Friday, October 9, 2009

Recent New Lincoln Books

Three books about Abraham Lincoln have been released in the past few days. One is a new volume; one is a reissue of a book out of print for decades; and one is a paperback issue of a recent bestseller.

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2009, paperback, 352 pages)

McPherson is justly famous for his Pulitzer-Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, his one-volume history of the Civil War. Before and since, he has often written military histories about the war, including a well-received book on the Battle of Antietam.

Now the Civil War military historian turns his attention to the question of Lincoln's military leadership during the war. Given how central this was to Lincoln's presidency, it is amazing how poor the scholarship on this aspect of Lincoln's leadership has been over the years. One hopes that McPherson is successful in drawing more consistent and learned attention to Lincoln as commander in chief. And it is certainly a book that serious students of the Civil War have been awaiting.

Lincoln under Enemy Fire: The Complete Account of His Experiences during Early's Attack on Washington by John Henry Cramer, with an Introduction by Charles M. Hubbard (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), hardcover

This book, a reissue of the 1948 edition with a new introduction, sorts through all of the eyewitness testimony regarding Lincoln watching the 1864 battle at Fort Stevens on the northern outskirts of Washington. Cramer, a historian at what was then Youngstown College (now Youngstown State University) carefully recreates the most likely events surrounding how Lincoln came directly under enemy fire that summer day.

In some ways, this was the most audacious story of the war, with an American president voluntarily traveling toward a battle already in progress to see firsthand what was going on. A clear account of what happened surrounding that event is a worthwhile addition to the Lincoln bookshelf.

Walking with Lincoln: Spiritual Strength from America's Favorite President by Thomas Freiling (Revell, 2009), hardcover, 224 pages

This book seems to be an odd mixture of a religious daily devotional with Abraham Lincoln. Judging by an excerpt available online, Freiling combines stories about Lincoln, words by Lincoln, and Bible passages, covering fifty spiritual principles one can draw from Lincoln's example.

I am always fearful when someone writes about Lincoln's religious faith or example. The issues surrounding that debate are enormously complicated, owing to the fact that much of the evidence is anecdotal and second- or third-hand, meaning that some of it is highly suspect. Still, it appears from the introduction that Freiling is aware of this and refrains from claiming too much about Lincoln's religious beliefs. The devotional is an interesting genre for a Lincoln book, but given the complexity of the issue, might be wiser than a more traditional biography.

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