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Lincoln Defines the War Powers: February/March 2009

By Barton Friedman 
Originally published on Published Online: February 01, 2009 
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Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James McPherson, Penguin

James M. McPherson may be the most distinguished of the current generation of Civil War historians, and he is surely one of the most prolific. His latest offering, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, traces Lincoln's struggle to master the responsibility that would inevitably dominate his presidency.

McPherson acknowledges the long-term implications of Lincoln's construction—if not invention (he seems at least to have invented the phrase)—of the war powers. As McPherson suggests in his preface, "Perhaps it is time to recognize the truth expressed by Lincoln himself in his second inaugural address…: On 'the progress of our arms…all else chiefly depends.'" Under "all else," McPherson subsumes an end to slavery and the expansion of freedom; the replacement of the South's antebellum, rigidly hierarchical socioeconomic structure with free-labor capitalism, and the stirrings (however reluctant) of a changed system of race relations; and a new understanding of American nationalism, indeed the survival of the United States as the nation that would grow into a world power.

Students of Lincoln and the Civil War will find in Tried by War nothing in terms of facts alone that they could not previously have found elsewhere. Its value lies in its perspective. To quote McPherson, "In the vast literature on our sixteenth president…the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander in chief is disproportionately…smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task."

McPherson chronicles the time Lincoln spent on that task, appropriating the technique used in David Donald's Lincoln, which Donald characterized as "a biography written from Lincoln's point of view." Constructing the war from Lincoln's viewpoint entails a special challenge, because neither Lincoln nor any­one else explained systematically what the war powers amounted to. Thus, McPherson speculates about Lincoln's thinking, suggesting that in diminishing order of presidential involvement they included five functions: policy (establishing war aims), national strategy (mobilizing the nation's resources), military strategy (directing the national forces), opera­tions (managing spe­cific cam­paigns) and tactics (ma­neuvering units in battle). This is as close as McPherson comes to directly attempting to penetrate Lincoln's formidable intellect.

McPherson is a very cautious historian, which means he casts a skeptical eye on some widespread Lincoln lore. Did he say of Grant, "I can't spare this man, he fights"? Unlikely. Was it Oliver Wendell Holmes who shouted at him on the parapet at Fort Stevens, "Get down, you fool"? Well, maybe.

McPherson's caution finally catches up with him. Discussing violations of civil liberties such as the suspension of habeas corpus and arrest of dissenters, he asks whether they outweigh the legacy of a restored Union and emancipation, concluding that this "is a question everyone must decide for himself or herself."

But does he actually leave us to decide that question for ourselves? He sees Lincoln's engagement with his responsibilities as commander in chief as dynamic rather than static. In short, he suggests—one of his main themes—that Lincoln learned from every problem with which he wrestled, from balky generals like George McClellan to plunging Northern mo­rale. Between the lines, it's easy to detect McPherson's admiration for Lincoln, which he clearly hopes we will share.


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