A military historian considers Lincoln as military leader—a far from nominal position.
A veteran of battle, Lincoln had disparaged James Polk’s touching off the Mexican War: “So far as Lincoln was concerned,” Perret (Jack: A Life Like No Other, 2001, etc.) writes, “Polk had gone to war with Mexico to revive the political fortunes of the Democratic Party, and not for any higher aim.” Similar charges would be leveled at Lincoln, with Republican Party founder William H. Seward urging him to “change the question before the Public from one of Slavery, or about Slavery to a question upon Union or Disunion.” But Lincoln took his abolitionist fight seriously—and, as many modern historians have observed, as the primary purpose for waging war on the South. Lincoln—who claimed that his greatest success in life was commanding a militia detachment in the Black Hawk War—was closely involved in the daily conduct of the war, Perret shows. Lincoln saw to it that generals were appointed by federal authority, not that of the states. He planned operations and logistics, and he wasn’t being hyperbolic when he famously remarked of a recalcitrant combat leader, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it.” He promoted leaders, and he broke them, as when he removed the military commander of occupied New Orleans for looting. He imposed strategy on his greatest commanders, including Ulysses S. Grant. And he even showed up for combat on a couple of occasions, though one Union officer sensibly warned him, “There is nothing in the Constitution authorizing the Commander in Chief to expose himself to the enemy’s fire where he can do no good!” Perret does an admirable job of weaving these episodes into a readable narrative.
The subtitle notwithstanding, there’s hardly an untold story to be found here, but a worthy distillation all the same.