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on October 11, 2008
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.
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VINE VOICEon November 12, 2008
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.
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on October 27, 2008
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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on October 10, 2008
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.
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on July 6, 2012
Both Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War have seen countless books devoted to them, from general biographies or histories to entire books focused on single speeches by Lincoln or single battles of the war. So, the idea of a book narrowly focused on Abraham Lincoln in his role as Commander in Chief is a good one, with a great deal of potential to take a unique view of Lincoln and the war. Unfortunately, in James M. McPherson's 2008 volume Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, he doesn't really live up to the potential of the premise, instead delivering what reads more like a general history of the Union war effort.

McPherson opens with setting up five main ideas about what a Commander in Chief has to be responsible for. Unfortunately, I can't recall what the five things are, since McPherson then completely forgets to mention them (not even so much as a "Lincoln's decision with X addressed Goal Y") until the epilogue. It's just sloppy writing. Without calling back to the five main points he went to such lengths to detail in the opening, McPherson seems to drift in his narrative and doesn't really get back to the premise of the book.

What McPherson gives us is a fairly general account of the Civil War from the Union side. He honestly doesn't even seem very focused on Lincoln. He spends a great deal of time in the field with the cavalcade of Union generals and in the thick of various fights. But those don't really have anything directly to do with Lincoln, much less his role as Commander in Chief. Detailing how Lincoln made his decisions about the war would be more what I'm expecting, but that's not what we get. Reading time after time how each Union general before Grant screwed up I can do with pretty much any Civil War history.

Even though it's a general biography of Lincoln, I found David Herbert Donald's Lincoln to be much better at the stated goal of Tried by War than Tried by War is. The approach Donald took was to look only at what Lincoln knew when making his decisions. Donald never goes to any battlefields in his biography, save for when Lincoln himself occasionally visited the Army of the Potomac. After all, the specifics of what happened when the battles started were out of Lincoln's hands. All Lincoln could be responsible for were the commands he gave the generals, not how those generals carried them out. McPherson really could have benefited from taking this same approach. It would have provided much more focus to Tried by War and kept the book to its stated premise, instead of getting bogged down as badly as McClellan leading the Army of the Potomac.

McPherson doesn't really seem to evaluate Lincoln's decisions when he does talk about them, either. Until the epilogue, there's no mention of whether or not Lincoln's suspicion of Habeas Corpus was justified or necessary, or any discussion of if his choices for general in chief could have been better, for example. For a book that is supposed to be evaluating Lincoln as Commander in Chief, those issues need to be the central conversation, not simply confined to the epilogue.

I listened to Penguin Audio's 2009 recording of Tried by War, read by George Guidall. Guidall was adequate, but had issues. The main problem with his reading is that he uses a single voice. Even though Tried by War is a history and not a novel and doesn't have characters per se, you still need to be able to hear the difference when something is being quoted. I could forgive Guidall for not inventing voices for Lincoln, McClellan, et al, but he should have still had a consistently identifiable tone for quotes. He would sometimes have a certain inflection when a quote started, but not always, and it was hard to tell at times when the quote ended and McPherson picked up, because there was no closing inflection. The audio production runs approximately 9.5 hours.

Tried by War is a perfectly solid history of the Union effort in the Civil War. Unfortunately, it aimed to be so much more than that, and made no real effort to reach its own stated goal. McPherson missed a chance for a really great book here.
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on October 27, 2009
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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on October 30, 2008
February 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Consequently, over the next year and a half, the average bookstore browser will be buried underneath an avalanche of new books on the most written about figure in all of American history.

"Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief," by James M. McPherson, noted Civil War historian & the George Henry Davis '86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University, is among the newest in the crop of the Lincoln Bicentennial titles.

In "Tried By War" Dr. McPherson highlights how Abraham Lincoln came to understand and define the largely undefined role of commander in chief. He takes us through each phase of Lincoln's development into the role: from first deferring to General Winfield Scott, then to prodding George B. McClellan into action. After studying military tactics, Lincoln felt confident enough and wondered if he might borrow the army when McClellan fell ill with typhoid fever. In the end McClellan was a disappointment to Lincoln, as were Henry Halleck, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, William Rosecrans and George Meade. Through each successive general Lincoln learned and grew into the role of commander in chief, not largely because he wanted to, but because he had to. Finally, with Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman & Philip Sheridan, Lincoln found generals who understood the defeat of the Confederate armies and not the surrender of Richmond, the Confederate capital, would bring the rebellion to an end.

Sadly there is little, if anything, new in fact or interpretation in this book. Dr. McPherson seems to have relied on the tried and true. Most of the content between the covers of "Tried By War" can be found in a number of other books on Lincoln.

The Lincoln-McClellan relationship is complicated, and one worthy of a book of its own. Dr. McPherson seems to have "cherry picked" every negative word and action of McClellan's for inclusion in his book. To be fair, McClellan has served up these quotes and snubs toward Lincoln (not to mention his overestimates of Confederate troop strength, his constant pleas for more men and his apparent lack of will to send the Army of the Potomac into battle) on a silver platter for historians. But I think Dr. McPherson's diagnosis of McClellan's "messiah complex" goes a bit too far.

If anything, at 270 pages of text, the book is too short. It is a great survey of Lincoln as commander in chief, but an in depth review of the facts and analysis of them it is not. On its merits, the book it well researched, and well written. Dr. McPherson's narrative flows effortlessly from topic to topic and is easily read. Though "Tried By War" may not be the book for the well read student of the Civil War it would serve as a great introduction for some one just developing their interest in the subject.
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on December 15, 2008
Dr. James McPherson is well known to Civil War buffs and scholars. His monumental "Battle Cry of Freedom" is the best one volume account of the horrific Civil War which claimed over 60O,OOO battle deaths. In this short work he puts under the historical microscope Lincoln's conduct of the military aspect of the war; how he assessed, hired and fired generals ;leading the Union to a must win victory. Lincoln preservedthe United States and emancipitated African Americans being held in chattel slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 and passage of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Lincoln is our only president whose entire administration was consumed by war. His own military career was limited to brief service as a volunteer officer in the Black Hawk War of 1831. Lincoln was a brilliant autodidact who read military history and was a keen judge of men equipped to lead. Lincoln made many mistakes but learned from those mistakes to select men like US Grant, William T. Sherman and Phillip Sheridan. These three generals broke the back of the confederacy. Grant whipped Lee leading to Appomattox. Sherman beat Johnston and Hood while his march to the sea seized Atlanta, Savannnah and ravaged the Southern interior. Sheridan soundly defeated Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864
McPherson judges miltary leadership by five criteria:
1. Policy: Lincoln moved the nation from a defense of Union to one of emancipation for the slaves. In this effort he won the approval of foreign governments making the war a moral crusade. Nearly 200,000 African Americans served in the ranks of Union Blue. As McPherson notes,
" He oversaw the evolution of the war from one of limited means to a full scale effort that destroyed the old Union and built a new and better one on its ashes." (p. 267).
2. National Strategy: Lincoln led the government from that of the Union surviving to one of destruction of the Southern Confederacy. At first content to preserve the Union of 33 states (15 of which were slave holding) he moved to a total destruction of slavery and the Confederate government.
3. Military strategy: Lincoln advocated the destruction of armies rather than the seizing of enemy land. He urged his commanders to destroy Lee's Army of Northern Virginia: Bragg's Army of Tennesse and Early' army in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln finally found Grant to accomplish this feat as the Ohio general brought victory to the Union in his Overland Campaign against Lee in 1864. Men like Sherman and Sheridan destroyed the other major Confederate forces in the field.
Victory was difficult. Lincoln put up with many failed generals such as George McClellan who commanded the Army of the Potomac to be followed by such failures in that position as Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker and John Pope (who led the Army of Virginia). Lincoln had mixed success with George Meade at Gettysburg. He tried until he made the right choice of the right man. Lincoln believed in hard, aggressive war which led to Union triumph. He had many moments of depression but never gave up his goal of ultimate victory, the preservation of the Union and freedom for African Americans.
4 & 5. Operation and Tactics-Lincoln urged concentration of his forces in time. He urged two or more Union armies to advance against the foe on exterior lines eating away at the interior of the Confederate heartland. Lincoln was an activist who wanted all of his armies to work together as a time invading the confederacy and destroying Southern armies. This strategy finally worked with the team of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. The Confederacy was reduced in manpower and strength as her armies were decimated in horrific losses; her cities seized and interior structure of railroads destroyed.
This book is a good introduction to Lincoln and Northern military operations during the Civil War. It may also serve as a refresher course for longtime Civil War Buffs. McPherson gives brief accounts of all the major battles of both the eastern and western battlefields. He also covers such controversial areas as Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties during the crucible of the war. These measures were necessary to preserve Union victory.
The book is a good addition to any Civil War or Lincoln bookshelf by a master of Civil War and Lincoln studies. Recommended.
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VINE VOICEon May 30, 2009
I found this book to have nothing new or interesting to it and I found it to be a little dull. Now, I've read many, many Civil War books, so that may be part of the reason. But, I've also read many McPherson Civil War books, and this is the worst book that I've read from him on this topic. And, I've read a lot of books on Lincoln and I consider this to be one of the least interesting and perceptive books on that topic. Yes, it is, I'm sure, historically accurate, as are all of McPherson's books. But, this book lacks the ability to catch me and keep my interest. At the end of the book, I was waiting for, and looking forward to the end.
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on July 21, 2011
"Tried By War," is an enjoyable read and a strong summation of Lincoln's work as commander in chief. McPherson does well in marshaling the progress of the Civil War, and Lincoln's leadership and reactions to events on the battlefield. It's good history. But that's all it is, as the book is largely bereft of much analysis or probing insights into Lincoln and many of his big, as well as his small, war decisions. I found the book ultimately satisfying, but disappointing on this score.

Early in the introduction (p. 5), McPherson teases us by breaking down the five functions of the commander in chief power in brilliant fashion between policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. Later, on p. 70, he dissects Lincoln's prodding his generals to focus more on a "concentration in time" approach which would hit Southern forces with the North's superior numbers and disrupt their clever interior line movements, instead of his generals' tired focus on "concentration in space," whereby the Union was concerned more with winning ground than engaging the enemy head-on. Similarly, on p. 142, McPherson briefly discusses Lincoln's strategy as based on his the work of Clausewitz, the leading military theorist of the age.

These sections were excellent, and whetted my appetite that McPherson would dedicate considerable energy to dissecting the bases for Lincoln's military strategies and to what extent they were ultimately the right approach for the Union. Unfortunately, aside from these instances, he never really went any further. No doubt, McPherson is a historian, and a tremendous one at that, so perhaps that explains his lack of analysis on Lincoln's leadership of developments on the battlefield and his treatment of his generals. But I was hoping for much more given the ballyhoo that accompanied this book. The book ultimately suffers for this deficiency. More generally, what about how Lincoln individually handled his generals? McPherson's look at the relationship between Lincoln and George B. McClellan is exhaustive, particularly the fascinating analysis provided on p. 47-48 which tries to impute McClellan's inaction to his privileged life up to that point:

"Having known nothing in his meteoric career, McClellan came to Washington as the Young Napoleon destined by God to save the country. These high expectations paralyzed him. Failure was unthinkable. Never having experienced failure, he feared the unknown."

Awesome stuff. But beyond that, McPherson doesn't go much further as it relates to Lincoln's bond with other generals, even with Grant. Was Lincoln too impulsive in his relieving generals like Buell, Hooker, Rosecrans, et al? What was the basis of the broader "concentration in space" outlook? Were their slow movements destined to failure, or was Lincoln's leadership perhaps too impulsive at times? Why did he take so long to promote George Thomas? There are no hard answers to these questions, but I would have loved McPherson's views on them. Overhaul, these omissions don't doom the book -- it's great history and a nice read -- but they unquestionably limit its scope.
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