Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Tried By War

Of all the amazing accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln's career, perhaps the greatest was his ability to overcome the urge to travel to General George McClellan's headquarters and blow his head off.

James McPherson - whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom has become one of the great studies of the Civil War era - focuses on Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief. Citing a dearth of such studies in the Lincoln historiography, McPherson concentrates on the day-to-day military leadership Lincoln provided to what seemed to be a never-ending line of big-talking do-nothing generals.

One of the main premises of the book is that Lincoln was forced into taking a far more active role in military affairs than he had ever intended, largely because of the ineptitude of his commanders. He spent countless hours studying military histories late at night at the White House, talked with generals and military advisers, asking probing questions that helped to shape his military strategy.

It was not until Ulysses S. Grant's rise through the ranks that Lincoln found a general who shared that strategy: defeat of the Confederate army. More important than capturing Richmond, Vicksburg, Atlanta or even defending Gettysburg was the pursuit and defeat of that army. Lincoln - and Grant - realized that until that army was defeated, the war would continue even if the Union successfully captured every major city in the South.

Throughout McPherson's work, we see an agonized Lincoln waiting at the War Department telegraph office for his generals to attack. He wrings his hands at their lack of movement, at their over-caution, and at their short-sighted aims of capturing pieces of land at the expense of pursuing the enemy. There is the possibly apocryphal story of Lincoln saying, "If General McClellan isn't going to use his Army, perhaps he won't mind if I borrow it." That, in a nutshell, was Lincoln's first two-plus years as commander-in-chief. You only need substitute the names of Joe Hooker, George Meade, Ambrose Burnside and a half-dozen others in place of McClellan to get the full impression of what Lincoln faced.

McPherson confronts head on the natural question that might arise: if these generals were so incompetent, isn't Lincoln at fault himself for appointing them in the first place? As McPherson points out, in each and every case where Lincoln appointed these men, they were universally recognized as the most qualified for the position....on paper. There were some exceptions, military appointments Lincoln made with politics in mind [the appointment of Democrat-turned-Republican Benjamin Butler being one of the more famous].

Incorporating his thesis from Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson points out the evolution of Lincoln's thinking as to the main goal of the war. What started out in 1861 as an effort to reunite the Union as it was, evolves into creating a new Union free of slavery. The abolition of slavery gave the War a greater meaning than simple reunion: there had to be a greater purpose for all of this carnage than simply restoring the Union as it was in 1860. That purpose was abolition.

By 1862, it was abolition and the complete destruction of the Confederate army that served as Lincoln's two main war aims. Many times, however, Lincoln would be frustrated by his generals' inability or unwillingness to comply with his commands. In September 1862 he has to actually spell out for McClellan, "Destroy the rebel army." In June 1863 he says in frustration to Hooker, "Lee's Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point." In anguish, he chastises George Meade after the latter's inability or refusal to pursue Lee's army out of Gettysburg. If Meade had only accomplished, "the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion [would] be over."

As McPherson points out, many generals won battles capturing territory. But the war was won by those generals carrying out Lincoln's edict to destroy the enemy army: Grant at Vicksburg, Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, George Thomas at Nashville and - ultimately - Grant at Appomattox.

Indeed, it was not until the team of Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Thomas and Sheridan came to the fore by 1864 that Lincoln had "his man". That is, a general (or, in this case, generals) who would fight the war the way Lincoln wanted it fought.

Destroying an army is not easy, however. It is bloody, lengthy and hard. The sheer number of Americans who died in these battles staggers the mind today. Grant was known as "The Butcher" - and that was what Northerners called him, so appalled were they at the casualties he [and, ultimately, Lincoln] was willing to endure in the pursuit of his war aim.

Tried By War is a quick read, and not too heavy on the detailed military analyses that sometimes makes reading military history a little like watching paint dry. As with most works that analyze Lincoln, the reader comes away from Tried By War with an even greater appreciation of the man and in amazement at all that this brilliant "backwoods lawyer" accomplished in saving the Union.

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