California Literary Review

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson

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January 4th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

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Tried by War by James M. McPherson
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
by James M. McPherson
Penguin Press, 384 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Lincoln and the Generals

2009 marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and many new Lincoln books are on the way. Among these, James McPherson, author of a dozen books on the age of Lincoln—including Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize—is offering us a new work on the President as wartime commander.

Professor McPherson tells us that among the thousands of books on Lincoln only a relatively small number focus on his role as the Union’s supreme commander. This reviewer finds that a little disingenuous. If there are few books with such a focus, there are many that tell how the careworn President spent hours at the War Department, reading telegrams from the field; how he tried repeatedly to get General George B. McClellan to take action; how distraught he was after Gettysburg, to read General George G. Meade’s proud report that Lee’s defeated army had left Northern soil—when Meade should have followed up and destroyed it; and how Lincoln’s strategic views were sounder than those of many military men.

As McPherson tells us at the outset, Lincoln came to the Presidency without any real military experience. He had been an Illinois militia captain in the Black Hawk War of 1832 but as he said in self-deprecation to his fellow Members of Congress in 1848, his combat record amounted to “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many struggles with the musketoes.” Lincoln, though, was a man who could learn. His secretary John Hay recalled years later how the President stayed up until late at night reading books on strategy and poring over reports from the field.

Lincoln’s adversary, Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, came to the presidency of the Confederate States with deep military experience. As McPherson writes, Davis had graduated from West Point, had commanded a regiment in the Mexican War, and had served as “an excellent [U.S.] secretary of war from 1853 to 1857.” (He had also chaired the committee on military affairs in the U.S. Senate.)

There is more to be said about Davis as Confederate commander in chief. If President Lincoln sometimes gave his commanders more leeway than they deserved, President Davis tried too often to manage distant armies from Richmond, without great success. Perhaps in a future work McPherson might usefully contrast the two men’s military works and ways. He would certainly do well to borrow from accounts—beginning with William Plum’s 1882 work—of the amazing achievements of the United States Military Telegraph service, which made possible the coordination of Union campaigns, and Lincoln’s communication with his generals, in ways never possible in earlier wars.

McPherson describes the immense task Lincoln and his team faced, in turning the tiny prewar U.S. army of 16,000 men into what became a force of 637,000 in just a year. The Union needed not just new privates but new generals, and many of the latter had to come from civilian life. Perhaps the situation was not as bad as some other writers have said; McPherson reports that “Two-thirds of the 583 Union generals commissioned during the war had prewar military training and experience.”

For some of these “improvised generals” (Henry Adams’ phrase), this experience had not amounted to much more than Lincoln’s charges upon the wild onions. Sam Ward, king of the lobbyists and an acute observer of the American scene, was distressed to hear that a brigadier general’s commission had been given to Daniel Sickles, best known for having shot his wife’s lover across the street from the White House. Ward’s biographer Lately Thomas quotes Ward as saying “Good God! Fancy him caught in a tight place by Davis, Beauregard, Lee, or Whiting!” Indeed, two years later at Gettysburg Sickles got caught by Lee in a very tight place, when he brought his brigade too far forward and endangered the whole left end of the Union line.

There is so little new factual material to add to our picture of Lincoln that a little more speculation would be welcome. What if Lincoln had not left it to McClellan in July 1861 to provide his plan—breathtaking in its grandeur and wholly unrealistic, McPherson says—for winning the war? Even if the Union army was, that first summer, still far from the great machine it became, what if Lincoln had found another commander to strike quickly, overland, at Richmond?

Conversely, one may ask what would have happened later that summer if the South had done what that fiery Richmond editor John Moncure Daniel urged on Jefferson Davis, and struck north into largely undefended Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Davis, as defensive-minded as McClellan, was instead placing garrisons along the long coast of the Confederacy, fearing possible invasion from the sea. One must add, though, that as McPherson stresses, while Union forces had to operate from exterior lines around the periphery of the Confederacy, the Confederacy had the advantage of operating on interior lines, which no doubt tended to produce a defensive strategy.

We would like to know more about the books that Lincoln was reading that educated him on war. It seems both Davis and McClellan, for their part, had lately been influenced by the Russians. McPherson mentions briefly that the general had resigned his commission in 1857 to become a railroad executive. One may add that two years earlier Major McClellan had been one of three U.S. officers sent—by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—to Europe, to observe the Crimean War. Matthew Moten writes that the three came away impressed by how “The Russians had held out in Sebastopol [against the British and French] for many months behind their stout seacoast forts.” On return to America in 1856, the three U.S. officers reported to Secretary Davis that the United States should finish the coastal fortification program that had been lagging for three decades. Surely this was still in Davis’s mind five years later, when as Confederate president he began concentrating on coastal defense. Just as surely, McClellan came home from the Black Sea stronger on defense than on attack.

McPherson claims that General Benjamin F. Butler, famous for his stern measures in New Orleans after the city fell to the Union, and known as well for his refusal to return captured slaves to their former owners, was a wartime convert to the antislavery cause; that he was a “former proslavery Democrat.” In fact, as one can read in Butler’s autobiography, he had gotten his first feeling of hostility to slavery as a little schoolboy in New Hampshire. Later, as a lawyer, he remained opposed to slavery, but he did not become an abolitionist. Butler believed that slavery was, unfortunately, legal in the United States—and, like Lincoln before the war, he believed that preserving the Union was more important than emancipating blacks.

The author dismisses briefly what he calls the “rumors” that General Ulysses S. Grant was a hard drinker. Proofs are hard to come by, but there is more than rumor in what a number of witnesses wrote both during the war and later when Grant was President. It would appear that he was an occasional binge drinker if perhaps not an alcoholic.

One might also add a little more to McPherson’s accounts of some other Union generals who caused Lincoln problems, like Don Carlos Buell, whom Lincoln eventually removed from command. McPherson says Buell “did not believe in a hard war…against slavery,” was “not particularly popular with his soldiers,” and “Midwestern governors demanded Buell’s removal.” Buell in fact had married a Southern woman who brought eight slaves to the marriage—slaves whom Buell kept. Beyond Buell being unpopular with his troops, a number of regimental and brigade commanders took the extraordinary step of signing a petition asking that he removed; and Indiana governor Levi P. Morton said straight out to Lt. Colonel Donn Piatt, judge advocate of a commission named to investigate Buell’s conduct, that Buell had been in treasonable correspondence with Confederate general Braxton Bragg.

Like most of us, McPherson admires Abraham Lincoln. He describes how during the great emergency Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus and authorized military tribunals to try civilians. He writes, however, that “…compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.” Perhaps; but if Lincoln did not intern a hundred thousand civilians, his military authorities arrested as many as fourteen thousand civilians in the course of the Civil War. Moreover, Geoffrey Stone tells us that according to one estimate, “some three hundred Democratic newspapers were suspended for at least a brief period during the war.”

Let us have the full picture of Lincoln, Professor McPherson. The great President was beset by crises and distressed by the faults of his commanders, but as he said to Donn Piatt and Robert Schenck one day in the darkest period of the war, despite all his worries he still “ate his rations and slept well.” He could be amiable, and tolerant—and harsh, and indeed dictatorial—and all this helped him win the war.

But even the full picture of what Lincoln did does not justify a President and Vice President who in this century have authorized illegal imprisonment—and torture—in a time of lesser crisis but greater fear.

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