Marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth, this marvelous short biography by a leading historian offers an illuminating portrait of one of the giants in the American story. It is the best concise introduction to Lincoln in print, a must-have volume for anyone interested in American history or in our greatest president. In the discussion below, noted historian and author of Lincoln and His Admirals
, Craig L. Symonds, talks to James M. McPherson about Lincoln's relationships with his generals, beginning with the controversial commander of the northern army, George McClellan, whose soldiers referred to him as the "the young Napoleon." Both historians share the prestigious 2009 Lincoln Prize for the year's best books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
and Symonds's Lincoln and His Admirals
were the winning books.
A Conversation Between Two Lincoln Historians: James M. McPherson and Craig L. Symonds
Symonds: George McClellan is clearly a central character in this story. In your view, was Lincoln too patient with Little Mac, not patient enough, or just about right? Would the Lincoln of 1864 have tolerated McClellan as long as the Lincoln of 1862 did?
McPherson: In one sense, he was too patient. McClellan deserved to be fired after his failure to reinforce [General] Pope at Second Bull Run, as a majority of the Cabinet wanted Lincoln to do. But in another sense, Lincoln was absolutely right that only McClellan could reorganize the army and restore its morale, and if the president had fired him then, the army might have broken down. In the end, Lincoln's timing on removing Mac from command--just after the fall elections in 1862--was just right.
Symonds: What about the so-called political generals: did Lincoln appoint and tolerate them out of perceived political necessity or because he believed that some of them, at least, had genuine merit? And, for that matter, did any of them have genuine merit?
McPherson: Lincoln appointed the political generals in order to mobilize their constituencies for the war effort. Northern mobilization for the war in 1861-62 was a from-the-bottom-up process, with important local and state political leaders playing a key part in persuading men to enlist in this all-volunteer army, and political generals were a key part in this process, which increased an army of 16,000 men in April 1861 to an army of 637,000 men in April 1862. And while we are all familiar with the military incompetents among the political generals, some of them were actually pretty good--John Logan and Frank Blair, for example.
Symonds: Why did Lincoln put up with [his chief war advisor] Henry Halleck?
McPherson: Lincoln used Halleck to translate presidential orders and wishes into language that military commanders could understand, and to translate their reports and requests and explanations into language that Lincoln understood. That was what Lincoln meant when he called Halleck a "first-rate clerk." Of course he had wanted him to be more than a clerk, and that is why Lincoln finally appointed Grant as General in Chief and booted Halleck upstairs into the new office of "chief of staff," where his clerkly qualities were needed.
Symonds: Lincoln was clearly relieved to turn over military operations to Grant in 1864, but did he also fear Grant as a potential political rival?
McPherson: He had been concerned about Grant as a potential political rival, until Grant let it be known throughout intermediaries that he unequivocally and absolutely had no political ambitions in 1864 and strongly supported Lincoln's reelection. After that, Lincoln had no more concerns.
Symonds: Now that you will be the owner of two busts of Lincoln by Augustus St. Gaudens, along with your many other prizes, isn't your house getting pretty full?
McPherson: There is still room in the house, but since my grandchildren are interested in Mr. Lincoln in bronze, I may deposit this bust in their house, where I can visit it whenever I want (they live ten miles away). Read more
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) contributes to the slew of Lincoln biennial books with this succinct biography, weighing in at a lean 70 pages (plus notes), that delivers gracefully on McPherson's promise to capture "the essential events and meaning of Lincoln's life without oversimplification or overgeneralization." McPherson is a precise writer with a masterful command of the subject, guiding readers through the evolution of Lincoln's thinking on race, his lifelong struggle with depression, his improbable rise to political power, his anguish over the breakup of the union and his determination to see it made whole again. For anyone wanting to fill the gaps in their understanding of the Great Emancipator by the end of President's Day, this efficient account from a noted Civil War scholar is a near-perfect solution.
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