Review of “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

If your own life does not offer frustrations to irritate you beyond reason, you can read this account of what Lincoln had to endure with his generals during the Civil War, most notably George McClellan.


McClellan didn’t seem too interested in engaging the army of which he had command, but he was so popular with his troops that Lincoln feared mutiny if he dismissed McClellan. McClellan also had overwhelming and enthusiastic support among Democrats. Therefore, Lincoln decided he had better put up with McClellan at least until after the elections in November of 1862.

But there is much more in this book than contemplating how many lives might have not been lost if McClellan (and subsequent balky generals) had just followed Lincoln’s orders.

McPherson organizes the book around five functions performed or overseen by Lincoln in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief: the formulation of policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. In all of these areas, McPherson shows how Lincoln based his decisions on one core concept, i.e., to preserve the nation by winning the war. Lincoln averred that “the right of a State to secede is not an open or debatable question” and that the President “cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment.”

[It should be noted that there is nothing in the Constitution about whether or not a state may leave the Union. The South argued that the Constitution was simply a compact among sovereign states and states could opt out if they no longer found conditions for this compact favorable to them. Lincoln, however, argued that the nation predated the Constitution, having been declared by the people, not the states, in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore no state can dissolve the Union. This is the idea upon which he elaborated in The Gettysburg Address.]

President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, October 3, 1862

President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, October 3, 1862

Later in his presidency, Lincoln added two other conditions for peace in addition to the insistence that the Union be restored. One was “abandonment of slavery.” Lincoln made a promise of freedom to black soldiers who fought for the Union, and, he maintained, he could not betray that promise. Nor would he agree to any ceasefire for the purpose of negotiations – he stipulated that there would be “no cessation of hostilities sort of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”

Much of McPherson’s analysis is made by reporting the content of the telegrams Lincoln sent his generals, and explaining the many excuses the generals made by way of reply for not obeying Lincoln’s directions. Lincoln’s suggestions for military operations were remarkably astute, but they mostly were ignored.

Lincoln was incredibly frustrated over his generals’ inaction, excuses, and even insubordination, but he faced three main difficulties: (1) in the beginning, Lincoln was unsure of his own ability as a “commander in chief” and thought the West Point “professionals” perforce must know better than he, so he was apt to defer to their judgment; (2) many of the non-professionals were political appointments Lincoln had made to appease some faction or other, and while these men were very much out of their depth, Lincoln couldn’t take the political risk of cashiering them; (3) until near the end of the war, Lincoln just had no one else qualified to whom he could turn.

By 1864, however, Lincoln finally had a competent team in place, consisting of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas, inter alia – men who not only were eager and willing to fight an offensive war, rather than strictly taking a defensive stance, but who understood that the goal of the war was to destroy Lee’s army, not just to capture Richmond (whether the Confederate army was still intact or not!)

Grant in Cold Harbor, Virginia (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Grant in Cold Harbor, Virginia (Photo Credit: National Archives)

McPherson tips his hat to Lincoln’s lucid and convincing explanations to the American people of the actions he took. As McPherson writes, Lincoln was “a master of metaphors” who utilized stories and homilies to make abstruse concepts seem totally clear and logical.

He also defends the measures Lincoln took to extend the wartime powers of the Executive, such as Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and his authorization of military tribunals to try civilians. As McPherson argues, at no time in American history was the survival of the country in greater danger than in the Civil War. Yet, he reminds us:

“…compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.”

Evaluation: This examination of how Lincoln fulfilled his role as a wartime Commander-in-Chief provides an excellent perspective on Lincoln, the military, and the many challenges facing a wartime president. In addition, you also get a brief history of the Civil War itself: one that summarizes, in a highly interesting format, most of its history.

Rating:  4/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Narrator George Guidall does an excellent job. Not only does he read with emotion and enthusiasm (unlike many readers of history), but he gets all the tricky pronunciations correct (such as the names of Roger Taney and Darius Couch, and the word “carbine”).

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (9 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, 2008


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11 Responses to Review of “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

  1. Beth F says:

    I’m pretty sure Mr. BFR has read this — it’s on the bookshelves. I don’t know why we’re endlessly fascinated by the Civil War.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Wow, I’m impressed that you tackled something like this – I’m sure it’s too intellectual for me.

  3. Trisha says:

    I think if I were Lincoln the frustration of being ignored would have pushed me to some serious vengeance upon people. My eye is twitching just thinking about it.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I can always count on you to educate AND entertain, Jill. I’m sure that Jason would love this, but I’d convince him that he doesn’t know everything already!

  5. Belle Wong says:

    War is so complex. I’ve never thought about listening to history books in audio before. This sounds like an interesting one to read in audio.

  6. sandynawrot says:

    If I read this one, for sure it would have to be on audio. I really do like Guidall. Hey I might even learn something!

  7. Wait wait, what? How do you pronounce “carbine”? Have I been doing it wrong?

  8. whatsheread says:

    Oh, this one sounds excellent. I have been fascinated by the Civil War since my very first visit to Gettysburg National Park so many years ago. I will be adding this to my Audible wish list for certain!

  9. Rachel says:

    This sounds really good – it’s definitely a period of history that interests me.

  10. litandlife says:

    This is definitely coming to live at my house – but first I’ll give it to my dad for his birthday!

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