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Lincoln, the Cabinet and the Generals

by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press Fulltime Lincoln scholars may chew their nails at the thought, but there can be little doubt that Doris Kearns Goodwin has emerged as the most influential historian to tackle the Lincoln theme in the last 20 years. For one thing, the title of her Lincoln book has firmly taken its place in the modern American political vocabulary. A “team of rivals” is the kind of brilliant, multipartisan, if fractious, cabinet that confident presidents appoint, the kind that Barack Obama aspired to name when he read the Goodwin book, consulted its author and conceded his debt to the idea.

Now comes the inevitable slew of books in reaction to the Goodwin premise—none of which, it seems safe to wager, will ever boast its impact, influence or endurance. But credit author Chester G. Hearn with more than a good try, and one well worth reading. Hearn argues in Lincoln, the Cabinet and the Generals that one cannot take the measure of Lincoln as a leader, or begin to appreciate his skills in assembling (much less maintaining) a government in crisis, without considering his military, alongside his civilian, appointments. In other words, Lincoln’s dealings with his generals were every bit as crucial as his dealings with his cabinet—in fact, they were throughout the period of his presidency inextricably interwoven. As Hearn puts it, they “cross functioned.” And it took a nimble, creative manager to compel such interaction, all the more remarkable considering Lincoln’s inexperience as an executive when he first arrived at the White House.

Much of this argument has been made before, and while Hearn introduces his take on the subject by noting his debt to period sources, he adds little that is breathtakingly new to the literature. He does, however, fly somewhat in the face of award-winning books by James M. McPherson and Craig L. Symonds, who recently argued that while Lincoln may not have first organized his military family as successfully as he did his cabinet family, he soon became every bit as adroit in manipulating the men in uniform as he did the men who were wearing frock coats.

Hearn’s most notable accomplishment here is the way he has massaged his information into a corking good read. Lincoln, the Cabinet and the Generals is a highly entertaining narrative history of the Lincoln administration and not a bad survey of the Civil War either. Hearn succeeds in bringing his characters vividly to life, even if their story has been told before. And one cannot help admiring his effort to distill 20 years of research into period sources. The name “Goodwin,” however, does not even appear in Hearn’s index. It is simply no longer possible to write a book about Lincoln’s cabinet without acknowledging her book and its sweeping influence— beyond 19th-century history and into 21st-century history.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.