Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review: Tried by War

So we turn back to history. McPherson is an accomplished historian who looked around at a Lincoln convention near Gettyburg and noticed that while there were sessions on nearly every aspect of Lincoln's life, there was nothing about how he made his decisions as "commander in chief" of the armed forces. This would be how he chose generals, but even more so, how did he manage the armies and even dictate strategy? How did the public pronouncements like the Emancipation Proclamation fit in to his overall military scheme? Since McPherson kept it down to below 300 pages I thought it would be worth reading this book.

And it was, although once in a while the rush of names involved without contexts made the going pretty woolly. McPherson for the most part keeps things moving and focuses on the war from Lincoln's perspective. For someone whose main Civil War education comes from Ken Burns, I was able to keep up and learned quite a bit about Lincoln's habits and decisions. It always amazes me just how close the Union felt to defeat in mid-1864. I also understand a little more why some people say (wrongly!) that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not over slavery: for political reasons, at the beginning of the war, states' rights were indeed emphasized, although as the war proceeded, it became more and more clear that it was really about slavery. This came out in 1864 as all sorts of election-year ugliness. The steadfast stubbornness of Lincoln in the face of near-defeat makes 1864 to be as crucial a year as any. Although the tide had turned, it was by no means obvious till Sherman captured Atlanta and Sheridan defeated Jubal Early.

One thing, as an outside observer: why is it that the names of the confederate officers, even relatively minor ones, are so much more familiar than the union officers? On the union side: Grant, Sherman. Maybe McClellan and Burnside. On the confederate side: Lee, Jackson, Early, Forrest, Beauregard, Stuart, Longstreet, Pickett, Hood, Bragg ... I don't think it's all because I have relatives in southern Virginia, and that would just account for Jeb Stuart. The union officers had a systemic failure of will and even personality. Until Grant came along, and he paid a very high price for his success. The price exacted on the country by the Civil War was a high one, but Lincoln was determined to pay it.

This book tends to gloss by the other personalities (because it must to keep its focus), but as insight into Lincoln, the pressures he faced, and how and when he stood up to them, this is a very worthwhile book.

PS: I just remembered another fact that surprised me: the central role of slaves to the deadlock over prisoner exchanges. Because the confederates would consider the slaves property, Lincoln stopped all POW exchanges. Black soldiers were frequently rounded up and shot by the confederates after being taken prisoner. This level of uncompromising hatred is important to remember -- when a side starts doing stuff like that it has clearly started to capitulate to evil. That's something to watch out for in one's own self, too, by the way.

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