Reviewed by Michael F. Bishop
Sunday, November 2, 2008


Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief

By James M. McPherson | Penguin Press. 329 pp. $35


Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War

By Craig L. Symonds | Oxford Univ. 430 pp. $27.95

It may seem strange that any aspect of Abraham Lincoln's exhaustively chronicled career could be considered neglected, let alone one central to his fame. But Lincoln's performance as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy is such a subject. Every biography of Lincoln and every history of the Civil War has contended with it, but so crowded is the canvas of that tumultuous age that the president's military leadership often fades from view. This is in spite of the fact that Lincoln's entire administration was consumed by war. He presided over the mightiest fighting force the world had ever seen, came directly under enemy fire and at war's end became its final casualty. Absent military success, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would not have freed a soul, and his eloquent speeches would today go unread.

More than half a century has passed since the last authoritative study, Lincoln and His Generals, was published. In that seminal work, T. Harry Williams argued that Lincoln was the greatest war leader of all the presidents, a "natural strategist" whose judgment and ability far exceeded those of his officers. Williams's assessment of Lincoln's military prowess has never been seriously challenged, but two new works revise his thesis, giving us a view of Lincoln's abilities both more nuanced and more comprehensive.

In Tried by War, James M. McPherson agrees that Lincoln was America's finest commander-in-chief but convincingly argues that this status was achieved only after exhaustive study and heartbreaking setback. There was nothing "natural" about Lincoln's strategic genius; it was the result of sustained effort. Faced with the initial crisis at Fort Sumter in March and April 1861, Lincoln appeared to many to be irresolute and vacillating. His Cabinet was restive and even some of his supporters wished for "one hour of Jackson!" The Northern public demanded that the rebellion be put down quickly, and Lincoln deployed an inexperienced army that was humiliated at Bull Run.

But McPherson shows that Lincoln was a diligent student of military affairs and a shrewd judge of men. He immersed himself in works on strategy obtained from the Library of Congress and soon recognized the limitations of his commanders. His increasingly direct involvement in military matters and his eventual appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief led ultimately to victory.

Lincoln's achievement is all the more remarkable, McPherson argues, when one considers the paucity of genuine military ability in his high command. Most of the best military minds went South; those on whom he initially had to rely were timid, incompetent or both. Compare this to the situation faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, considered by historians to be another great wartime leader; he was assisted by an extraordinary assemblage of military talent: Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz and others. Any number of leaders might have succeeded with such support, but it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Lincoln triumphing over his obstacles.

If the story of Lincoln as commander of the Army has been neglected, his leadership of the Navy has been almost ignored. The victory of Union arms was not achieved on land alone; naval forces were integral to Lincoln's strategic vision. One of his first actions as president was to authorize a blockade of Southern ports, and a seaborne relief mission to Fort Sumter led to the first shots of the war. Lincoln and his Admirals, by Craig L. Symonds, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, shows that through his able secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, Lincoln deployed the Union's ships on river and sea with increasing confidence and skill.

Though Lincoln never sailed to distant lands, he was no stranger to the water. He journeyed down the Mississippi twice as a young man and received a patent (still the only president to do so) for a device to lift vessels over sandbars. As president he often traveled by water, and he once directed an amphibious landing (a scene compellingly rendered by Symonds). He expressed his affection for the Navy in a whimsy unusual for him: He called the irascible Welles "Father Neptune" and the Navy itself "Uncle Sam's web-feet." After the opening of the Mississippi River by Union forces, he declared: "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea," a sentence almost as beautiful in composition as momentous in consequence.

Symonds, like McPherson, charts Lincoln's development from uncertain amateur to masterful leader. But he does so through the refreshingly unfamiliar prism of naval affairs. Tried by War supersedes Lincoln and His Generals as the definitive portrait of Lincoln as war leader, while Lincoln and His Admirals is that rare thing, an important Lincoln book of genuine originality. ยท

Michael F. Bishop serves at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; he was executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission from 2002 to 2006.

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