This review of Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War appears in the Haysville Sun Times for Friday, December 5th.
The America in which we live each day would not exist but for the courageous acts of the man both the general public and professional historians agree to be America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.
We owe the very existence of our nation and much of its subsequent history to crucial decisions which Lincoln made, amidst the fog of what remains to this very day America’s most destructive and bloodiest war. And the shape of our presidency, our democracy, and the American Constitution would be irrevocably different without his incomparable influence.
As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth this next February 12th – an occasion for a special celebration at the Haysville Community Library – it is important to remember how very much we owe this humble yet brilliant man.
Dozens of excellent new Lincoln books have appeared in print in recent days, anticipating that anniversary. We’ll be reviewing a number of them in the pages of the Haysville Sun Times or in the library weblog at haysvillecommunitylibrary.org. But there is no more appropriate place to begin than with Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, the role which he himself created extemporaneously as the Civil War progressed.
“Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war,” observes James M. McPherson in the preface to his excellent new book Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. “On the day he took office the first document placed on his desk was a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, informing him that the garrison there must be withdrawn or resupplied at the risk of war. Lincoln chose to take that risk. Four years later he was assassinated, five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox but while several Confederate armies were still in the field.”
It is simply a fact, as McPherson notes, that “not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duties as commander-in-chief.”
Surprisingly, though, Lincoln’s virtually autonomous creation of the commander-in-chief role, and his radically innovative definition of its war powers, is one of the rarely examined aspects of his presidency. In 1952 T. Harry Williams published his classic Lincoln and His Generals, a book which is still richly rewarding and well worth reading. As mentioned, McPherson’s Tried by War was published earlier this year. Between these two books is sandwiched only Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander In Chief. I highly recommend all three.
Perret’s approach is fluid, intelligent and entertaining. It is less analytical than anecdotal — but few readers will regret the absence of the “academic” perspective. Well-documented, but occasionally unorthodox and at times even provocative in its point of view, Lincoln’s War conclusively demonstrates that Winfield Scott’s initial plans for suppression of the rebellion have long been misrepresented, caricatured as the “Anaconda plan” for slow strangulation of the Confederacy rather than a variant of the decisive Western Strategy which, in fact, ultimately won the war. As B.H. Liddell Hart noted, “in strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.”
In my own judgment, however, Perret overemphasizes and misconstrues Lincoln’s alleged “preoccupation” with a Richmond-centered Eastern Strategy. (I’ll admit, of course, that this is a question of emphasis and the interpretation of conflicting evidence.) Still, from first to last, Perret’s narrative captivates and holds the attention of the reader, illuminating many aspects of presidential leadership which are of interest and importance in the present day, ten score years from Lincoln’s birth.
It is well that we remind ourselves that Lincoln commanded, struggled, fought, and ultimately died for “a new birth of freedom,” in the certain conviction that with victory “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is equally well that we remember the words of his final inauguration, and that we “strive on to finish the work that we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
(For more concerning the question of Union strategy and Scott’s alleged “Anaconda plan,” see the excerpt from Lincoln’s War included in the immediately previous post, The Myth of the Anaconda Plan.)