In This Review

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
By James M. McPherson
Penguin, 2008, 384 pp

With U.S. President Barack Obama confronting two foreign wars and the potential for more, this timely book by the noted American Civil War historian McPherson shows how Abraham Lincoln handled the pressures of a wartime presidency. Once Lincoln realized that war would be the major business of his administration, he made a serious study of the art of war and, in McPherson's judgment, devised campaign plans that in a number of cases were superior to those of his professional generals. Although Lincoln did not read Clausewitz, he seems to have intuitively grasped Clausewitzian principles: that the destruction of the enemy's army, not the control of a fixed point (such as Richmond), should be the goal, and above all that war is a political act and that a political vision must guide the use of force. McPherson shows how Lincoln's slow move toward something like total war flowed from his political understanding of the changing dynamics of the conflict and also how Lincoln's sensitivity to domestic political currents informed key decisions. A president's role in a war, McPherson argues, is essentially twofold: to manage the political dimension of the war and to monitor the performance of its commanders, promoting those who succeed and removing those who fail. Obama has made no secret of his admiration of Lincoln; this is a book that would not be out of place on a bedside table in the White House.