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Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008)

por James M. McPherson

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8481719,066 (3.92)36
Evaluates Lincoln's talents as a commander in chief in spite of limited military experience, tracing the ways in which he worked with, or against, his senior commanders to defeat the Confederacy and reshape the presidential role.
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After reading Stamped from the Beginning, I wanted to compare what others said about Abraham Lincoln and his approach to slavery. Since my husband already listened to Tried by War by James M. McPherson, I took the opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately, Mr. McPherson’s portrayal of Lincoln as the commander in chief is exactly what I expected.

Tried by War is not for anyone looking to learn more about Lincoln’s presidency. In essence, Mr. McPherson does nothing but look at Lincoln as the commander in chief. There is the requisite fawning over Lincoln’s ability to teach himself everything he needed to know, especially as his utter lack of military experience meant he had to learn the basics of combat strategy. More importantly, Mr. McPherson explores the limitations of being commander in chief while fighting a war from long-distance.

Mr. McPherson breaks down each of Lincoln’s Army commanders, their subsequent wins as well as their spectacular losses, and his frustrations with each of them. Moreover, he discusses the politics behind each assignment and the party machinations that were at the core of Lincoln’s decisions. In this case, we learn that everything Lincoln did had two end goals – to keep the Republicans in power and to reunite the country.

Since the slavery “issue” directly impacted Lincoln’s two goals, Mr. McPherson does spend some time discussing his evolving opinion about slavery. He even acknowledges that Lincoln’s shift from ignoring the “issue” to abolishing slavery was less ideological and more politically expedient. Still, Mr. McPherson continues to perpetuate the idea of Lincoln as slaves’ savior rather than someone making a calculated decision and even sometimes forced to take action before he was ready because his commanders backed him into a corner.

I can’t say I learned much from listening to Tried by War. There was a time in my late teens where I was obsessed with the Civil War and read everything I could about it. So, the detailed exploration of the various Army commanders Mr. McPherson includes did not provide new insight. If anything, it reiterates the incompetence of those commanders and the prolonging of the war their ineffectiveness ended up achieving. Still, those without extensive background knowledge of the Civil War may find Tried by War interesting. Mr. McPherson’s approach is welcoming while his explanations of each battle are clear enough for most people to understand. Given the severe political division separating the country right now, his descriptions of the politics of the war are particularly interesting. ( )
  jmchshannon | Feb 6, 2021 |
Very enjoyable and interesting. The author creates an interesting and very human picture of Lincoln. The portrayal of Lincoln's generals shows distinct contrast to today's military. ( )
  SMBrick | Feb 25, 2018 |
This book is about Lincoln and his relationship with the Generals who ran the civil war for him. It also contains some politics and some necessary detail on the battles. I was surprised at his tactical involvement in military operations, to the point of participating on the battlefield. The theme, I thought, was about the balky McClellan, who just wouldn't fight--to the point of insubordination. National, strategic thought is evident, also as Lincoln mulls through the conditions for surrender. There was little in the book about Lincoln's close advisors--maybe he did not have any? And, while the author spent much time on McClellan, little was spent on relationships with Grant, Sherman and the other do-nothings who occupied posts between "little Mac" and Grant. ( )
  buffalogr | Nov 18, 2016 |
If your own life does not offer frustrations to irritate you beyond reason, you can read this account of what Lincoln had to endure with his generals during the Civil War, most notably George McClellan.

McClellan didn’t seem too interested in engaging the army of which he had command, but he was so popular with his troops that Lincoln feared mutiny if he dismissed McClellan. McClellan also had overwhelming and enthusiastic support among Democrats. Therefore, Lincoln decided he had better put up with McClellan at least until after the elections in November of 1862.

But there is much more in this book than contemplating how many lives might have not been lost if McClellan (and subsequent balky generals) had just followed Lincoln’s orders.

McPherson organizes the book around five functions performed or overseen by Lincoln in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief: the formulation of policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. In all of these areas, McPherson shows how Lincoln based his decisions on one core concept, i.e., to preserve the nation by winning the war. Lincoln averred that “the right of a State to secede is not an open or debatable question” and that the President “cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment.”

[It should be noted that there is nothing in the Constitution about whether or not a state may leave the Union. The South argued that the Constitution was simply a compact among sovereign states and states could opt out if they no longer found conditions for this compact favorable to them. Lincoln, however, argued that the nation predated the Constitution, having been declared by the people, not the states, in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore no state can dissolve the Union. This is the idea upon which he elaborated in The Gettysburg Address.]

Later in his presidency, Lincoln added two other conditions for peace in addition to the insistence that the Union be restored. One was “abandonment of slavery.” Lincoln made a promise of freedom to black soldiers who fought for the Union, and, he maintained, he could not betray that promise. Nor would he agree to any ceasefire for the purpose of negotiations - he stipulated that there would be “no cessation of hostilities sort of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”

Much of McPherson’s analysis is made by reporting the content of the telegrams Lincoln sent his generals, and explaining the many excuses the generals made by way of reply for not obeying Lincoln’s directions. Lincoln's suggestions for military operations were remarkably astute, but they mostly were ignored.

Lincoln was incredibly frustrated over his generals’ inaction, excuses, and even insubordination, but he faced three main difficulties: (1) in the beginning, Lincoln was unsure of his own ability as a “commander in chief” and thought the West Point “professionals” perforce must know better than he, so he was apt to defer to their judgment; (2) many of the non-professionals were political appointments Lincoln had made to appease some faction or other, and while these men were very much out of their depth, Lincoln couldn’t take the political risk of cashiering them; (3) until near the end of the war, Lincoln just had no one else qualified to whom he could turn.

By 1864, however, Lincoln finally had a competent team in place, consisting of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas, inter alia - men who not only were eager and willing to fight an offensive war, rather than strictly taking a defensive stance, but who understood that the goal of the war was to destroy Lee’s army, not just to capture Richmond (whether the Confederate army was still intact or not!)

McPherson tips his hat to Lincoln’s lucid and convincing explanations to the American people of the actions he took. As McPherson writes, Lincoln was “a master of metaphors” who utilized stories and homilies to make abstruse concepts seem totally clear and logical.

He also defends the measures Lincoln took to extend the wartime powers of the Executive, such as Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and his authorization of military tribunals to try civilians. As McPherson argues, at no time in American history was the survival of the country in greater danger than in the Civil War. Yet, he reminds us:

"…compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.”

Evaluation: This examination of how Lincoln fulfilled his role as a wartime Commander-in-Chief provides an excellent perspective on Lincoln, the military, and the many challenges facing a wartime president. In addition, you also get a brief history of the Civil War itself: one that summarizes, in a highly interesting format, most of its history. ( )
1 vote nbmars | Jan 9, 2015 |
"Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war," writes noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson at the outset of "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." Given that the southern insurrection took shape before Lincoln's inauguration and ended a few weeks after his assassination with a surrender of the last rebel army, this observation is correct. More important, though, is McPherson's implication: too little attention has been paid to Lincoln's military policy and decision-making within the breadth of Lincoln scholarship.

It would be incorrect to state that no attention has been paid; indeed, several books have been written on the very issue, in addition to other articles and the like. However, it is clear that such analysis has had limited impact on, and inclusion in, most biographies of the 16th president. Aside from issues related to generals Winfield Scott, George McClellan, and Ulysses Grant – and such analyses usually revolve more around interpersonal relationships than military policy – Lincoln's involvement in military policy is largely overlooked.

McPherson addresses this omission in a thought-provoking and engaging way in this well-researched and well-written book. With his characteristic ability to explain substantial issues clearly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the great single-volume history of the Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom," explores Lincoln's growth in military matters from a neophyte to a superb commander in chief whose approach to this presidential responsibility became a model that other chief executives followed. In fact, McPherson argues that the concept and application of "war powers" was developed by Lincoln, virtually from scratch.

In his analysis, McPherson identifies five key components to presidential leadership of the military; of these, tactics, which Lincoln famously studied through on-the-job reading, is least important, in his assessment, while policy is most important. (Other key functions are national strategy, military strategy, and military operations.) From the beginning, McPherson is clear that being an able commander in chief is foremost, and perhaps necessarily, a political thing. An analysis of Lincoln's dealings with general in chief Winfield Scott at the outset of the war, in which Scott repeatedly advocates political policy under the guise of military strategy, sets the tone for McPherson's study, implying that Lincoln was already an above-average commander-in-chief even at the outset of the war, because of his political skills and his refusal to cow-tow to the military establishment.

Throughout, McPherson describes Lincoln as a very active, and increasingly capable, commander-in-chief. Perhaps the most striking aspect of his analysis, though, is a subtle refutation of conventional wisdom of Lincoln as a military leader. Most historians attribute Lincoln's involvement in military matters to a paucity of able and competent top-level leadership until the emergence of Grant in 1864. Although McPherson recognizes that Lincoln grew to appreciate and admire Grant's approach, he carefully shows that Lincoln very much supervised, and occasionally overruled, Grant after he became general in chief.

It is difficult to name any significant problems or oversights in McPherson's book, though I suppose some might quibble with bits and pieces of the analysis. Instead, the book seems a marvel of excellence, blending learned research, a discerning eye, and felicitous prose into a study certain to inform readers of all backgrounds. The book's accessibility, its consistent focus on its intended subject, and the well-deserved reputation of its author should cause the book to be influential in Lincoln studies for the next generation or two, a status it richly deserves.

This review is also posted at http://lincolniana.blogspot.com/2011/07/book-review-tried-by-war.html ( )
  ALincolnNut | Jul 21, 2011 |
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"The insurgent leader ... does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He can not voluntarily reaccept the Union; we can not voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory." -- Lincoln's annual message to Congress, December 6, 1864
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From the moment of his election as president on November 6, 1860, Lincoln confronted issues of policy and strategy even though he would not take office for almost four months -- Chapter 1
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Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war.
Not only Lincoln’s success or failure as a president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duty as commander in chief.
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Evaluates Lincoln's talents as a commander in chief in spite of limited military experience, tracing the ways in which he worked with, or against, his senior commanders to defeat the Confederacy and reshape the presidential role.

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