A leading Civil War authority assesses Lincoln’s performance as head of the Union armed forces.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian McPherson (This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, 2007, etc.) notes that Lincoln studies have examined nearly every aspect of his administration except his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armies opposing secession. The author proceeds chronologically, beginning with Lincoln’s election, at which point the secession of several Southern states immediately confronted him with the decision of whether to let them go or take action to restore the Union. His first instinct was to calm passions; several speeches given before his inauguration show him reassuring his listeners that he has no intention of abolishing slavery, and that he will use force against the South only if the seceding states give him no other option. The scenario at Fort Sumter demonstrated the necessity of force, and subsequent events—especially the attack on Union troops passing through Baltimore—presented him with several other difficult choices. Finding a way to keep border states loyal was a key decision. So was finding a commander for the Union forces. Winfield Scott, the senior U.S. general, was opposed to an invasion of the South, as were several cabinet officers. Lincoln’s first choice, George McClellan, proved insufficiently active and suspicious of the president’s intentions. McPherson follows the course of the war, quoting from original documents, including private letters and diaries, to show the evolving strategy that led to the ultimate Union victory. The decision to abolish slavery was fundamentally strategic and political—as much as humanitarian—in its intentions. Lincoln’s determination to restore the Union became stronger as the war progressed, and Southern attempts to buy peace at some lesser price were rebuffed. McPherson’s portrait of the commander in chief is brilliantly detailed, full of humanizing touches, and it provides fresh insight into his unparalleled achievement.
Fluid and convincingly argued—one of the best Lincoln studies in recent years. For more information about Lincoln’s relations with the Navy, see Craig L. Symonds’s forthcoming Lincoln and His Admirals (2008).