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Sunday, July 25, 2010

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

The reviews are right, this is an unoriginal book, everything in it has already been said (literally by McPherson himself!) but when McPherson writes about the Civil War it's worth my time to read what he has to say, and if you are at all interested in the war, it's worthy of your time as well.

What is unique about the book is the focus on Lincoln as the leader of the armed forces. Yes, all histories of the war cover this aspect of Lincoln's presidency, but you have to tease it out of the larger text. For example, all of this was more than covered in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 944 page Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (an excellent read, by the way) but if you have little interest in the monetary policy of the Lincoln administration, the vagaries of the Lincoln administration's dealings with the European powers or don't care to read about the Homestead Act of 1862 (which had a profound affect on the development of the West) this may be your book. In it's own way it is a stripped down, mean and lean study of Abraham Lincoln at war.

I personally own more than 70 Civil War book and my wife rolls her eyes when I bring yet another one home. I always tell her that I find something new every time I read it (it also seems like the Confederates will win the war until Gettysburg every time I read about it, no matter who's writing it). This time, I found a quote I love from Lincoln about McClellan that fully demonstrated that Lincoln had no illusions about the man who he was depending on to save the Union. Lincoln noted that McClellan "had the capacity to make arrangements properly for a great conflict, but as the hour for action approached he became nervous and oppresssed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis." (p. 82) I may have read the quote in 20 other books, but this time it stuck with me.

James McPherson
McPherson's beautiful touch as a writer jumps out on pages 261-263. He notes that Lincoln visited army hospitals and the soldiers surrounding Petersburg and Richmond in late March and early April of 1865. We get to see a bit of the frontier politician as he shows off a bit by splitting wood with the men. The war grinds to a finish as Lincoln himself tours Richmond with thousands of freed slaves crowding close to see "Father Abraham" and Lincoln sits behind Jefferson Davis's desk in the Confederate White House. Lincoln returns home and gives a speech about his plans for Reconstruction from a balcony of the White House and McPherson ends his telling of these remarkable set of occurrences with John Wilkes Booth's threat, "This will be the last speech he will ever make." Every student of the war knows about these events, but McPherson's touch makes them poignant and tragic.

So, the critics are correct, there is nothing new here, but it is well told and a great tale told well is always a treat.

I rated this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on June 8, 2010.

Other works referenced in this review:

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