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Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Paperback – September 29, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Given the importance of Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief to the nation's very survival, says McPherson, this role has been underexamined. McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), the doyen of Civil War historians, offers firm evidence of Lincoln's military effectiveness in this typically well-reasoned, well-presented analysis. Lincoln exercised the right to take any necessary measures to preserve the union and majority rule, including violating longstanding civil liberties (though McPherson considers the infringements milder than those adopted by later presidents). As McPherson shows, Lincoln understood the synergy of political and military decision-making; the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, harmonized the principles of union and freedom with a strategy of attacking the crucial Confederate resource of slave labor. Lincoln's commitment to linking policy and strategy made him the most hands-on American commander-in-chief; he oversaw strategy and offered operational advice, much of it shrewd and perceptive. Lincoln may have been an amateur of war, but McPherson successfully establishes him as America's greatest war leader. (Oct. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reviewers indicated that they would have embraced any new book by James McPherson on any aspect of the Civil War period. But current events likely compelled them to recommend this highly readable, informative book with special enthusiasm. The nature of the president's war powers, particularly the precedent set by Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, has been a central question of the Bush presidency. And as the highest office in the land is passed to Barack Obama, who is both a great admirer of Lincoln and who will become the only other president to hail from Illinois, McPherson's analysis should be particularly timely. Critics agreed we could have no better guide; as Timothy Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, McPherson is "one of those scholars whose ingrained integrity simply precludes him from stacking the historical deck."
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (September 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143116142
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143116141
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author


James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, Crossroads of Freedom (which was a New York Times bestseller), Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the Lincoln Prize.

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#73 in Books > History
#73 in Books > History

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 96 people found the following review helpful By Roy E. Perry on October 11, 2008
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).
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77 of 85 people found the following review helpful By CJA VINE VOICE on November 12, 2008
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.
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68 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Richardson J. Kovar on October 27, 2008
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.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By 1. on October 10, 2008
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.
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