bestselling author of numerous books on the Civil War, including Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Tried by War, and For Cause and Comrades, both of which won the Lincoln Prize.