Tried By Fire: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief, by James McPherson
Given that there are at least a good 14,000 books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln, it is nonetheless remarkable that his role as commander and chief has received considerably less attention than other aspects of his life and presidency and behavior, not least because it was his job as commander-in-chief of the Union military forces that was the most decisive aspect of his presidency and that which took the most time. The author does a good job at discussing what it is that made the commander in chief different from the general in chief, although it must be admitted that sometimes Lincoln felt pressured to do both tasks because he lacked generals brave enough to take responsibility for executing the goal of defeating the Confederacy outright. Basically, the author takes the judgment of Lincoln that the president is in charge of setting the national and strategic goals of the war and the generals involved had responsibility for proposing and executing operations and appropriate battle tactics that would serve those goals. This seems straightforward enough, but it most not have been given the problems that generals had in both trying to exceed their role by undertaking political matters as well as failing to take sufficient responsibility in military matters.
This particular audiobook is eight discs long, and the book is by no means an excessively long one. Much of the material focuses on the beginning of the war and not nearly as much as one would expect towards the end, and the author focuses most of his attention, as might be expected, on the Eastern front. If the author has an agenda in pointing out the superiority of Lincoln as a strategist to many of his military officers, that agenda is an open one, and the author, for example, points out that Lincoln believed Confederate invasions or raids to be an opportunity for those armies to be defeated and even destroyed, and that he was pleased with those generals (Grant, Thomas, Sheridan) who were able to bring about these victories, as opposed to those whose delays prevented victories from being followed up in places like Antietam and Gettysburg. The author also makes effective use of Lincoln’s t-mails as well as his willingness to back generals who were more aggressive in fighting the Confederacy even if there were a lot of casualties that resulted from it.
It is perhaps most telling that Lincoln’s powers of Commander In Chief were utilized to a higher degree than they had been before largely because of the demands that fighting a successful civil war entailed. None of America’s previous wars had been fought by someone who saw the sort of power that existed in the oath to preserve and maintain the republic. And yet while the Civil War was certainly a more closely fought and more internally conflicted war than any other in American history so far, it is telling that many future American presidents, from Wilson and FDR onward, pushed for greater restrictions on freedom than was the case even for Lincoln. What is also telling is that Lincoln had sound strategic goals and political goals for the Civil War. He recognized that it was an all or nothing war in which there could be no peace without victory, and was instrumental in shepherding along the change in Union war aims from reunion to reunion and the end of slavery as the war expanded in scope and unionist sentiment in the South was not found to be as high as previously hoped. If it is lamentable that the war was so destructive, it can hardly be blamed in Lincoln that it turned out to be so.
I like where this book went. the President as “Commander in Chief” is a role that was not provided for in the Constitution lightly and Lincoln used it in exactly the manner for which it was intended. If only we had the intestinal fortitude to have a leader who would do so today; for this country is as divided now as it was then. Many parts of society are in the grips of an ideological form of slavery instead of a literal one. However, we would need a Leader who could set us all free.