Book review: “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early and his 15,000 Confederate troops were again raiding the North and threatening the federal capital of Washington, D.C.

It was a maneuver aimed at forcing Gen. U.S. Grant to weaken his siege of the Southern capital of Richmond by rushing soldiers north. Grant sent some surplus troops, enough to block Early but only that.

Abraham Lincoln asked him for more — not just to better protect Washington but even more to attempt to trap and “destroy the enemy’s force.” Grant complied.

As the new units arrived, they immediately began skirmishing with Early’s men near Fort Stevens, north of the city, and Lincoln went to watch.

The six-foot-four-inch president wearing his top hat made a large target as he peered over the parapet at enemy sharpshooters. As John Hay recorded the incident, “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.”

Tradition has it that the soldier was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And what he said was: “Get down, you fool!”

The cover of "Tried by War" includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

The cover of “Tried by War” includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James McPherson, one of the premier Civil War historians of this age, notes that there’s no proof one way or the other that Holmes said what he’s supposed to have said. But there’s no question that someone yelled at Lincoln, and no question that he was in danger.

The next day, as the Sixth Corps was preparing to drive Early away, Lincoln returned to Fort Stevens. A Union officer was shot while standing close to the president. This time General Wright himself ordered Lincoln to take cover (more politely than Holmes).


“The slows”

The story says a lot. For one thing, it is a story. As a public figure, Lincoln loved to tell stories, and, despite the many political controversies during his presidency, the American people and especially the Northern soldiers came to love hearing stories about him.

He certainly had a way with words; he got his point across.

Of Gen. George McClellan, a constant thorn in his side, Lincoln said, “He’s got the slows.” For 16 months the President tried to get his top general to attack Confederate armies, only to be told that McClellan’s troops needed more supplies, and the forces against him outnumbered his by a factor of two or more, and that he was looking for a way to maneuver around the rebel soldiers and attack Richmond.

Lincoln told him to forget about the Confederate capital. “Destroy the rebel army,” he told McClellan a short time before he finally cashiered him. “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point.”

Lincoln put up with him for so long because McClellan had been so successful from such a young age and really could get an army well-organized. But those early successes, McPherson writes, were at the heart of the General’s procrastination, as the President probably understood as well.

Having known nothing but success 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. To move against the enemy was to risk failure.

Then, when finally he couldn’t avoid a battle, McClellan was shattered by the gore and horror that he saw on the battlefield. “Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such a cost…Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunted me,” he said.

McClellan’s sentiments [McPherson writes] did credit to him as a human being and help explain why his soldiers idolized him. But they also reinforced his intention to capture Richmond by maneuver and siege rather than by hard fighting.

McClellan was one of many of Lincoln’s generals who liked the pomp and power of military command. Gen. John C. Fremont, for instance, caused a lot of trouble because of his “proconsular personality and outsize ego.”

Fremont was one of many “political generals” in the Union Army. These were politicians or other politically connected civilians who were given high rank in return for supporting the war. Some weren’t too bad, but many didn’t have what it took to lead soldiers. Of course, as it turned out, many West Point graduates, such as McClellan, didn’t either.


“You were right”

Grant — the antithesis of the overdressed dandies like McClellan — was one who did.

Any reader of Tried by Fire can sense the relief and gratitude that Lincoln felt when he realized, sometimes after fits and starts, that Grant and others like him, including William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan and George H. Thomas, were the sort of fighting generals he had been seeking since the start of the war.

That they shared the same vision he had of fighting a hard war against the South, and that they were willing to work with him, rather than against him. (McClellan and his allies routinely referred to Lincoln as an “idiot,” a “baboon” and a “gorilla.”)

There’s no indication that Lincoln was upset when the soldier at Fort Stevens yelled at him to duck. He was willing to listen to good advice.

And, although he was a hands-on Commander-in-Chief who pushed the need for an aggressive effort to hurt the rebel army and the rebel states, Lincoln could also stand back and let his subordinates run with the ball. That didn’t work very well with McClellan and his ilk, but bore great fruit with Grant and Sherman.

When Grant took Vicksburg (because Lincoln had given him enough leeway to make his own decisions), the President wrote to him to say that he had thought Grant’s moves to be mistaken.

“I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”

Much has been written about how well Lincoln and Grant meshed as a fighting force. McPherson makes clear that there were some bumps along the way. Nonetheless, the Fort Stevens story is an example of how they worked together.

Tried by Fire has examples, seemingly on every other page, of attempts by Lincoln to get McClellan or one of the other generals to do something only to be ignored. Yet, when he asks Grant for more troops to counter Early, the general responds quickly.

The same couldn’t be said for Gen. Horatio Wright, the one who politely asked the President to take shelter at Fort Stevens.

Despite Lincoln’s urgings, Wright wasn’t aggressive enough to find and catch and destroy Early and his soldiers. A sarcastic Lincoln told his secretary John Hay, “Wright telegraphs that he thinks the enemy are all across the Potomac but that he has halted & sent out an infantry reconnaissance, for fear he might come across the rebels & catch some of them.”


“The chief challenge”

In Tried by War, McPherson deals with personalities, but puts them into the context of what Lincoln was attempting to do — to oversee all aspects of running a war.

Not only did the President need to find the right generals, but also to develop a vision for the object of the military effort. He had to sell that vision to a public prone to mood swings due to battlefield news and the influence of political forces.

His approach had to be flexible and dynamic.

Lincoln started off with a simple vision — to restore the Union. As the war evolved, it became clear that the slaves being held by the Confederacy were a major part of the rebellion’s war machine.

So, then — and only then — did Lincoln begin to prepare the way for his eventual action as Commander-in-Chief to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the beginning of the end of slavery in this nation, as he well knew.

It was something that, personally, he had long wished for. But it was only when emancipation made sense militarily and politically that Lincoln took action.

Lincoln learned war on the job. He made mistakes. Yet, it was his skill as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief and Politician-in-Chief that brought the North through the war and reunited the country.

Tried by War, McPherson writes, is a book about “how — and how well — Lincoln met this challenge, which was unquestionably the chief challenge of his life and of the life of the nation.”

Patrick T. Reardon

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