four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-Tried by WarJames McPherson, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University and a distinguished historian of the Civil War, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.

The Topic: There is no shortage of books analyzing Abraham Lincoln’s oratory, political acumen, psychological makeup, even his marriage. But more than that of any other president, Lincoln’s career in the White House was dominated by the day-to-day management of a war. He is regarded as one of the key war presidents, despite his lack of military experience when he assumed office. Because of that inexperience and the unique military and legal circumstances of the Civil War, Lincoln was forced to gradually define the constitutionally vague and hitherto minor role of commander in chief. McPherson’s book tells the story of how Lincoln’s intertwined political, military, and legal strategies adapted to the times. More important, it addresses the significance of Lincoln and his decisions for this still-controversial aspect of the American presidency.
Penguin. 384 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201919

Boston Globe 5 of 5 Stars
"Tried by War brims with fascinating details and great insight. … It will likely always remain a mystery how this ill-prepared, small-town lawyer found the inner strength and guile to redefine the wartime presidency and somehow save the Union, but McPherson’s superb new book, destined to become a classic on the subject, is as good as place as any to start." Jay Winik

Los Angeles Times 5 of 5 Stars
"Any new book of [McPherson’s] is … an event, but Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief is one that speaks directly to a nation on the cusp of a momentous decision regarding its next president. … It is hard to do justice in a short review to how convincingly and compellingly McPherson narrates Lincoln’s simultaneous mastery of the political, strategic and moral challenge of his historical moment." Timothy Rutten

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"James M. McPherson’s Tried by War is a perfect primer, not just for Civil War buffs or fans of Abraham Lincoln, but for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of the president’s role as commander in chief. Few historians write as well as McPherson, and none evoke the sound of battle with greater clarity." Jean Edward Smith

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Being commander in chief was Lincoln’s greatest challenge, and only by mastering it was the rest of his legacy possible. McPherson has combined readable writing with a vast knowledge of the war and the man who directed it, bringing us a new appreciation of our most remarkable president." Dan Danborn

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The modern role of commander in chief was created and developed during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln. … McPherson’s book is a solid outline of the growth of the role of commander in chief under Lincoln." Jules Wagman

Critical Summary

Reviewers indicated that they would have embraced any new book by James McPherson on any aspect of the Civil War period. But current events likely compelled them to recommend this highly readable, informative book with special enthusiasm. The nature of the president’s war powers, particularly the precedent set by Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, has been a central question of the Bush presidency. And as the highest office in the land is passed to Barack Obama, who is both a great admirer of Lincoln and who will become the only other president to hail from Illinois, McPherson’s analysis should be particularly timely. Critics agreed we could have no better guide; as Timothy Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, McPherson is "one of those scholars whose ingrained integrity simply precludes him from stacking the historical deck."