Wednesday, February 11, 2009

james mcpherson, "tried by war: abraham lincoln as commander in chief" book review

with tomorrow, february 12, abraham lincoln's 200th birthday, posting this review of "tried by war: lincoln as commander in chief," by james m. mcpherson, is perfectly timed. ironically, i finished the book on monday (a strange follow-up to the jerry lewis memoir, "dean & me") without making the anniversary connection. instead, tomorrow i lecture on executive branch power to my constitutional law students. the book is a fascinating behind the "case law" look what necessitated some of lincoln's more alarming war time measures.

it's often overlooked that lincoln was the only president whose entire term of office was served during war (he was assassination just days after the war ended). during that period lincoln took some remarkable actions under his constitutional authority as commander in chief. probably the most famous ("infamous" is another equally plausible word choice) "infringement" of civil liberties during the war was the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. but lincoln also restricted freedom of the speech, press, and assemble. and, somewhat notoriously, he ordered military tribunals to hear cases against citizens!

it was in the last instance that the supreme court (ex parte milligan) finally decided, in 1866 well after the end of the civil war, to restrain the unchecked expansion of executive authority under the powers of the commander in chief. the supreme court held that military tribunals had no jurisdiction over ordinary civilians when regular civil courts were open - and functioning! thus, mr. milligan was spared execution of the death sentence imposed on him. but this book isn't about legal issues.

"tried by war" is focused on lincoln and his military strategy to win the war. as such, the book is a great primer on the civil war, the president, and the generals who led it. james mcphearson is one of the greatest civil war scholars in the country (authoring no less than the classic, "battle cry of freedom"). he documents in specific detail the length to which lincoln went to urge his decidedly unwilling generals to engage the enemy in combat. if there is one drawback to the book, this thread is constantly repeated, in every theatre of war, in every year of the war.

even if it sometimes borders on "beating a dead horse" lincoln struggled not only to get the generals to fight - but, even more significantly, focus on the enemy armies, not cities. lincoln knew instinctively that capturing land, even symbolic cities, would not win the war. crushing - outright destruction of - the confederate army was the only road to victory. his generals, grant and sherman in particular, eventually obliged him. the book is griping in its description of the rapid national mood swings (almost hanging on the fortunes of individual campaigns).

the single most remarkable point of the entire book is how perilously close lincoln was to defeat in his campaign for reelection in 1864 - and how, in tandem, dangerously close the country came to outright disunion. literally, only one man - lincoln himself - stood between that bleak prospect. for something so distant in our past, the alternate outcome is still chilling to consider, even today.

current reading: joe torre's new book, "the yankee years."

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