Tried By War -- Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson, Penguin '08, $35, 329 pages, ISBN #1594201919. Index, notes, no bibliography, grouping of b&w glossy images.
In the delicate balancing act of creating a Constitution that all colonies would support, historian James M. McPherson writes, the founding fathers had to leave the powers of the president in time of war as vague as possible, so as not to suggest that the chief executive might assume tyrannical powers. By 1861, neither the record of presidents overseeing the War of 1812 or the Mexican War nor court decisions had done anything to clarify what a president's war powers might be in practice.
Enter Abraham Lincoln, on the verge of the nation's bloodiest conflict ever. In his introduction, McPherson challenges one historian, who called Lincoln a "natural strategist." Not so, the author says. Aside from a couple of months in 1832 soldiering behind the lines, Lincoln had no training in military matters nor any special affinity for waging war.
"He was not a quick study," McPherson argues, "but a thorough one." Quoting Lincoln: "I am never easy when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West." Editor Horace Greeley said Lincoln's mind worked "not quickly nor brilliantly, but exhaustively."
Such as in Lincoln's approach to the conduct of the Civil War. Being unable to rely on instinct, he simply learned more about the options available to him than anyone else. Good thing he did, since he was served by a series of military commanders, each worst than the last, forcing him not only to serve as commander-in-chief but "general-in-chief" as well in numerous key campaigns. How he went about it and managed to prevail in the end is the subject of the latest work by the historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Battle Cry of Freedom.