Lincoln as war president

It's often said that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in world history except for Jesus Christ. (Actually Lincoln comes in fourth, behind Jesus, Shakespeare, and the Virgin Mary.) Publishers, eagerly anticipating the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth on Feb. 12, 2009, are cashing in on his popularity, issuing shelves of books on seemingly every aspect of the life of the martyred 16th president.

Readers can select from an authoritative, boxed four-volume set of Lincoln's legal documents and cases, a compilation of hundreds of answers to common questions about the great rail-splitter and a chronicle of a high school teacher's four summers researching Lincoln monuments. A new narrative history of Lincoln's 1858 debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas joins an updated documentary edition of the debates. And in another book, a journalist shares his adventures in what he terms "Lincolnworld" -- the province of Lincoln buffs, collectors, impersonators and tour guides.

Best of all the new books on Lincoln, however, is James M. McPherson's gracefully written and fast-paced "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." McPherson, whose "Battle Cry of Freedom" (1988) reigns as the standard one-volume treatment of the Civil War, notes correctly that Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire presidency was circumscribed by the conflagration of war. And most surprisingly, despite the mountains of books on Lincoln and the Civil War, most scholars have ignored the president's evolution as a military leader.

Lincoln, however, was painfully aware of the importance of his understanding of and relationship to the military. In his second inaugural address, after almost four years of bloody, internecine warfare, the president reminded Northerners that on "the progress of our arms . . . all else chiefly depends."

Though a quick study, Lincoln faced a steep learning curve as head of the Union military. In 1848 then Illinois congressman Lincoln poked fun at his less-than-heroic service as militia captain in the 1832 Black Hawk War. "Yes, sir," Lincoln quipped, "I fought, bled, and ... had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes." In fact, unlike Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, Mexican War hero and former secretary of war, Lincoln had no military experience upon assuming the presidency in 1861.

Nevertheless, as McPherson explains cogently, Lincoln transformed in the crucible of war, gradually mastering the dual roles of commander in chief. As leader of Union forces, he worked closely with his generals in the field to devise new battlefield strategies. As the head of the executive branch, he developed political strategies to justify the war and define its aims. Emancipation and a new nationalism represent best the monumental fruits of Lincoln's maturation.

McPherson credits Lincoln with ultimately becoming "a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president," especially in terms of establishing war aims and mobilizing the military, political, economic, diplomatic and psychological resources to achieve them. In all phases of his leadership, the president "was dynamic rather than static."

For example, circumstances forced Lincoln to alter his initial policy -- restoring the Union with slavery -- in favor of abolishing slavery and preserving the Union at all costs. His shift from orchestrating a war of limited ends to a full-scale effort, McPherson contends, was nothing short of "revolutionary." It "stemmed in part from the evolution of national strategy from conciliation of the border states and supposed Southern Unionists into an all-out effort to destroy Confederate resources including slavery and to mobilize those resources for the Union -- including black soldiers who had been slaves."

To be sure, Lincoln stumbled as commander of the Union armies. He deferred to and exhibited too much patience with Gen. George B. McClellan as well as Gens. Ambrose E. Burnside, John Pope, Joseph Hooker, George G. Meade, Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. In fairness to Lincoln, however, McPherson notes that "in each case the general he named seemed to be the best man for the job when he was appointed."

He applauds Lincoln's gradual conceptualization of national strategy: that Union victory hinged on destroying Confederate armies, not capturing Confederate territory. In September 1862, he implored McClellan to "destroy the rebel army." Similarly, in June 1863 Lincoln lectured Hooker: "Lee's Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point."

In Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, along with Gens. William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas and Philip H. Sheridan, Lincoln finally found the field commanders capable of implementing his strategy. They wore down Confederate forces with aggressive operations and tactics, including counteroffensives against Rebel invasions and raids and simultaneous advances of two or more Union armies on exterior lines. The operations overcame Confederate advantages of concentration of troops by employing interior lines.

Though Lincoln apparently never read Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz's 1832 "Vom Kriege" ("On War"), the president adhered to Clausewitz's famous dictum that war was "merely the continuation of policy by other means." Prefiguring French premier Georges Clemenceau, Lincoln recognized that war was too important to be left to generals.