Commanding Presence

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

It doesn't look like much, this modest patch of green in Northwest Washington. There's a flagpole, a couple of Civil War artillery pieces and a few yards of carefully reconstructed earthworks. Stand behind those Fort Stevens earthworks with James McPherson, however, and you can time-travel back to the bloody summer of 1864.

And imagine this: The tall guy with the gaunt face and the awesome responsibilities is standing right beside you.

"Lincoln was here, and he watched real infantry fighting going on out there," McPherson says. He gestures past Rittenhouse Street toward the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Road, which was open farmland at the time.

The occasion of the fighting was the sudden, scary move toward Washington of some 15,000 Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early. Lincoln rode out to Fort Stevens on both days of the encounter, July 11 and 12, to observe. Each time, someone had to tell him -- politely or otherwise -- to keep his fool head down.

McPherson is maybe eight inches shorter than Lincoln, but the bright red shirt he's wearing would make him a pretty good target himself. The nation's best-known Civil War historian has the silver hair befitting a man of 72 but the energy of someone at least a decade younger -- a payoff, perhaps, for a lifetime devoted to work he loves.

He's driven down from Princeton, N.J., as part of the tour for his latest book, "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." (He'll be back for a lecture at the Smithsonian on Nov. 11.) And he's been lured out to Fort Stevens because it's as good a place as any to ponder the way Lincoln performed that sometimes overlooked role.

By July 1864, McPherson says, the president "had been sending men into combat for three years." In the course of those years, he'd "learned that the professionals weren't that much smarter than he was in terms of formulating strategy, even operations, even tactics."

An understatement, perhaps. In the aftermath of Fort Stevens, Lincoln saw the professional soldiers fail him once again.

Over and over, when a Confederate army took the offensive, Lincoln saw it "as an opportunity rather than a threat," McPherson says. Over and over, most famously after the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, slow-moving Union generals failed to destroy their overextended enemy. Now here was another target of opportunity.

Once Early's surprise thrust had been blocked (by troops dispatched from Virginia by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant), Lincoln wanted him taken out.

Didn't happen.

In the end, McPherson says, the frustrated president did get some results. He demanded a meeting with Grant, who put the youthful Gen. Philip Sheridan in charge of a reorganized force that eventually destroyed Early's army in the Shenandoah Valley.

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