Sunday, December 21, 2008


By James M. McPherson

Penguin, $35, 329 pages, illus.


In 1988, Princeton historian James McPherson published “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a 900-page epic that became the definitive single-volume history of the Civil War and won a Pulitzer Prize for its author. Now, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s birth, Mr. McPherson has come up with the more modest “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” a stroll through highlights of the war focusing on Lincoln’s dealings with his generals.

The Union was disintegrating even as Lincoln took office, and it was clear that the president’s role as commander in chief of the armed forces would loom large in his presidency. Lincoln’s qualifications were mixed. On one hand, he had virtually no military experience and little knowledge of military logistics. At the same time, he understood some precepts as well as or better than his generals. For instance, he recognized that because the Confederacy’s posture was strategically defensive it enjoyed the advantage of “interior lines,” that is, the ability to move troops comparatively short distances to deal with successive Federal threats.

The remedy for this situation was for the North to press simultaneously on several fronts, but it took most of the war for Lincoln to find generals to implement this strategy. After the disaster at First Manassas - in which the president insisted on a Federal advance over Gen. Winfield Scott’s objections - Lincoln found Gen. George McClellan, who proved to be the organizing genius of the Army of the Potomac but who proved so reluctant to take the offensive that he ultimately lost Lincoln’s confidence.

A schism between the president and several of his generals grew out of Lincoln’s evolving war aims. What had begun as a war for the Union gradually morphed into a war to end slavery, at least in the Confederacy. When some generals, McClellan included, persisted in returning escaped slaves to their owners, Republican legislators were incensed. In time, escaped slaves came to be treated as “contraband” subject to confiscation, but they were freed only by Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

While a little-known soldier named Ulysses S. Grant won victories in the west, Lincoln sought in the faction-ridden Army of the Potomac a general capable of dealing with Gen. Robert E. Lee. The failures mounted. McClellan was driven from the outskirts of Richmond, Pope was defeated at Second Manassas, and Burnside suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg. Lincoln took these defeats hard, primarily because of the bloodshed but also because he feared recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or France. In January 1863, he despaired to one confidant, “The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”

Lincoln needed a tough-minded chief of staff, but when Gen. Henry W. Halleck proved inadequate Lincoln dealt with his generals outside the chain of command. After Gen. William S. Rosecrans’s army was defeated at Chickamauga in September 1863, the author says, “Lincoln again haunted the telegraph office and fired off dispatches taking direct control of the situation.”

As commander in chief, Lincoln demanded action. When his commanders complained of bad roads, Lincoln pointed out that they were equally bad for the enemy. He sought to make good use of the North’s advantage in numbers. Aware that at Antietam and Fredericksburg two Federal corps had scarcely fired a shot, Lincoln told Gen. Joe Hooker, “In your next fight, put in all your men.”

He insisted that the goal of the Army of the Potomac was not Richmond or any other geographical objective, but Lee’s army. Here, ironically, he found a believer in Lee, who sought a war of movement and whose greatest fear was of being besieged in Richmond.

Mr. McPherson concludes, in this graceful and readable book, that Lincoln “oversaw the evolution of the war from one of limited ends with limited means to a full-scale effort that destroyed the old Union and built a new and better one on its ashes.”

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean

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