Guide Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

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McPherson explores how the Illinois lawyer and self-taught military strategist managed to successfully prosecute the nation's bloodiest war. Like Lincoln, Obama enters office without any military experience of his own, yet he becomes commander in chief during a time of not one but two wars. What can Obama learn from Lincoln's example?

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief | American Civil War Museum

CNN put that question to McPherson, but first we discussed how the 16th president developed into arguably the country's greatest commander in chief. The following is an edited version of the interview.

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How did he get himself up to speed to make critical military decisions? James M. McPherson: We know from [Lincoln secretary] John Hay's diary that Lincoln spent a lot of time reading about military strategy, military theory, military history, to try to bring himself up to speed.

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I think another way in which he did it was to talk to as many people as he could find who knew something about the subject. Lincoln , of course, was an experienced trial lawyer. He knew how to cross-examine people to bring out information and I think that was another way in which he learned was just to talk to people and ask them questions and follow up those questions with further questions. CNN: Lincoln very quickly had to make momentous decisions, and often dealt with resistance or incompetence on the part of commanders in the field.

McPherson: I think Lincoln was surprised by the degree to which he had to become involved in almost day-to-day strategic decisions and command decisions.. The [military commanders] to whom he delegated these responsibilities and these powers just did not exercise those powers, did not rise to the demand of the occasion, and so Lincoln had to do it himself.

Lincoln had no substantial experience prior to the Civil War in military affairs, yet he found himself almost from day one having to make decisions that had large military implications, decisions that were sometimes based on purely military considerations, but in many cases were also based on political calculations that he had to make as president. CNN: In the introduction to your book you observe that Lincoln "proved to be a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president. And that, in Lincoln's case, was not necessarily by choice but by default.

CNN: Before Lincoln's presidency, the concept of commander in chief wasn't clearly defined. McPherson: Lincoln actually created the office of the modern commander in chief. The constitution merely says the president "shall be commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States and of the militia of the several states when called into federal service.

It doesn't define the powers of the president as commander in chief and there weren't any useful precedents for Lincoln in , so he had to establish the precedents. And what he did was to -- I wouldn't say usurp some of the powers that had been traditionally exercised by Congress in wartime in creating and maintaining an Army and Navy, but to assert powers that could really only be exercised by the commander in chief himself. He proclaimed the blockade of the Confederate coastline, which is really an act of war.

He increased the size of the Army and Navy without congressional authorization. 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. 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. But they also reinforced his intention to capture Richmond by maneuver and siege rather than by hard fighting.

John C. These were politicians or other politically connected civilians who were given high rank in return for supporting the war. 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.

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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.


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.


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. Horatio Wright, the one who politely asked the President to take shelter at Fort Stevens. 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. Lincoln started off with a simple vision — to restore the Union. 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.