Gary Hoggatt's Reviews > Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Tried by War by James M. McPherson
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Apr 25, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: all-non-fiction, audiobooks, biography, civil-war-era, history, history-bio-19th-century
Read from June 12 to July 02, 2012

Both Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War have seen countless books devoted to them, from general biographies or histories to entire books focused on single speeches by Lincoln or single battles of the war. So, the idea of a book narrowly focused on Abraham Lincoln in his role as Commander in Chief is a good one, with a great deal of potential to take a unique view of Lincoln and the war. Unfortunately, in James M. McPherson's 2008 volume Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, he doesn't really live up to the potential of the premise, instead delivering what reads more like a general history of the Union war effort.

McPherson opens with setting up five main ideas about what a Commander in Chief has to be responsible for. Unfortunately, I can't recall what the five things are, since McPherson then completely forgets to mention them (not even so much as a "Lincoln's decision with X addressed Goal Y") until the epilogue. It's just sloppy writing. Without calling back to the five main points he went to such lengths to detail in the opening, McPherson seems to drift in his narrative and doesn't really get back to the premise of the book.

What McPherson gives us is a fairly general account of the Civil War from the Union side. He honestly doesn't even seem very focused on Lincoln. He spends a great deal of time in the field with the cavalcade of Union generals and in the thick of various fights. But those don't really have anything directly to do with Lincoln, much less his role as Commander in Chief. Detailing how Lincoln made his decisions about the war would be more what I'm expecting, but that's not what we get. Reading time after time how each Union general before Grant screwed up I can do with pretty much any Civil War history.

Even though it's a general biography of Lincoln, I found David Herbert Donald's Lincoln to be much better at the stated goal of Tried by War than Tried by War is. The approach Donald took was to look only at what Lincoln knew when making his decisions. Donald never goes to any battlefields in his biography, save for when Lincoln himself occasionally visited the Army of the Potomac. After all, the specifics of what happened when the battles started were out of Lincoln's hands. All Lincoln could be responsible for were the commands he gave the generals, not how those generals carried them out. McPherson really could have benefited from taking this same approach. It would have provided much more focus to Tried by War and kept the book to its stated premise, instead of getting bogged down as badly as McClellan leading the Army of the Potomac.

McPherson doesn't really seem to evaluate Lincoln's decisions when he does talk about them, either. Until the epilogue, there's no mention of whether or not Lincoln's suspicion of Habeas Corpus was justified or necessary, or any discussion of if his choices for general in chief could have been better, for example. For a book that is supposed to be evaluating Lincoln as Commander in Chief, those issues need to be the central conversation, not simply confined to the epilogue.

I listened to Penguin Audio's 2009 recording of Tried by War, read by George Guidall. Guidall was adequate, but had issues. The main problem with his reading is that he uses a single voice. Even though Tried by War is a history and not a novel and doesn't have characters per se, you still need to be able to hear the difference when something is being quoted. I could forgive Guidall for not inventing voices for Lincoln, McClellan, et al, but he should have still had a consistently identifiable tone for quotes. He would sometimes have a certain inflection when a quote started, but not always, and it was hard to tell at times when the quote ended and McPherson picked up, because there was no closing inflection. The audio production runs approximately 9.5 hours.

Tried by War is a perfectly solid history of the Union effort in the Civil War. Unfortunately, it aimed to be so much more than that, and made no real effort to reach its own stated goal. McPherson missed a chance for a really great book here.
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