Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review: Lincoln and the Civil War

by Michael Burling Game

Upon being inaugurated as President of the United States Abraham Lincoln found on his desk a letter from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  Anderson explained that in six weeks the garrison’s supplies would be exhausted, and the fort would need to be either resupplied or surrendered.  It was the first of many such decisions that Lincoln would ultimately face in his years in the White House.

Michael Burlingame, noted Lincoln biographer and historian, has written a volume in Southern Illinois University Press’ series The Concise Lincoln Library. In Lincoln and the Civil War, Mr. Burlingame presents a compact overview of Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War.

Beginning with Lincoln’s election, Mr. Burlingame’s linear narrative moves quickly but thoroughly through the “Secession Winter” to his inauguration.  All the while Lincoln tried to do nothing that would provoke the outbreak of open hostilities.  Deciding to resupply and not re-enforce Fort Sumter was a masterful decision; placing the blame on the Confederacy for firing the first shot of the war.

In the next chapter, “The War Begins,” Mr. Burlingame covers the daunting challenges Lincoln faced in raising, training, and arming an army to put down the rebellion, and its first battle at Bull Run.

Mr. Burlingame follows Lincoln as he methodically searches for a commanding general who will lead the Union army to victory; hiring and firing, McClellan, Halleck, Burnside, Hooker and Meade.  Finally with Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln found a man who knew what needed to be done to end the war, and who was not afraid to do it.

One of the largest decisions that faced Lincoln was what to do about slavery.  “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” Lincoln famously replied to Horace Greeley.  Mr. Burlingame traces Lincoln’s evolving thoughts on slavery from the deportation and colonization of free blacks, to a gradual compensated emancipation, and finally through to his greatest achievement, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Among the last decisions of the war would be how to end it.  Lincoln wanted a peaceful end to the war, and therefore encouraged Grant and Sherman to offer the Confederate armies generous terms under which to surrender.  By not prosecuting the leaders of the Confederacy, and allowing the Confederate soldiers return to their homes and their lives unmolested Lincoln hoped to secure a peace, which had he lived would have made the reconstruction process easier.

Lincoln and the Civil War is a well researched, compact history, of Lincoln’s leadership through the United States greatest tragedy.

Michael Burlingame is the holder of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and the author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life and The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.

ISBN 978-0809330539, Southern Illinois University Press, © 2011, Hardcover, 176 pages, End Notes & Index. $19.95

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