Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tried by War by James McPherson

[Listened to this as an audiobook, if that matters to anyone.]

It's been awhile since I've had the pleasure of sitting down with a Civil War book. They tend to be a bit on the long side, and I've not had a lot of time to myself for pleasure reading. I decided to take advantage of my new, longer commute to pick up this study in command by James McPherson.

McPherson is a well-regarded historian who, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I've never read. There's a lot of Civil War books out there, and by the time I got to McPherson, I was already reading more specialized works on the war.

This book, however, intrigued me because of the subject matter. We all talk about Lincoln as being a great president, but the details as to why don't often get looked at very closely.

In this case, going from Lincoln's pre-inauguration days to the tragedy of his death, McPherson shows the progression of a man who knew about as much on the practice of war as I do on trigonometry when he first took office. By reading books, listening to a wide variety of opinions, reacting to practice, and dealing with the realities of war. In addition, Lincoln had to also juggle political actors, public opinion, and his own personal demons.

Any one of those things would be enough to break a lesser man, but Lincoln, in this rather glowing portrayal by McPherson, rises to the occasion. Honest Abe, despite his doubts, seems to be one step ahead of almost everyone around him, from the crafty cabinet members like Chase and Seward to military minds as diverse as Scott and McClellan.

In McPherson's account here, Lincoln had the right idea all along--he just didn't have the generals to implement the plans, until Grant, Sherman, Sherridan, and Thomas (an odd inclusion) came along. Once that quartet is in place, it's only a matter of time.

Similarly, Lincoln walks the tightrope of slavery here in a way that makes it seem as though the 16th president quickly transitioned from fighting for union to fighting for freedom, despite the displeasure of many around him. Father Abraham is nearly worshiped by freed slaves, and in the process, the struggles black soldiers faced to just get on the field (and be used in a meaningful way) is hidden into the background, with Grant's blatant racism completely overlooked.

True, McPherson does highlight Lincoln's failure with political generals and a few other mistakes, but they are waived away as being beyond Lincoln's control. The problem is that in the process, it looks like McPherson wants us to have it both ways--Lincoln is praised for his virtues, but not shown as being responsible for for his faults. It's a throwback to an earlier type of history book, where heroes are made to look as good as possible. I'm just not comfortable with the level of hero-worship on display here.

I also disliked the way that McPherson ignores the factors on the other side of the field that may have led to some of Lincoln's (and Grant's) successes. Jefferson Davis, despite being a former Secretary of War, was an idiot as a commander in chief. I also think even someone as cautious as McClellan could have won on the field by 1864, when the south's resources just dried up. Yes, the Union had a lot of bad generals, but the Confederacy had a lot of good ones, too. In the name of making Lincoln look better than his generals, I don't think McPherson properly takes circumstances into consideration.

There's also the tricky issue of Lincoln's shaky stance on the Constitution. Lincoln did a lot of things to create the Imperial Presidency, a style of managing that's great when it works, but lousy when the President's plans are less than stellar. McPherson says "other did worse" as the answer to this challenge to Lincoln's legacy, but overlooks that they all did it because *Lincoln did it first.*

Overall, Tried by War was a fun read, because it highlighted just how much Lincoln was involved in the war effort. As President, he acted in ways no one else has before or since, and his keen intellect often had the right idea. Focusing on Lincoln's army stovepipe hat is a worthy endeavor, and those looking to learn more about Lincoln's role in the war could do worse than to start here. I just wish McPherson had been willing to be more critical, or at least acknowledge there was more at play than just the Union side. When you finish Tried by War, I think you'll agree.

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