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Tried by War by James M. McPhereson

After reading Stamped from the Beginning, I wanted to compare what others said about Abraham Lincoln and his approach to slavery. Since my husband already listened to Tried by War by James M. McPherson, I took the opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately, Mr. McPherson’s portrayal of Lincoln as the commander in chief is exactly what I expected.

Tried by War is not for anyone looking to learn more about Lincoln’s presidency. In essence, Mr. McPherson does nothing but look at Lincoln as the commander in chief. There is the requisite fawning over Lincoln’s ability to teach himself everything he needed to know, especially as his utter lack of military experience meant he had to learn the basics of combat strategy. More importantly, Mr. McPherson explores the limitations of being commander in chief while fighting a war from long-distance.

Mr. McPherson breaks down each of Lincoln’s Army commanders, their subsequent wins as well as their spectacular losses, and his frustrations with each of them. Moreover, he discusses the politics behind each assignment and the party machinations that were at the core of Lincoln’s decisions. In this case, we learn that everything Lincoln did had two end goals – to keep the Republicans in power and to reunite the country.

Since the slavery “issue” directly impacted Lincoln’s two goals, Mr. McPherson does spend some time discussing his evolving opinion about slavery. He even acknowledges that Lincoln’s shift from ignoring the “issue” to abolishing slavery was less ideological and more politically expedient. Still, Mr. McPherson continues to perpetuate the idea of Lincoln as slaves’ savior rather than someone making a calculated decision and even sometimes forced to take action before he was ready because his commanders backed him into a corner.

I can’t say I learned much from listening to Tried by War. There was a time in my late teens where I was obsessed with the Civil War and read everything I could about it. So, the detailed exploration of the various Army commanders Mr. McPherson includes did not provide new insight. If anything, it reiterates the incompetence of those commanders and the prolonging of the war their ineffectiveness ended up achieving. Still, those without extensive background knowledge of the Civil War may find Tried by War interesting. Mr. McPherson’s approach is welcoming while his explanations of each battle are clear enough for most people to understand. Given the severe political division separating the country right now, his descriptions of the politics of the war are particularly interesting.

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