Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (The Penguin Press, 2008), hardcover, 384 pages
"Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war," writes noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson at the outset of "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." Given that the southern insurrection took shape before Lincoln's inauguration and ended a few weeks after his assassination with a surrender of the last rebel army, this observation is correct. More important, though, is McPherson's implication: too little attention has been paid to Lincoln's military policy and decision-making within the breadth of Lincoln scholarship.
It would be incorrect to state that no attention has been paid; indeed, several books have been written on the very issue, in addition to other articles and the like. However, it is clear that such analysis has had limited impact on, and inclusion in, most biographies of the 16th president. Aside from issues related to generals Winfield Scott, George McClellan, and Ulysses Grant – and such analyses usually revolve more around interpersonal relationships than military policy – Lincoln's involvement in military policy is largely overlooked.
McPherson addresses this omission in a thought-provoking and engaging way in this well-researched and well-written book. With his characteristic ability to explain substantial issues clearly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the great single-volume history of the Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom," explores Lincoln's growth in military matters from a neophyte to a superb commander in chief whose approach to this presidential responsibility became a model that other chief executives followed. In fact, McPherson argues that the concept and application of "war powers" was developed by Lincoln, virtually from scratch.
In his analysis, McPherson identifies five key components to presidential leadership of the military; of these, tactics, which Lincoln famously studied through on-the-job reading, is least important, in his assessment, while policy is most important. (Other key functions are national strategy, military strategy, and military operations.) From the beginning, McPherson is clear that being an able commander in chief is foremost, and perhaps necessarily, a political thing. An analysis of Lincoln's dealings with general in chief Winfield Scott at the outset of the war, in which Scott repeatedly advocates political policy under the guise of military strategy, sets the tone for McPherson's study, implying that Lincoln was already an above-average commander-in-chief even at the outset of the war, because of his political skills and his refusal to cow-tow to the military establishment.
Throughout, McPherson describes Lincoln as a very active, and increasingly capable, commander-in-chief. Perhaps the most striking aspect of his analysis, though, is a subtle refutation of conventional wisdom of Lincoln as a military leader. Most historians attribute Lincoln's involvement in military matters to a paucity of able and competent top-level leadership until the emergence of Grant in 1864. Although McPherson recognizes that Lincoln grew to appreciate and admire Grant's approach, he carefully shows that Lincoln very much supervised, and occasionally overruled, Grant after he became general in chief.
It is difficult to name any significant problems or oversights in McPherson's book, though I suppose some might quibble with bits and pieces of the analysis. Instead, the book seems a marvel of excellence, blending learned research, a discerning eye, and felicitous prose into a study certain to inform readers of all backgrounds. The book's accessibility, its consistent focus on its intended subject, and the well-deserved reputation of its author should cause the book to be influential in Lincoln studies for the next generation or two, a status it richly deserves.