Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

It is hard to imagine Lincoln except in black-and-white. The cover of James M. McPherson’s new book reproduces one of those old, familiar Matthew Brady photographs of the president among his soldiers, tall, solemn, looking as he often does toward something outside the frame. The deep blue of the soldiers’ Union uniforms has been washed by time to a grainy gray. The black of Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and long frock coat makes vivid contrast with the white background of a tent. He stands out like a tree against the sun.

The vague, pompous, and definitely intimidating phrase “commander in chief” apparently first appeared in the language in 1639, on the brink of the English Civil Wars, to describe the powers of the embattled and quasi-tyrannical Charles I. In the next century, King Charles not quite forgotten, it was frequently adapted as an official formula to assert the authority of royal governors over local militia, as in the colony of Virginia.

When the Framers of the Constitution wrote it into Article II, Section 2, they evidently had in mind a strong distinction between the unlimited powers of a king and the closely watched and circumscribed powers of a chief executive of a republic. The Constitution itself simply says that the president is to be the “Commander in Chief of the army and navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.” In Federalist 69 Alexander Hamilton stressed that the president’s power would be “nominally the same with that of the King of Great-Britain, but in substance much inferior to it.” This would be especially true because, unlike the British monarch, the American president would be debarred from the congressional prerogatives of “the declaring of war” and “the raising…of fleets and armies.” But even the visionary and pragmatic Hamilton could not foresee what would happen to those “inferior” powers when our own Civil War came.

McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winner and emeritus professor of history at Princeton, is probably today’s leading scholar of the Civil War. Among his many virtues as an historian are a beautifully lucid and readable prose style — this has, predictably, earned him the scorn of the academy — and a driving sense of narrative pace. He begins with the briefest of glances at legal and historical precedents but observes that in reality, in the unprecedented circumstances of a war of secession, Lincoln “would have to establish most of the powers of commander in chief for himself.”

Then he lists five areas in which a commander in chief would have to function — “policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics” — and for the rest of the book proceeds to flesh out these opaque abstractions, not topic by topic as a lawyer might but year by bloody year, with what amounts to a compelling and genuinely dynamic short history of Lincoln at war.

The president’s “policy” as commander in chief, for example, is first and foremost the preservation of the Union, not the abolition of slavery. Compromise or failure here, Lincoln believed, would mark the end of America’s great international Jeffersonian mission, the establishment of a republic governed by popular suffrage, under majority rule, by a written constitution. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” he wrote Horace Greeley in 1862, “I would do it, and if I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”

But as the war grinds on, McPherson shows us, the issue of slavery intensifies. When General Benjamin Butler in May 1861 declares captured slaves to be “contrabands” of war and hires them at wages to work for the Union army, the commander in chief frowns but silently acquiesces. By the second year of battle, he is ready to join policy to national strategy and commit himself to a “hard war,” one in which the rebels, civilians and soldiers alike, “should begin to feel the presence of the war.” “Take their property for public use,” he instructs General Grant, knowing full well that the richest form of property in the South, as McPherson reminds us, was slaves.

Policy and national strategy, of course, are carried out chiefly by military strategy and tactics. Though he offers fascinating vignettes of the hands-on Lincoln haunting the War Department and personally test-firing new guns on the White House lawn, most of McPherson’s narrative is rightly devoted to his long, heartbreaking struggle to find a general — one who will take the battle to the South, who will face down Lee, who will, at the simplest level, actually obey the president’s orders.

Here the familiar, epic figures march across the pages in all their outsized Homeric brilliance. There is General George McClellan, the “little Napoleon,” the great organizer, ramrod straight, one hand forever tucked in his tunic, forever insulting the president (“the gorilla,” in his nightly letters to his wife) — and reluctant to engage the enemy. Or General Henry Halleck, “Old Brains,” memorably captured by McPherson in a few novelistic details: “paunchy figure, fishlike eyes, irritable personality, and off-putting mannerism of constantly scratching his elbows.”

On McClellan as a personality, the charismatic but ineffectual general whom Lincoln describes as having a permanent case of “the slows,” McPherson is particularly good. He observes him sympathetically, objectively: “Never having experienced failure, he feared the unknown. To move against the enemy was to risk failure.” This subtly prepares us for the eventual arrival of Grant, who for a considerable part of his life has known nothing but failure and no longer fears it.

A reviewer can scarcely overpraise the clarity with which McPherson tells his story, his mastery of the sources, or the warmth and dramatic skill with which he portrays Lincoln’s growth in office, toward that familiar, abiding image on the cover — the emphatically civilian president towering over his military subordinates, just as the Framers intended. Even so, one area of Lincoln’s history as commander in chief is hard to paint in black-and-white.

In September 1861, not for the last time, the president suspended habeas corpus. On his order, 27 members of the Maryland legislature were arrested and imprisoned for conspiring to force their state to secede. No grounds were given for the charge. Lincoln simply stated that “the Government is in possession of tangible and unmistakable evidence.” The intelligence, General McClellan later explained, in words that have an eerie, spine-chilling resonance, “seemed at the time to be thoroughly reliable.”

In another celebrated case the government arrested the leader of the Peace Democrats, Clement Vallandigham, because of a speech he made criticizing the constitutionality of the war, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the general tyranny of the administration. He was tried in a military, not a civilian court, convicted, and sent to prison.

In justification of all this — “As commander in chief of the army and navy, in time of war…,” Lincoln said, “I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”

Few of McPherson’s readers will fail to think of contemporary parallels. McPherson himself makes no direct reference to George W. Bush’s military courts and the invasion of Iraq. But in an epilogue he addresses squarely the question of how far Lincoln’s violations of civil rights may have tarnished his heroic legacy. And he concludes with a historian’s long and eloquent perspective: “Compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.”