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Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief Hardcover – April 20, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Americans have grown so accustomed to presidents asserting and exercising extensive powers in that role that Perret's thesis may prove as surprising as it is accurate. Until "Lincoln's War," Perret (Ulysses S. Grant) argues, there were serious questions as to how far the president's powers to determine military policy extendedâ"or whether, indeed, they existed at all. The Constitution assigned the great issues, declaring war, raising armed forces, ratifying treaties, to Congress. At the other end of the spectrum the Mexican War had created a precedent of leaving strategy and operations to the professionals, particularly Gen. Winfield Scott. Perret argues convincingly that Scott's initial plan against the Confederacy, far from calling for its gradual economic strangulation, provided for replicating his triumph in Mexico by combining a holding action in the east and a decisive thrust down the Mississippi, designed to cut the Confederacy in half by the spring of 1862. Lincoln saw even that delay as unacceptable. While he did not have an expanded idea of presidential power at the time of his election, the comprehensive threat to national survival posed by the South's secession changed his mind. Perret uses archival and published sources to show how Lincoln, pragmatic in this respect as in so many others, put national survival above military, political and legal restraints. Creating by stages a "war power" nowhere described in the Constitution that made him a virtual dictator, Lincoln at the same time consistently appealed for support and validation to Congress, the court system and public opinion, themselves all significantly divided on how best to proceed. The president worked closely as well with a fractious high command incorporating military professionals, like Grant and Henry Halleck, and amateur "political soldiers," like Ben Butler. Developing increasing sophistication in coordinating battlefield victories with the wider political objectives of restoring and reintegrating the union, Abraham Lincoln won his war and in the process redefined the presidency.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Lincoln is lauded for his skills as a political leader, his moral strength, and his unyielding devotion to popular government in the U.S. as the "last, best, hope of man." He is seldom praised for his military acumen or even for his choice of subordinates in his role as commander in chief. Perret has written three presidential biographies and four works of military history. Here he provides an interesting and sometimes provocative view of Lincoln that credits him with far greater skills as a commander than is generally realized. Furthermore, Perret asserts that Lincoln redefined forever the role of commander in chief, assuming powers that were previously considered the province of Congress. This is a well-argued work that will be a valuable addition to Civil War collections. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top customer reviews
The book is neatly organized. There is a general progression from before the start of the war until its conclusion, but many-if not all-of the chapters are organized thematically. And these chapters are well written and highly engaging. Many readers and reviewers have complained about some historical inaccuracies concerning some of the details, how major battles and events are given little attention, or that the portrayal of U.S. Grant is all wrong. Perhaps they detractors are correct in those regard, but one has to keep in mind the book's overall focus upon Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, and in that regard I believe this book succeeds. (Perhaps this book deserves 3.5 stars instead of four, but because the one-star ratings for this book are so undeserved, I'll stand by my four-star rating.)
Since much of Lincoln's time and energy was focused upon the Army of the Potomac and the struggle in the East, much of the book focuses upon that. However, ample attention is also paid to the war as it was fought in the West. A recurring theme (or assertion) throughout the book is that the Union's emphasis upon the East and marching the Army of the Potomac on the Confederate's capitol was misguided, and that more attention should have been paid to the Western front. This point is controversial, but at the very least the author does an adequate job in backing up this notion throughout the book.
The author's portrayal of Lincoln as a man and as a military leader comes across as very sympathetic and positive-quite deserved, in this reviewer's view. The war was a tragedy for the nation, and all of the death and destruction took a heavy, heavy toll on Lincoln. His struggles with intense pain and sadness are remarkable.
There was clearly a political dimension to Lincoln's role as Commander-in-Chief. After reading this book, I am further struck with how absolutely essential the political dimension was in prosecuting the war. Lincoln's political calculations were essential to keeping the borders states from joining the Confederacy and in keeping the voters of the North committed to candidates who supported the Union. One of the surest ways to dissolution would have been for the North to have elected a Democrat who would have sought a truce. Matters were further complicated by Lincoln's perpetual struggles with Union generals. The generalship problems appear to have persisted until near the end of the war.
A few chapters stand out in my mind, which I found personally insightful. One chapter was devoted to Gen. Winfield Scott's contribution to the Union cause while serving as General-in-Chief at the beginning of the war. Another chapter is devoted to the U.S.S. Monitor, and another focuses upon Lincoln's acute interest in military and weapons technology. (For some reason, I find the image of Lincoln wearing his stove-pipe hat and firing rifles rather amusing.)
I enjoyed reading this book.
Putting these, perhaps significant, issues aside, the book does provide great insight into the development of the modern presidency and the role of the president as commander in chief. Lincoln transformed the wartime office of president into a role that we see today as strategist, administrator, commander and policy maker. Lincoln's background and involvement in the war created a new approach to the presidency and the war department that included the development of the Army Chief of Staff and the decentralized command structures we see today. His involvement in the strategy to modernize the infantry and cavalry firearms from muzzle loading rifles to repeating breech loading ones is a largely overlooked significant impact on both the Civil War and modern warfare in general.
Perret tries, somewhat successfully, to get to the man behind the myth/legend of Lincoln. He does provide insights and elements that are largely ignored in most traditional Civil War histories. This book is worth the read if you have interest in the Civil War, in military-political history, or in Lincoln. While the inaccuracies and glosses may annoy, the overall picture the book gives and the insights Perret calls forth are definitely worth exploring.
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