Monday, January 05, 2009


The Civil war had been in progress four years when Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, on “the progress of our arms… all else chiefly depends.”

Looking backwards towards Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, we know what the “all else” comprised, but Lincoln certainly had intimations of it, for he was a sharp student of history.

According to James McPherson, the author of “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” Lincoln’s “all else,” certainly included “the fate of slavery; the definition of freedom; the destruction of the old South’s socioeconomic system and the triumph of entrepreneurial free-labor capitalism as a national norm; a new definition of American nationalism; the origins of a new system of race relations; the very survival of the United States in a manner that laid the foundations for the nation’s emergence as a world power.”

McPherson begs to differ somewhat with T. Harry Williams’ estimation of Lincoln: “Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals.”

Most of this is true, but Lincoln was no “natural strategist.” Lincoln attacked the war the same way he attacked any obstacle that hindered him. “I am never easy,” Lincoln said of himself, “when I am handling a thought, till I have bound it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West.” His law partner Herndon said that Lincoln “not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fiber of it.” In law courts, he was often underestimated by the opposition. Lincoln would consistently concede points to his opponents, lulling them into a sense of complacency. But, said another lawyer who knew him well, “By giving away six points and carrying the seventh, he carried his case, the whole case hanging on the seventh. Any man who took Lincoln for a simple minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”

Lincoln was a more thorough and lucid thinker than most men of his age, and lucidity -- upon which all else depends -- is no easy taskmaster. Lincoln’s personal energy and cast of mind guided the war to it’s bloody but successful conclusion, and there is no question that he was a hands-on commander-in-chief who shaped the war powers of the presidency for those who came after him.

Lincoln, McPherson writes, “performed or oversaw five wartime functions in this capacity [as commander-in-chief] in diminishing order of personal involvement: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations and tactics… Policy refers to war aims – the political goals of the nation in time of war. National strategy refers to the mobilization of the political, economic, diplomatic, and psychological as well as military resources of the nation to achieve these war aims. Military strategy concerns plans for the employment of armed forces to win the war and fulfill the goals of policy. Operations concern the management and movements of armies in particular campaigns to carry out the purposes of the military strategy. Tactics refers to the formation and handling of an army in actual battle.”

Determined from the very beginning of his administration to preserve the Union – Confederate forces had already compelled the surrender of Fort Sumter – Lincoln, by executive order and in violation of the constitution, issued orders to increase navy and army forces and ordered blockades, justifying several unconstitutional actions by recourse to his constitutional powers as commander in chief. Lincoln had settled upon the principle of national unity in speeches he made prior to his accession to the presidency, and that principle was, with him, inviolable.

The second component of Lincoln’s war and military policy -- ending slavery in the slave states – was initiated to weaken the southern economy, which depended upon slave labor. However, those who do not think that Lincoln intended the end of slavery in his war policy have not familiarized themselves with his second inaugural address: “Yet, if God wills that it [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be repaid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Lincoln never made a sharp distinction between military strategy and political goals, rightly recognizing that the two were faces of the same coin.

The author of several books on the Civil War, McPherson, the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, is at every page of “Tried By War” in command of his subject. Subtleties are not lost in descriptions of the struggle between Lincoln and some of his timid generals.

Lincoln, who had familiarized himself with the history of Napoleon’s regiments, did not hesitate to replace the too cautious generals McClellan and Buell with Burnside, Grant and Sherman. The departing generals, Lincoln thought, were too mush concerned with what he called impedimenta.

“You would be better off,” he told one of his generals in Nov 1862, the turning point of the war, “for not having a thousand wagons, doing nothing but hauling forage to feed the animals that draw them, and taking at least two thousand men to care for the wagons and the animals, who otherwise might be two thousand good soldiers.”

“Tried By War” is a masterful account of Lincoln, both as a politician and as a suburb military strategist, a fitting prelude to the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Lincoln has been for many the pole star of American politics, and while many politicians have claimed an affinity to him, his genius is unapproachable and not to be repeated. “Tried By War” captures the man in his strengths and deficiencies. In American politics, there is no other eminence like Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
By James M. McPherson
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Price: $35.00/hardcover

Reviewed by Don Pesci
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