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Commanding Presence
Historian James McPherson Brings Abraham Lincoln Back to the Front Line

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.

And none too soon. For to consider Early's attack on Washington is to highlight another aspect of Lincoln's perilous situation in the summer of 1864. If the commander in chief couldn't report some better military news, angry Northern voters seemed likely to relieve him of his job.

"Coming off the victories of the second half of 1863," McPherson says, "and now with Grant and Sherman in top commands, there was widespread expectation in the North that these two heavy hitters were going to win the war by the Fourth of July." But both appeared bogged down, with Grant taking horrific losses ("60,000 casualties in six weeks") in Virginia.

Then came the Early raid. Northerners went to bed one evening "thinking they were about to capture Richmond, and suddenly they find that the Confederates are threatening Washington."

"I mean, that's a shock. And the shock is a political shock."

Lincoln's political opponents, the Democrats, nominated Gen. George McClellan for president and adopted a platform that called for an armistice so peace negotiations could begin.

Meanwhile, Lincoln was under enormous pressure to drop the second of his stated preconditions for any negotiations: that the South agree to restore the Union and abolish slavery. He refused. "What he's saying in August of 1864," the historian explains, is that "he'd rather be right than president" on the issue of emancipation.

As McPherson writes in "Tried by War," this decision was both principled and practical: "Lincoln pointed out that one hundred thousand or more black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union," and he would be "damned in time and eternity" if he betrayed them. Besides which, their loss would "ruin the Union cause itself."

Fortunately for him, on Sept. 3 a telegram arrived from Sherman announcing the capture of Atlanta. Before long, Sheridan was winning dramatic victories in the Shenandoah as well. Lincoln's reelection was assured. Not that this stopped his opponents from playing "every race card they could think of," including "crude cartoons portraying black men kissing white women," supposedly representing the "millennium of abolitionism" that would commence if Lincoln won.

"In those days, it was not anything terrible to play the race card," McPherson says. "I guess there's been some progress in that respect. Now you have to be subterranean about it."

As it happens, McPherson's great-grandfather served as a white officer in a black regiment, the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops, with whom he saw fighting on the Richmond front. But McPherson didn't learn this until he'd already become a historian.

He got turned on to history at Gustavus Adolphus, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. In grad school at Johns Hopkins, he began to home in on the Civil War. "I was there during the civil rights movement," he says, and the fact that it was "trying to achieve the unfinished business from the 1860s" intrigued him.

His first book was on the abolitionists. After it was accepted for publication, he got a call from Andre Schiffrin at Pantheon Books. Schiffrin had noticed that during the noisy public celebration of the Civil War centennial, blacks were barely mentioned.

"Why don't you do a book about the black role in the war?" McPherson recalls the publisher asking. So he did.

He was teaching at Princeton by then, and for the next couple of decades, he had a nice, solid academic career going. Then, in 1988, he published a thoroughly researched yet readable one-volume history of the Civil War era -- and hit the kind of jackpot most academics can only dream of.

"Battle Cry of Freedom" sold vastly better than expected, won the Pulitzer Prize and, along with Ken Burns's famed public television documentary, which aired in 1990, helped spark a revival of interest in the Civil War that seems scarcely to have abated since.

McPherson is reluctant to claim credit. "There had to be something out there to start with. I struck a vein," he says. Nonetheless, "Battle Cry" established him as the preeminent historian of the Civil War.

Asked about McPherson's stature, University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher says simply, "He's the man."

Gallagher also points to the importance of McPherson's current subject. Analysis of Lincoln's role as commander in chief, he says, is seriously underrepresented in the "vast outpouring of books" being published in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, on Feb. 12, 1809.

"This really is the main thing Lincoln did during the Civil War," Gallagher says. "If he doesn't preside over winning the war, then nothing else happens." Yet the most significant previous treatment of the subject -- "Lincoln and His Generals," by T. Harry Williams -- is more than 50 years old.

The reasons for historians' neglect of Lincoln as commander in chief are historical themselves.

By the mid-1980s, as McPherson was working on "Battle Cry of Freedom," social history had superseded political, diplomatic and military history among academic historians. Many were hard at work on the previously ignored stories of nonwhite, non-elite, non-male Americans. Military history was especially marginalized, in part because of fallout from Vietnam.

"Battle Cry" tried with considerable success to treat social, economic, political and military issues as conjoined. Still, as Gallagher points out, the influential historian of the American South, C. Vann Woodward, felt the need to justify "the proportion of space devoted to military events" in his introduction to McPherson's book.

Since then, McPherson is happy to report, history has become more integrated.

"Military history is now seen as much more important, and much of the military history of the Civil War is really social history," he says. It asks, among other things: Who were these soldiers? How did their experiences reshape American society?

McPherson has been talking for an hour now, and it's time to wrap up his Fort Stevens visit. Still, there's no indication that he's running out of things to say about the man who, on July 11, 1864 -- "maybe at this spot, at least that's where they put up the little monument" -- heard a soldier say something like, "Get down, you fool!"

Were those the soldier's exact words? Hard to tell.

Were they spoken, as many believe, by future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was here that day? McPherson thinks there's a 50-50 chance.

In any case, Abraham Lincoln did as he was told. He plopped down with his back to the Fort Stevens parapet.

And if you're blessed with the kind of historical imagination Jim McPherson has, you can see him sitting there today.

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