Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review: Tried By War by James M. McPherson

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief
By James M. McPherson

February 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Consequently, over the next year and a half, the average bookstore browser will be buried underneath an avalanche of new books on the most written about figure in all of American history.

“Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief,” by James M. McPherson, noted Civil War historian & the George Henry Davis '86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University, is among the newest in the crop of the Lincoln Bicentennial titles.

In “Tried By War” Dr. McPherson highlights how Abraham Lincoln came to understand and define the largely undefined role of commander in chief. He takes us through each phase of Lincoln’s development into the role: from first deferring to General Winfield Scott, then to prodding George B. McClellan into action. After studying military tactics, Lincoln felt confident enough and wondered if he might borrow the army when McClellan fell ill with typhoid fever. In the end McClellan was a disappointment to Lincoln, as were Henry Halleck, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, William Rosecrans and George Meade. Through each successive general Lincoln learned and grew into the role of commander in chief, not largely because he wanted to, but because he had to. Finally, with Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman & Philip Sheridan, Lincoln found generals who understood the defeat of the Confederate armies and not the surrender of Richmond, the Confederate capital, would bring the rebellion to an end.

Sadly there is little, if anything, new in fact or interpretation in this book. Dr. McPherson seems to have relied on the tried and true. Most of the content between the covers of “Tried By War” can be found in a number of other books on Lincoln.

The Lincoln-McClellan relationship is complicated, and one worthy of a book of its own. Dr. McPherson seems to have “cherry picked” every negative word and action of McClellan’s for inclusion in his book. To be fair, McClellan has served up these quotes and snubs toward Lincoln (not to mention his overestimates of Confederate troop strength, his constant pleas for more men and his apparent lack of will to send the Army of the Potomac into battle) on a silver platter for historians. But I think Dr. McPherson’s diagnosis of McClellan’s “messiah complex” goes a bit too far.

If anything, at 270 pages of text, the book is too short. It is a great survey of Lincoln as commander in chief, but an in depth review of the facts and analysis of them it is not. On its merits, the book it well researched, and well written. Dr. McPherson’s narrative flows effortlessly from topic to topic and is easily read. Though “Tried By War” may not be the book for the well read student of the Civil War it would serve as a great introduction for some one just developing their interest in the subject.

ISBN 978-1-59420-191-2, The Penguin Press, © 2008 - Hardcover - 329 Pages - $35 Photographs, Notes, Index

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