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Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief [Hardcover]

James M. McPherson
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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  • Hardcover: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (7 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201919
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201912
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,157,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "alchemy" of Lincoln's military leadership 17 April 2009
By Robert Morris TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The newly inaugurated sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was deferential to the judgment of his generals throughout the first year or so of the Civil War but eventually realized that he must take a much more active role and eventually became the first president who was also (in effect) the nation's wartime commander in chief. First, he replaced Winfield Scott with George B. McClelland, then McClelland with Henry W. Halleck, then Halleck with George G. Meade, and Meade with Ulysses S. Grant. Only with Grant was Lincoln finally confident that he had in his last general-in-chief the combination of strengths (e.g. judgment, will, focus, and tenacity) that were sufficient to the challenge of winning the war and thus preserving the union. However, even then, he still played a dominant role until Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Six days later, Lincoln was dead.

There were warrior-monarchs throughout history who led their armies to great victories. However, they received much better preparation to do so than did Lincoln. Technically, he led no troops into battle as had Odysseus, Alexander, Genghis Khan, and Henry V but he probably spent more time with his generals and among their troops than has any U.S. president since then. It should also be noted that, since childhood, Lincoln had an insatiable desire to learn and the determination to obtain and the self-discipline to apply effectively what he learned about law, the political process, and eventually waging war. The title James M. McPherson selected for his book is especially appropriate. As he notes, Lincoln "was not a quick study but a thorough one" and over time, through rigorous study, learned everything he could about relevant military history, especially military strategy and tactics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Commander in Chief- Its Creator and Its Master 12 Mar 2010
By James Gallen TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
"Tried by War" tells the amazing story of Abraham Lincoln's self education and evolution as Commander in Chief. It have always found amusing that the combined military experience of the commanders in chief in our three greatest wars, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, consisted of Lincoln's few weeks in the militia during the Black Hawk War. Author James McPherson skillfully explains how, despite his lack of experience, Lincoln learned the military arts and successfully employed them.

This book points out the nature of Lincoln's accomplishments. The Civil War was the first war in which communications enabled the President to take an active part in the direction of the war. This forced Lincoln to create the role of Commander in Chief. As he mastered his new position, Lincoln skillfully balanced political and military needs in order to maintain support necessary for successful prosecution of the war.

Frustrated by sluggish generals, primarily George McClellan, but also including Winfield Scott, Joe Hooker and Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln prodded and ordered them to advance until, through trial and error, he finally found a winning team, led by Grant and Sherman, with important roles played by Sheridan and Meade.

This book makes the case that Lincoln was more successful than the West Point alumnus who opposed him, Jefferson Davis, and many of his own successors. We have often read of the styles of other commanders in chief. McKinley and Wilson limited their involvement to general policy and left the details to the generals. Roosevelt chose the commanders and prioritized the theatres, largely to satisfy political requirements. Except for his fight with MacArthur and the limitations on actions over China, Truman did much the same.
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By Ramtop
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is too short! I could have carried on reading it forever.
This guy is probably the best Civil War historian of his era, and there
are plenty of other great ones! Well researched and a refreshingly
different look at Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. It adds a new
dimension to our understanding and is readable enough to appeal
to even those with casual interest in the subject. Compulsory reading
for Civil War nerds like me!
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5.0 out of 5 stars A superbly readable book 11 Oct 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There are many books about the American Civil War, but James McPherson's 'Tried by War' is the only one I know about Lincoln's role as commander in chief. The gap Mr McPherson fills is important, because Lincoln was the one who effectively defined what the powers granted to the commander in chief in broad outline by the constitution really meant in practice.

Lincoln's search for generals capable of winning the war is well known. (It wasn't until I played the USA in Paradox's computer game 'Victoria II' that I really appreciated the problems he had.) One the interesting things that comes out of this book is the way the self-taught Lincoln, who systematically read the military textbooks of the day to educate himself in military affairs, was able to zero in on the importance of destroying the enemy armies. Most of his early generals were fixated on taking territory - especially Richmond.

One of the consequences of this was that while Lincoln saw Lee's forays into Union territory as an opportunity cut the Army of Northern Virgina off, envelope it, and destroy it, his generals merely saw it as an opportunity to march in the opposite direction - towards Richmond. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of the fact that in a civil war you know the enemy personally, especially in the higher echelons, who you trained with, and you therefore seek ways to win the war without fighting bloody battles. Unfortunately, such an attitude, while it may be laudable, doesn't win wars.

Mr McPherson has written one of the most readable books on any aspect of the Civil War that I have come across, and I can thoroughly recommend it.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  85 reviews
85 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perceptive and persuasive volume by a superior Civil War historian 11 Oct 2008
By Roy E. Perry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Many scholars have described Abraham Lincoln's legacy, but surprisingly few have chronicled his role as Commander-in-Chief. Arguably our premier Civil War historian, James McPherson, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, brilliantly remedies this neglect.

"In his conception of military strategy," writes McPherson, "Lincoln was Clausewitzian. The Prussian theorist of war had written that 'the destruction of the enemy's military force is the leading principle of war,' and it "is principally effected only by means of the engagement' that is, by 'hard, tough fighting.'"

Lincoln was often frustrated by his generals' lethargy, especially by George McClellan, a pompous prima donna with a messianic complex who preened himself as being "The Young Napoleon." Strutting about like a bantam rooster, McClellan boasted that he, and he alone, was destined to save the Union. True, by means of seemingly endless formation drills, he whipped the Union army into a formidable fighting force, but then stubbornly refused to budge against the enemy. Whining and complaining, inaccurately, that the Confederate forces arrayed against him were at least twice the size of his Army of the Potomac, he postponed, time and again, an offensive campaign, to which cowardly inactivity Lincoln tartly retorted, "If you don't plan to use the army, may I borrow it for a while?"

Only in the last year of the war did Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Henry Thomas, and Philip Henry Sheridan grasp Lincoln's insight that the Union's concentration in time (simultaneous coordinated attacks) trumped the Confederate superiority in space (by using interior lines).

Tried by War is a fascinating narrative not only of Lincoln's prescient military leadership but also a bird's-eye view of the major military encounters of the Civil War. McPherson has written a perceptive and persuasive volume.

About the author: James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis `86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, where he taught for three decades. He is the bestselling author of numerous books on the Civil War, including Battle Cry of Freedom (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998), For Cause and Comrades, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, and Crossroads of Freedom. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
70 of 78 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly Superficial and Unoriginal 13 Nov 2008
By CJA - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I admire McPherson's wonderful "Battle Cry of Freedom" and looked forward to this book as well as its emphasis on Lincoln's role as commander in chief. While the topic is not as "neglected" as claimed by McPherson, given that every study of Lincoln inevitably spends a good deal of time on the topic, it is a good subject for a full length work. But in the end, McPherson adds very little to the Lincoln literature. While well written, and while constituting a good introduction to the subject, the book is superficial.

McPherson had two basic choices in approach. He could have focused on the details of specific military decisions and relationships with generals and drawn broader conclusions therefrom. Or he could tell the narrative and fit it into his broader interpretations and analysis of the basic controversies fought over this subject. McPherson chooses the latter, but he short-changes the reader on the interpretation and analysis.

His best contribution is the notion that Lincoln grasped the advantage the Union had in "concentration in time" -- the ability to overwhelm the South by attacking on mulitple fronts at once. This trumped the South's advantage in "concentration is space." That is, Lee had the advantage of familiarity of terrain and interior lines of supply and communication. He seemed able to concentrate more men at focused points. In McPherson's estimation, Lincoln's generals (except for Grant) did not sufficiently appreciate this lesson and Lincoln was a better strategist than his generals.

McPherson is also effective in characterizing Lincoln as better grasping Clausewitz's principle that war was "politics by other means" and the need to appreciate war not as set piece battles but as a struggle to suppress the political movement in the South. He draws the familiar conclusions, which do seem supported: (1) McClellan was a poor commander who did not see the larger strategic issues; (2) the objective was Lee's army not Richmond; (3) Halleck was a huge disappointment; (4) Lincoln had to fire a lot of generals who deserved to be fired; and (5) Grant was a magnificent general who was appreciated and nurtured by Lincoln.

In the end, though, much of this was already argued, in some ways far more effectively and in more detail, by T. Harry Williams 50 years ago in "Lincoln and His Generals" -- which I highly recommend. Also, McPherson does not grapple with some of the most interesting controversies. Why is it that Lincoln had to fire so many generals -- why were they so bad? McPherson has some superficial stuff about the generals being disproportionately Democratic. And what did Lincoln do to define the role of Commander in Chief? McPherson's thesis is that Lincoln was the first to define the role in modern terms. But how and why? McPherson is so busy giving his narrative he loses sight of the primary reason for his book.

Some of the answers can be found in David Donald's brilliant essay in his book "Lincoln Reconsidered." This was, like Williams book, written 50 years ago, which proves that in Lincoln literature old books are not necessarily inferior books. Donald argues that the Generals were trained in Jomini's texts that were based on the Napoleonic experience. Jomini's tactical and strategic wisdom became obsolete with the technology that existed by 1861. Artillery and trenching favored defensive war; railroads sometimes allowed exterior lines of movement to be faster; repeating rifles could give the North the advantage in concentration in space; the objective was not the enemy's capitol, but the enemy's industrial/agricultural capacity and the enemy's army supplied by same. Lincoln and Grant were quicker to appreciate this than McClellan and his ilk.

This failure to move with the times explains why Lincoln had so many bad generals. And I suppose that Jefferson Davis had so many good ones because the Jomini training they all had tended to fit well with what the South had to do to win the war. But another reason for all the bad generals is that we did not yet have the experience of a nation fighting a major modern-style war. It's only because of what happened during the war that modern generals (except for MacArthur) appreciate the need to defer to civilian authority and the need to have the civilians direct the all important, overall political strategy.

If you can find Donald's and Williams' books, I highly recommend them. McPherson's book was a big disappointment.
64 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Stunningly Original"? 27 Oct 2008
By Richardson J. Kovar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Doris Kearns Goodwin's review claims that McPherson's new book, "Tried by War" is "stunningly orignal" but I fail to see how unless one takes into consideration McPherson's claim in his introduction that his latest book is the first, which is debatable, to exclusively deal with the subject of Lincoln as a war president.
I'd purchased "Tried by War" because of my long held admiration for Mr. McPherson writings - particularly his book,"Battlecry of Freedom", which is perhaps the finest one-volume history of the American civil war ever written - and to feed my continual hunger for orignal scholarship. Unfortunately,there is not a fact, story or theory in McPherson's latest work that has not been mentioned, rehashed or retold by any number of prominent Civil War historians, including Foote, Catton, Donald, Oates or even Kearns in her wonderful, "Team of Rivals".
Now having said that I will say "Tried by War" for a first time reader or someone who's just discovered the allure of American Civil War history is an excellent introduction to the subject.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent account of Lincoln's leadership 11 Oct 2008
By 1. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
McPherson has written an excellent account of how Lincoln managed his generals during the Civil War. According to McPherson, Lincoln wanted generals that would attack and destroy the Confederate army and also cooperate with each other on a broad front. Also this book is an account about how Lincoln embraced the abolition of slavery as a goal to be acheived at the end of the war. McPherson states Lincoln had two strategic concepts in mind which is to attack and destroy the rebel armies and that the Union army needs to attack on a broad front. Lincoln put up with Buell and McClellan because they were the best generals available but once the former failed at Perryville and the later at Antietam to destroy the Confederate army, Lincoln relieved them both. During this time period Lincoln kept Grant in the army, despite the protests by Halleck, because he attacks the enemy army. This desire to destroy the rebel army was one of the reasons why Linclon transfered a significant portion of McClellan's army to Shields and Fremont in the valley in order to destroy Jackson's army but they failed and Lincoln relieved them. After Hooker,Burnside, and Meade were unable to defeat the rebel army, Linclon found his general in Grant, who constantly attacked Lee and defeated the Army of Virginia at Five Forks. Sheridan and Thomas also extinguished two rebel armies as well. Finally Grant fulfilled Lincoln's strategic goal by attacking on a broad front with generals Grant and Sherman attacking at the same time.
This book is also about how Lincoln changed his attitude toward slavery during the war. When the war started Lincoln preserved slavery in the border states in order for them to remain in the Union. Lincoln's war goal at that time was just to keep the union in tact, but this changed in 1862 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln felt that freed slaves could be used against the Confederacy because they deprived it of manpower so he signed the Proclamation in 1862. Linclon soon allowed ex-slaves in to the Union army and once they were either killed or put back into slavery, Lincoln terminated future prisoner exchanges between the Union and the Confederacy. Ulitmately Lincoln would not listen to any Confederate peace offer until they gave into Union demands to abolish slavery.
Overall McPherson does a supberb job at telling why Lincoln was a excellent commander in chief, but he seems to skim over Linclon's suspending habeas corpus. McPherson's thesis about civilians like Lincoln having a greater strategic sense than their military counterparts is very similiar to the one that Eliot Cohen made in his book "Supreme Command." But unlike Cohen, McPherson makes a much stronger and detailed arguement about why Lincoln was better at conducting the war than some of his generals.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A. Lincoln: War President 28 Oct 2009
By Omer Belsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Historian James McPherson is justly famous for having written Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) -not only the best single volume book of the US Civil War, but one of the very best books of History on any country at any time. Battle Cry of Freedom offered a unique synthesis of Civil War scholarship in a brilliantly written and meticulously considered book. Since "Battle Cry of Freedom", McPherson has struggled in vain to produce anything as remarkable. His output has varied from reflections on the importance of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution), to interesting if predictable research into the motives of the Civil Warriors (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War), and even to fairly forgettable accounts of major battlefields (Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg (Crown Journeys)).

In "Tried by War" Lincoln tackles a subject he has highlighted earlier as a gap in Civil War Scholarship: The role of Abraham Lincoln as the Supreme Commander of the Union, and his contribution to the military victory.

Under the surface of "Tried by War" hides a fascinating, and to the best of my knowledge untold, story of the political and institutional changes of America. While McPherson at times senses that something is missing his narrative, reflecting on the political reasoning behind the military decisions, for the most part he settles with repeating - sometimes almost verbatim - the main narrative from "Battle Cry of Freedom". That this is nonetheless a readable, entertaining, and at times enlightening read is a great tribute to McPherson's capacities as a storyteller and a - conventional - historian.

McPherson's narrative focuses on two main aspects of Lincoln's contribution: His attempt to maintain public support for the War, and his struggles to make his Generals execute his military strategy rather than their own. The rest of my review would focus on the latter issue exclusively.

While Historians generally try to explain historical events by analyzing the interactions of complex historical trends and forces, Military history seems to have remained content with describing all history in terms of personalities. "Tried by War" definitely sins in this regard - in the main, it is a description of Lincoln discarding unsuitable Generals (George B. McClellan, Winfield Scott, Joseph Hooker, etc), and promoting the right ones (Chiefly Grant, but also Sheridan, Sherman and Thomas).

McPherson points out that Lincoln had a strategic vision of the war which differed greatly from that of his Generals, particularly General McClellan. This alone was not remarkable; Political leaders often have very different views from those of their Military advisors. What was remarkable about Lincoln's strategic insights were that they were obviously superior to those of the military, and that Lincoln managed to get the army to execute them. These accomplishments are all the more remarkable given Lincoln's lack of either military or high-level political experience.

Lincoln's proposed Grand Strategy for the War involved the destruction of Confederate Armies; It called upon the Union to take advantage of its superiority of numbers to conduct major military operations simultaneously - what McPherson calls "concentration in time" so as to prevent the Confederates from shifting resources each time against one Union army or the other. The strategy of Lincoln's early Generals was a strategy of a War of movement and encirclement (e.g. Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan"), designed to subdue the rebellion without major set battles.

As I said, other leaders have disputed the strategies suggested by their generals. But even with hindsight, it is not easy to say who was correct. Hitler's military adventurism seemed deranged to his senior commanders, but was it? After all, Hitler's bold action had paid handsome dividends, as with the invasion of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and of course France (Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941). British Premier Lloyd George wanted the military to change the focus from the deadly Western Front to a sort of military action in the East. While the popular view of the Great War is one of "Lions led by Donkeys", many military historians agree with the military (See Mud, Blood and Poppycock: This Will Overturn Everything You Thought You Knew about Britain and The First World War (Cassell Military Paperbacks) and Forgotten Victory: The First World War - Myths and Realities (Systems and Control: Foundations and Applications)). Even Jefferson Davis had envisioned a military strategy different than the one executed by the Confederacy - one modeled on George Washington's policy of preserving the armed forces and avoiding battle except under positive circumstances (But Confederate strategy was shaped above all by Robert E. Lee - and how many people are willing to consider that Lee erred? - Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History).

In my opinion, the source of Lincoln's superior military insight comes from political, rather than personal, grounds. The Pre Civil War army was a predominantly Southern, and especially Virginian, institute. The last three Secretaries of War were all Southerners; Its commander, Winfield Scott, a Virginian (albeit a loyal one). Many of its highest and most admired officers were Southerners as well (Primus inter pares, of course, was Robert E. Lee).

While I have no information on the Northern officers, I imagine most of them were sympathetic to their Southern colleagues, and thus mostly belonging to the Democratic party (McClellan, Rosecrans, Burnside were all Democrats, although Winfield Scott had been a Whig). The Democratic Party was a political coalition, where the senior partners were the Southern elite. The kind of War Lincoln and the Republicans called for would mean massive destruction of Southern lives and treasure, undermining the power of the Southern Democrats and solidifying Republican control. No wonder Democratic Generals disapproved. This was possibly a source of difference between Lincoln and the Generals: War as the continuation of Party Politics through other means.

Also remarkable was Lincoln ability to discard Generals who failed to do his bidding, and to promote those who did. Lloyd George loathed Field Marshall Haig, but was unable to oust him (See Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916-1918 (Penguin Biography)). Truman has had great difficulties in retiring General McArthur, and George W. Bush has had to await an electoral defeat before reshaping the Iraqi military strategy around "the Surge".

This is another question McPherson does not discuss. I would speculate that the answer is institutional. Unlike the armed forces in other conflicts, the US Army at the war's outbreak was in a state of chaos. Many of its best officers - including the designated commander -defected, and went to fight for the other side. Thus, deprived of key personnel, the army had to expand to numbers approximately 50 times its pre war size, and to prepare for a war more savage than anything it has known. Other expansions of the armed forces relied upon a skeleton of military professional. The army of the Civil War was commanded by soldiers who returned to active service after lucrative careers outside of it (unlike the rebuilding of US Forces in the First and Second World Wars, which were commanded by career officers such as John Pershing and George Marshall). If the President was "green", he faced a military establishment less established, so to speak, than other leaders.

None of this is to disparage Lincoln's accomplishment, but only to try and set them in perspective. McPherson doesn't attempt to do this, and thus fails to really tell us much new about the 16th president's generalship.

"Tried for War" is as well written as one can expect from McPherson (although, unlike his previous books, it contains excessive melodrama: "Has it not been for Lincoln's support at this time, the Grant of history would not have existed - and perhaps neither the Lincoln of history" p. 85). If you take it for what it is - a narrative of Lincoln as commander in chief - it is both adequate and entertaining.
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