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Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chiefby James M. McPherson
"McPherson offers an authoritative and highly readable overview of Lincoln as a military leader....McPherson's narrative is richly informed by his extensive research in fifty years as a practicing historian, but it also distills the work of a wide range of other Lincoln scholars into a volume that can inform the practiced student of the subject even as it welcomes the novice into Civil War history." Drew Gilpin Faust, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 — 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.
"Given the importance of Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief to the nation's very survival, says McPherson, this role has been underexamined. McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), the doyen of Civil War historians, offers firm evidence of Lincoln's military effectiveness in this typically well-reasoned, well-presented analysis. Lincoln exercised the right to take any necessary measures to preserve the union and majority rule, including violating longstanding civil liberties (though McPherson considers the infringements milder than those adopted by later presidents). As McPherson shows, Lincoln understood the synergy of political and military decision-making; the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, harmonized the principles of union and freedom with a strategy of attacking the crucial Confederate resource of slave labor. Lincoln's commitment to linking policy and strategy made him the most hands-on American commander-in-chief; he oversaw strategy and offered operational advice, much of it shrewd and perceptive. Lincoln may have been an amateur of war, but McPherson successfully establishes him as America's greatest war leader." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
It may seem strange that any aspect of Abraham Lincoln's exhaustively chronicled career could be considered neglected, let alone one central to his fame. But Lincoln's performance as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy is such a subject. Every biography of Lincoln and every history of the Civil War has contended with it, but so crowded is the canvas of that tumultuous age that the president's military... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) leadership often fades from view. This is in spite of the fact that Lincoln's entire administration was consumed by war. He presided over the mightiest fighting force the world had ever seen, came directly under enemy fire and at war's end became its final casualty. Absent military success, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would not have freed a soul, and his eloquent speeches would today go unread. More than half a century has passed since the last authoritative study, "Lincoln and His Generals," was published. In that seminal work, T. Harry Williams argued that Lincoln was the greatest war leader of all the presidents, a "natural strategist" whose judgment and ability far exceeded those of his officers. Williams' assessment of Lincoln's military prowess has never been seriously challenged, but two new works revise his thesis, giving us a view of Lincoln's abilities both more nuanced and more comprehensive. In "Tried by War," James M. McPherson agrees that Lincoln was America's finest commander-in-chief but convincingly argues that this status was achieved only after exhaustive study and heartbreaking setback. There was nothing "natural" about Lincoln's strategic genius; it was the result of sustained effort. Faced with the initial crisis at Fort Sumter in March and April 1861, Lincoln appeared to many to be irresolute and vacillating. His Cabinet was restive and even some of his supporters wished for "one hour of Jackson!" The Northern public demanded that the rebellion be put down quickly, and Lincoln deployed an inexperienced army that was humiliated at Bull Run. But McPherson shows that Lincoln was a diligent student of military affairs and a shrewd judge of men. He immersed himself in works on strategy obtained from the Library of Congress and soon recognized the limitations of his commanders. His increasingly direct involvement in military matters and his eventual appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief led ultimately to victory. Lincoln's achievement is all the more remarkable, McPherson argues, when one considers the paucity of genuine military ability in his high command. Most of the best military minds went South; those on whom he initially had to rely were timid, incompetent or both. Compare this to the situation faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, considered by historians to be another great wartime leader; he was assisted by an extraordinary assemblage of military talent: Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz and others. Any number of leaders might have succeeded with such support, but it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Lincoln triumphing over his obstacles. If the story of Lincoln as commander of the Army has been neglected, his leadership of the Navy has been almost ignored. The victory of Union arms was not achieved on land alone; naval forces were integral to Lincoln's strategic vision. One of his first actions as president was to authorize a blockade of Southern ports, and a seaborne relief mission to Fort Sumter led to the first shots of the war. "Lincoln and his Admirals," by Craig L. Symonds, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, shows that through his able secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, Lincoln deployed the Union's ships on river and sea with increasing confidence and skill. Though Lincoln never sailed to distant lands, he was no stranger to the water. He journeyed down the Mississippi twice as a young man and received a patent (still the only president to do so) for a device to lift vessels over sandbars. As president he often traveled by water, and he once directed an amphibious landing (a scene compellingly rendered by Symonds). He expressed his affection for the Navy in a whimsy unusual for him: He called the irascible Welles "Father Neptune" and the Navy itself "Uncle Sam's web-feet." After the opening of the Mississippi River by Union forces, he declared: "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea," a sentence almost as beautiful in composition as momentous in consequence. Symonds, like McPherson, charts Lincoln's development from uncertain amateur to masterful leader. But he does so through the refreshingly unfamiliar prism of naval affairs. "Tried by War" supersedes "Lincoln and His Generals" as the definitive portrait of Lincoln as war leader, while "Lincoln and His Admirals" is that rare thing, an important Lincoln book of genuine originality. Michael F. Bishop serves at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; he was executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission from 2002 to 2006. Reviewed by Michael F. Bishop, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"No surprise coming from the immensely popular McPherson, this is first-rate reading for the Civil War audience." Booklist
"Those familiar with McPherson's earlier Civil War books will recognize the thrust of his arguments, but readers in general will appreciate McPherson's graceful style, balanced assessments, and commonsense conclusions based on a complete command of the sources. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Once again [McPherson] does not disappoint....[A] superb new book, destined to become a classic on the subject." Boston Globe
"McPherson is one of our greatest narrative historians." Los Angeles Times
"[A] perfect primer, not just for Civil War buffs or fans of Abraham Lincoln, but for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of the president's role as commander in chief." New York Times
"McPherson offers up a little gem of a book." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] solid outline of the growth of the role of commander in chief under Lincoln." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"[E]xcellent examination of what Lincoln was up against and how he overcame all those obstacles." Rocky Mountain News
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. Tried by War offers a revelatory portrait of leadership during the greatest crisis America has ever endured.
Unabridged CDs ? 9 CDs, 11 hours
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.
The Pulitzer Prize?winning author reveals how Lincoln won the Civil War and invented the role of commander in chief as we know it
As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln?s birth, this study by preeminent, bestselling Civil War historian James M. McPherson provides a rare, fresh take on one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Tried by War offers a revelatory (and timely) portrait of leadership during the greatest crisis our nation has ever endured. Suspenseful and inspiring, this is the story of how Lincoln, with almost no previous military experience before entering the White House, assumed the powers associated with the role of commander in chief, and through his strategic insight and will to fight changed the course of the war and saved the Union.
About the Author
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, For Cause and Comrades, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, and Crossroads of Freedom.
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