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War president

How Lincoln invented the position of commander in chief, and flourished in it

Lincoln visiting an Army camp during the Civil War. During the four years of his presidency, ''military matters required more of Lincoln's time and energy than anything else,'' writes historian James M. McPherson in ''Tried by War.'' Lincoln visiting an Army camp during the Civil War. During the four years of his presidency, ''military matters required more of Lincoln's time and energy than anything else,'' writes historian James M. McPherson in ''Tried by War.'' (AP Photo/Library of Congress)
By Jay Winik
November 2, 2008
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TRIED BY WAR: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF
By James M. McPherson
Penguin, 329 pp., illustrated, $35

He was the least likely of men to guide the United States through its most terrible of ordeals, the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was, too, a formerly obscure state legislator, a one-term congressman, and a failure in a bid for the US Senate; his election as president was all but a fluke.

He had not a shred of executive experience, scarcely any military experience, and was prone to fathomless gloom. By temperament, he was a risk-averse politician to boot. He wanted this war the way a felon wants a hangman's noose. Yet as James McPherson shows in his masterful new book, "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," our 16th president's entire tenure was bounded by this great contest, and it fell to him to all but define the vague commander-in-chief role.

Even after all the books written about him, how Lincoln did so remains somewhat enigmatic. So it would be hard to think of anyone better to help sort this out than McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "Battle Cry of Freedom," who no less than David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin must surely rank as a national treasure. Once again he does not disappoint, as "Tried by War" brims with fascinating details and great insight.

From the very outset, we see that Lincoln's learning curve was steep. In 1861, he was anything but the picture of a confident leader. Poring over books on military strategy, he put himself through a crash course on how to command the Union armies. For the longest period, it didn't matter. At times paralyzed, he made mistake after mistake. Until he found Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, he had generals who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, or failed to win when they did fight: the list of woefully unsatisfactory generals whom he had to sack (or reprimand) is long - William Rosencrans, Ambrose Burnside, John Pope, and Joseph Hooker, to name a few. In Missouri, General John C. Fremont openly ignored Lincoln's edicts, and the extremely popular General George McClellan was openly disrespectful - and later challenged Lincoln for president in 1864.

But as McPherson demonstrates, despite all the trials Lincoln somehow persevered, becoming a hands-on commander in chief and seeking to master every level of tactics and strategy. And he was tough. During the crisis of Fort Sumter, when most of his Cabinet and much of the country favored continued negotiations with the South, it was the hard-line Lincoln who almost alone saw that war was inevitable.

He was cagey too. Despite assuring the country that he wouldn't "invade" the South, he readied plans to do just that, and later unleashed Sherman to inflict "hard-war" against the people of the Confederacy. Day in and day out he hectored and cajoled his generals, becoming, in effect, his own "general in chief." His dispatches alone tell the tale: "it is indispensable that you . . . strike a blow"; "give battle to the enemy"; "destroy the rebel army"; "put in all the speed you can."

Rarely was Lincoln's task easy. After the disaster of the Battle of Fredericksburg, he wailed, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it." As late as 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, a nearly incapacitated Lincoln paced in the White House, and "scarcely slept at all." Facing condemnation from across the war-weary nation, Lincoln declared, "The heavens are hung in black." And Horace Greeley agreed, writing, "Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace." Meanwhile, the growing movement of Peace Democrats called Lincoln's government "one of the worst despotisms on earth."

Overstatement? As McPherson shows, the story of Lincoln the wartime leader and civil liberties is a complicated one. Assuming almost unthinkable wartime powers, some constitutional, some not, he suspended habeas corpus (in defiance of the chief justice of the United States, Roger Tanney), heretically banished one prominent congressional critic to the South, and signed a Draconian if not overly broad proclamation authorizing military trials of those "discouraging . . . enlistments" and "guilty of . . . disloyal[ty]." He considered the draft riots against him a form of rebellion, sending 20,000 troops to New York City to protect the process of conscription, and he even took the radical step of arresting 27 Maryland legislators, lest they vote for secession. These actions were deeply controversial, and McPherson employs a light hand here, leaving it to the reader to decide whether they were justified.

Perhaps equally controversial was Lincoln's bold war measure, the historic promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam. After having flirted with fantastic schemes to colonize free blacks abroad, with the stroke of a pen the once-wavering Lincoln became a personal emblem of freedom and stunningly imbued the Northern war effort with a larger moral purpose. He never looked back.

Some 180,000 blacks - mostly slaves - would go on to serve valiantly in the federal army. On this Lincoln was perhaps at his most eloquent, speaking with pride about the Union black troops who fought with "clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonets."

Second-rate presidents are always somehow shaped and prodded and manipulated by the forces of history, whereas great ones find ways to bend those forces to their goals. So it was with Lincoln. It will likely always remain a mystery how this ill-prepared, small-town lawyer found the inner strength and guile to redefine the wartime presidency and somehow save the Union, but McPherson's superb new book, destined to become a classic on the subject, is as good as place as any to start.

Jay Winik is the author of the bestsellers "The Great Upheaval" and "April 1865."

TRIED BY WAR: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF By James M. McPherson

Penguin, 329 pp., illustrated, $35

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