Review: Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

by James Durney on October 30, 2008 · 4 comments

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201919
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201912

Lincoln is always right, the generals always wrong.

“James M. McPherson is, without any second thoughts, the premier author of the civil war, the battles, and the Generals that fought them.” This is a quote from one of the Amazon reviews of McPherson’s newest book Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. This a widely held view of the author of Battle Cry of Freedom and one that a reviewer disputes at great peril. James McPherson has been doing basic Civil War history for some time now. His books are something we would expect from a graduate student or a gifted amateur. I am not sure Professor McPherson would accept his last three books as a Doctoral Thesis from one of his students. This book, because of the subject and lack of coverage should have been a detailed scholarly treatment of Lincoln’s growth into the role of Commander in Chief. The author has failed to provide any insight or to question the Lincoln is always right school of thought. In doing so, he accepts the role of the Radical Republicans and ignores all military considerations. This school of thought holds that brave men ably lead will triumph. Logistic, training, communications are all nonsense or of little consequences. The French in 1914 and the Americans in 1918 killed thousands unlearning this lesson.

Lincoln is always right! With the exception of US Grant, all the generals are wrong. These two ideas are never questioned and form the foundation of every event.

1) Lincoln’s “all green together” statement to McDowell is passed off as an astute observation. This ignores the very real problems of moving a semi-trained mob from Washington to Manassas. First Bull Run may have been a close battle but the Union lost.

2) Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 contains no over reaction in Washington. Lincoln turned a defeat in a secondary theater into a major strategic victory. If you want a reasonable understanding of this, read Peter Cozzens or Gary Ecelbarger.

cppbanner Review: <i>Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief</i>

3) The appointment of General Pope, a darling of the Radicals, and removal of the Army of the Potomac from a secure base on the James River is not considered.

4) Burnside given command with the express understanding that he would attack. Washington was unable to support his movement, resulting in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside continued trying to attack and the Mud March resulted. The book contains no discussion of logistics or supplying armies via wagons. Lincoln’s February 1862 order to advance is considered a good idea destroyed by unwilling generals.

5) By 1863, Lincoln had established in the primary eastern army a lose a battle lose your job mindset. Little is said about this or the chilling effect it has on sr. commanders.

6) Nothing is said about Lincoln’s unreasonable expectations for destroying the Army of Northern Virginia in September 1862 or July 1863. In both cases, McClellan and Meade are faulted for not meeting those expectations. However, no Civil War army is destroyed after one battle. Several managed to reorganize after a disaster defeat and even worse retreat. It took Grant almost a year of continuous contact to force Lee to surrender. The author says nothing about Lincoln have unreasonable expectations.

The book is firmly grounded in the interpretation of the American Civil War of the 1970s. The author writes very well and is easy to read. However, his ideas are dated, his conclusions questionable and his commitment to doing excellent work missing.

Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president observed, “no man ever grew in the executive chair in his lifetime as Lincoln did.” This book ignores and/or minimizes that growth.

Author’s note:  This should be on Amazon by OCT 31st. I expect to be savaged by the author’s fans.  My current ranking is 581, with 1,669 helpful votes out of 2,041 total votes.  Take a check next week and see how much damage can be done an Amazon reviewer if they speak their mind.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Harry October 31, 2008 at 7:44 am

Astute and valid observations, Jim. By now, everyone should know what to expect when they open a book by Big Mac: fine writing yes, but not groundbreaking history, or even history that incorporates much recent scholarship.

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Ethan S. Rafuse November 3, 2008 at 9:38 am

A very honest and sadly accurate review, Brett. From a quick skim through the book one gets the impression he is not even trying. What is even sadder is that this book will be consumed and taken as gospel (see the feature article on JM in Friday’s Washington Post) by far more than will ever see How the North Won or the many worthy books touching on the subject that JM clearly and resolutely ignored.

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