By Chaput, Erik J.
Phi Kappa Phi Forum , Vol. 89, No. 2
In his latest book that blends scholarly insight with mainstream appeal, James M. McPherson deftly chronicles President Abraham Lincoln's direction of the Union war effort. The author details the evolution of a national strategy that initially focused on the "conciliation of the border states and supposed Southern Unionists" and ultimately expanded to an "effort to destroy Confederate resources including slavery and to mobilize those resources for the Union." The analysis--incisive and accessible--is vintage McPherson and does Lincoln proud on the bicentennial of the 16th president's birth (on Feb. 12, 1809).
After all, for more than four decades McPherson has been the most consistent and hard-working historian of the Age of Lincoln. Past president of the American Historical Association and Professor of American History Emeritus at Princeton University. McPherson has authored more than a dozen well-received books on the Civil War. They include Battle Cry of Freedom, winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, and For Cause and Comrades, winner of the 1998 Lincoln Prize, which is awarded annually by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysbury College for outstanding scholary work on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War solider.
McPherson demonstrates that Honest Abe was shrewd, too
As in the case with McPherson's other books, Tried by War--which in February shared the 2009 Lincoln Prize with Craig L. Symons' Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War--displays great erudition along with an engaging writing style. Even those familiar with the Civil War will find new insights on almost every page. For example, McPherson lucidly explains how Lincoln outmaneuvered Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the 1861 Ex prate Merry man case, figuring out how to override Toney's decision that John Merryman, a citizen of Maryland, had been illegally detained on suspicion of treason for cooperating with the Confederacy. The fact that it was not an opinion of the full Supreme Court, as McPherson notes, but instead an "in chambers" opinion--which is an opinion by a justice in his own capacity and not for the larger Court--provided Lincoln with room to maneuver. Lincoln needed to suspend habeas corpus and justify his actions to Congress, and McPherson ably recounts all the permutations along the way.
Moreover, McPherson's subtle book about Lincoln's role as commander in chief is refreshing because of the current lack of interest in addressing military history by some within the historical profession. Often the focus of social historians is on the abolition of slavery and the evolving concept of freedom in the nineteenth century. However, the eradication of slavery would not have been possible if there was no Union Army, no Union lines to escape to.
As McPherson notes in his discussion of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it was Lincoln who led the move from a war for union to a war to abolish the South's "peculiar institution." The proclamation may have had all "the moral grandeur of a bill of lading," as the historian Richard Hofstadter famously wrote, but in Lincoln's mind it was a military measure to ensure eventual freedom for slaves. In this crucial sense, freedom came only from the guns of the Union army.
Lincoln learned how to be a commander in chief on the job
McPherson highlights five key areas he believes a commander in chief oversees in times of war: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations and tactics. Lincoln had a hand in all of these even though, as McPherson reminds us, there were no precedents for Lincoln to look to when he took office.
Little guidance about the role or powers of the executive branch in military affairs could be gleaned from the conduct of President James Madison in the War of 1812 or President James K. Polk in the Mexican War in the 1840s. Neither war, as McPherson writes, "combined the most dangerous aspects of an internal war and a war against another nation. …