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Lincoln on War

Lincoln on War

4.7 4
by Harold Holzer

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President Lincoln used his own weapons—his words— to fight the Civil War as brilliantly as any general who ever took the field. In Lincoln on War, historian Harold Holzer gathers and interprets Lincoln’s speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams, and casual remarks, organizing them chronologically and allowing readers to experience


President Lincoln used his own weapons—his words— to fight the Civil War as brilliantly as any general who ever took the field. In Lincoln on War, historian Harold Holzer gathers and interprets Lincoln’s speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams, and casual remarks, organizing them chronologically and allowing readers to experience Lincoln’s growth from an eager young Indian War officer to a middle-aged dove congressman to a surprisingly hardened and determined hawk as the Union’s commander-in-chief.

We observe a man willing to sacrifice life and treasure in unprecedented quantities, to risk wounding the pride of vain generals, and even to mislead the public if it meant the preservation of an unbreakable union of states, the destruction of slavery, and the restoration of America as an example to inspire the world. This volume covers strategy; tactics; the endless hiring, sustaining, motivating, and dismissal of commanders; military discipline; and military technology. Modern commanders-in-chief have repeatedly quoted Lincoln to justify their own wars, so it behooves us as citizens to know Lincoln’s record well. From masterpieces such as the Gettysburg Address to lesser-known meditations on God’s purposes, Lincoln on War is the first book to highlight exclusively Lincoln’s sublime and enduring words on war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Lincoln scholar Holzer assembles a valuable collection of letters, speeches, and casual observations of 16th president on the nature of war and the battles that defined his presidency. Dating from the years of Lincoln's brief military service to the day of his assassination, many of Lincoln's commentaries continue to resonate today. As a congressman, Lincoln was a passionate opponent of the Mexican-American War and chided President James Polk for not having an exit strategy and his unilateral decision making. However, the Civil War forced Lincoln to make the same sort of autocratic decisions that he had once criticized; he did not hesitate, for instance, to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln had a sophisticated understanding of military strategy and his well-known exasperation with Gen. George McClellan is on full display here, as McClellan's avoidance of battle eventually forced Lincoln to relieve him of duty. Holzer does a splendid job of introducing and explaining texts, particularly those involving slavery. Lincoln shrewdly used emancipation as both a political and military tool before fully developing his plan to recruit African-Americans into the war effort. This compact and powerful volume is a dramatic account of the most decisive conflict in the American history in the words of its principal architect, and is long overdue. Photos.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
Holzer's selection of Lincoln's speeches, letters, memoranda, telegrams, orders, and private statements on war reveal a president much interested in war and not afraid of it, a leader who was at once farsighted and often practical. Lincoln grasped the importance of grand strategy, became an excellent judge of military men, and remained open to new ideas. In Holzer's estimation, these writings deserve attention because words were essential for galvanizing support for the Union cause, for emancipation, and for communicating effectively to insure coordinated military action. Lincoln gave people substantive and even soaring reasons to fight and die for the Union, democratic government, and "a new birth of freedom." As relevant today as during America's "ordeal by fire" and highly recommended to all interested readers.
Kirkus Reviews

One of the world's foremost Lincoln scholars offers a selection of the president's writings and remarks on war, its conduct, trials, horror and meaning.

From his inauguration to his assassination, Lincoln fulfilled the role of commander in chief so skillfully as to become a model for succeeding presidents—reason enough, Holzer (Lincoln and New York, 2009, etc.) argues, to understand clearly the Lincoln record. For this project's purposes, the author divides the president's career into three parts: the young Lincoln, a period that included his brief, volunteer captaincy during the Black Hawk War and his stint as a dovish Congressman opposed to the Mexican War; the presidency from 1861 to '62, during which Lincoln struggled to master warfare's tools and tactics, to govern his military and civilian subordinates and to shape public opinion; and the war's final years, when the slaughter only increased before Lincoln's will and wisdom finally prevailed. From speeches and letters (sent and unsent), grand declarations, official messages and proclamations, orders, telegrams and instructions, hasty memoranda, informal notes and revealing private comments, Holzer assembles the president's thinking on war, prefacing each selection with helpful remarks providing necessary context. Some of these documents are famous—e.g., the Gettysburg Address—while others are obscure. Some contain deathless rhetoric since memorized by all Americans, while some are merely homespun words (e.g., his battle advice to U.S. Grant: "Hold on with a bulldog gripe [sic] and chew & choke, as much as possible") that demonstrate simultaneously Lincoln's untutored prairie origins, his talent for the arresting phrase and his military resolve. All combine to illustrate the Holzer's thesis that Lincoln, without ever taking the field, waged war with "the most powerful weapon at his disposal: his pen."

A wisely chosen, expertly arranged collection.

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt

Lincoln at War

By Harold Holzer

Algonquin Books

Copyright © 2011 Harold Holzer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-616200-60-2

Chapter One


Together, these selected early letters and speeches from Abraham Lincoln's first three decades in public life document a truly remarkable personal and political evolution. During this period of individual and national growth, Lincoln emerged from obscurity, exulted in his brief experience in military service, then recast himself as a war critic, and finally morphed yet again into a resolute antislavery man. In what almost constituted successive fifteen- year cycles, he went from the eager volunteer in the Black Hawk War of 1832, to the virulently anti–Mexican War congressman of 1848, and finally to the presidential candidate and president- elect of 1860 prepared to accept war rather than let the union split and slavery spread. Over time, Lincoln also greatly refined his writing style, learning not only to purge his oratory of rhetorical excess but also to compose ostensibly private correspondence that when released to the press packed a powerful public wallop. In the writings that follow, Lincoln showed a taste—then a distaste for—and finally a resolve to endure, if required, the vicissitudes of war.

"The Sangamon County Company, under My Command"

Receipt for Weapons


Biographers maintain that Captain Abraham Lincoln wrote this receipt after presenting his army quartermaster with an order from Brigadier Major John J. Hardin stating of his woefully undersupplied unit: "The Brigade Inspector having inspected Capt. Abram [sic] Lincoln's company, and mustered them into service, reported that thirty guns are wanting to arm the company completely. Quartermaster General Edwards will furnish the Captain with that number of arms." Adequately equipped at last, Lincoln's brief military career began. He later declared that being elected captain of volunteers "gave me more pleasure than any I have had since." Being on campaign— military, not political— left him feeling nothing less than "elated"— a valuable clue to his later interest in military affairs.

Received, April 28, 1832, for the use of the Sangamon County Company, under my command, thirty muskets, bayonets, screws and wipers, which I oblige myself to return upon demand. A. Lincoln, Capt.

"The Silent Artillery of Time"

From an Address before the Young Men's Lyceum


Lincoln's first major political lecture was above all a ringing condemnation of violent "mobocratic spirit" and an appeal that "reverence for the laws" become the new "political religion of the nation." Importantly, Lincoln devoted some of this much- analyzed, and rather purple, early speech to an appreciation of George Washington and the heroes who had fought the Revolutionary War.

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read;— but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or a brother, a living history was to be found in every family— a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related— a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the levelling of its walls. They are gone. They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few more gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.

"The First Blood So Shed"

"Spot" Resolutions Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives


During his one and only term in Congress, Lincoln offered these politically risky resolutions questioning President Polk's claim that American blood had been shed by Mexicans on American soil— the alleged justification for the Mexican- American War. Lincoln demanded to know the exact "spot" where such an attack had taken place. Historians have been arguing ever since about whether or not this daring tactic did political harm to the young antiwar Whig. Lincoln himself thought they would "distinguish" him. But Democrats took to calling him "Benedict Arnold" or "Spotty Lincoln." Though Congress never adopted his "spot" resolutions, which were mainly aimed at providing copy to mail home to his Illinois district in reprints, Lincoln and his fellow House Whigs were successful in amending a congressional resolution of thanks to war hero Zachary Taylor by adding that his victory occurred "in a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."

Whereas the President of the United States, in his message of May 11th. 1846, has declared that "The Mexican Government not only refused to receive him" (the envoy of the U.S.) "or listen to his propositions, but, after a long continued series of menaces, have at last invaded our teritory, and shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our own soil].]"

And again, in his message of December 8, 1846 that "We had ample cause of war against Mexico, long before the breaking out of hostilities. But even then we forbore to take redress into our own hands, until Mexico herself became the aggressor by invading our soil in hostile array, and shedding the blood of our citizens].]"

And yet again, in his message of December 7- 1847 that "The Mexican Government refused even to hear the terms of adjustment which he" (our minister of peace) "was authorized to propose; and finally, under wholly unjustifiable pretexts, involved the two countries in war, by invading the teritory of the State of Texas, striking the first blow, and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil].]"

And whereas this House desires to obtain a full knowledge of all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed, was, or was not, our own soil, at that time; therefore

Resolved by the House of Representatives, that the President of the United States be respectfully requested to inform this House—

First: Whether the spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was shed, as in his messages declared, was, or was not, within the teritories of Spain, at least from the treaty of 1819 until the Mexican revolution

Second: Whether that spot is, or is not, within the teritory which was wrested from Spain, by the Mexican revolution[.]

Third: Whether that spot is, or is not, within a settlement of people, which settlement had existed ever since long before the Texas revolution, until it's inhabitants fled from the approach of the U.S. Army.

Fourth: Whether that settlement is, or is not, isolated from any and all other settlements, by the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rio Grande, on the South and West, and by wide uninhabited regions on the North and East.

Fifth: Whether the People of that settlement, or a majority of them, or any of them, had ever, previous to the bloodshed, mentioned in his messages, submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States, by consent, or by compulsion, either by accepting office, or voting at elections, or paying taxes, or serving on juries, or having process served upon them, or in any other way.

Sixth: Whether the People of that settlement, did, or did not, flee from the approach of the United States Army, leaving unprotected their homes and their growing crops, before the blood was shed, as in his messages stated; and whether the first blood so shed, was, or was not shed, within the inclosure of the People, or some of them, who had thus fled from it.

Seventh: Whether our citizens, whose blood was shed, as in his messages declared, were, or were not, at that time, armed officers, and soldiers, sent into that settlement, by the military order of the President through the Secretary of War— and

Eighth: Whether the military force of the United States, including those citizens, was, or was not, so sent into that settlement, after Genl. Taylor had, more than once, intimated to the War Department that, in his opinion, no such movement was necessary to the defence or protection of Texas.

"The Right to Rise Up"

From a Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on the War with Mexico


Just three weeks after introducing and explicating on his "spot" resolutions, Congressman Lincoln (not quite thirty- nine years old) again rose on the floor of the House to offer this carefully detailed but impassioned antiwar speech— in a sense, a lawyer's brief with a flourish. Though it failed to distinguish him in Washington and, worse, inflamed opposition at home, Lincoln proudly had it published as a pamphlet— his spelling errors intact— and distributed it widely to his Illinois Whig allies, asserting that it "condensed all I could" on the controversial issue of war and presidential power. That issue resurfaced again when Lincoln himself became president (with the onetime antiwar congressman now defending unchecked executive authority) and even continues to this day: consider the Bush-Obama era's still-unresolved battles over a chief executive's power in time of war.

Mr. Chairman:

Some, if not all the gentlemen on, the other side of the House, who have addressed the committee within the last two days, have spoken rather complainingly, if I have rightly understood them, of the vote given a week or ten days ago, declaring that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President. I admit that such a vote should not be given, in mere party wantonness, and that the one given, is justly censurable, if it have no other, or better foundation. I am one of those who joined in that vote; and I did so under my best impression of the truth of the case. How I got this impression, and how it may possibly be removed, I will now try to show. When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the President, in the beginning of it, should, nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. Some leading democrats, including Ex President [Martin] Van Buren, have taken this same view, as I understand them; and I adhered to it, and acted upon it, until since I took my seat here; and I think I should still adhere to it, were it not that the President and his friends will not allow it to be so. Besides the continual effort of the President to argue every silent vote given for supplies, into an endorsement of the justice and wisdom of his conduct— besides that singularly candid paragraph, in his late message in which he tells us that Congress, with great unanimity, only two in the Senate and fourteen in the House dissenting, had declared that, "by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States," when the same journals that informed him of this, also informed him, that when that declaration stood disconnected from the question of supplies, sixtyseven in the House, and not fourteen merely, voted against it— besides this open attempt to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth— demanding of all who will not submit to be misrepresented, in justice to themselves, to speak out— besides all this, one of my colleagues (Mr. Richardson) [a Democrat elected to fill the seat of Lincoln's lifelong political rival, Stephen A. Douglas— ed.] at a very early day in the session brought in a set of resolutions, expressly endorsing the original justice of the war on the part of the President. Upon these resolutions, when they shall be put on their passage I shall be compelled to vote; so that I can not be silent, if I would. Seeing this, I went about preparing myself to give the vote understandingly when it should come. I carefully examined the President's messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him. Under the impression thus made, I gave the vote before mentioned. I propose now to give, concisely, the process of the examination I made, and how I reached the conclusion I did. The President, in his first war message of May 1846, declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; and he repeats that declaration, almost in the same language, in each successive annual message, thus showing that he esteems that point, a highly essential one. In the importance of that point, I entirely agree with the President. To my judgment, it is the very point, upon which he should be justified, or condemned. In his message of Decr. 1846, it seems to have occurred to him, as is certainly true, that title— ownership— to soil, or any thing else, is not a simple fact; but is a conclusion following one or more simple facts; and that it was incumbent upon him, to pre sent the facts, from which he concluded, the soil was ours, on which the first blood of the war was shed.

* * *

I am now through the whole of the President's evidence; and it is a singular fact, that if any one should declare the President sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submited, by consent or by force, to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one word in all the President has said, which would either admit or deny the declaration. This strange omission, it does seem to me, could not have occurred but by design. My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice; and there, I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his client's neck, in a desparate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny. Party bias may help to make it appear so; but with all the allowance I can make for such bias, it still does appear to me, that just such, and from just such necessity, is the President's struggle in this case.


Excerpted from Lincoln at War by Harold Holzer Copyright © 2011 by Harold Holzer. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. He has published over thirty books, including "The New York Times" Complete Civil War (Black Dog and Leventhal), and is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Lincoln Prize and the National Humanities Medal. He lectures widely, appears on television frequently, and has written for the New York Times, American Heritage, and America’s Civil War. Most recently he served as co-chair of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Find him online at www.haroldholzer.com.

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Lincoln on War 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
civiwarlibrarian More than 1 year ago
Lincoln On War, Edited by Harold Holzer, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 304 pp., index, 24.95. April 2011. Harold Holzer has produced 40+ books on American Civil War topics. Not bad for someone whose daytime job is with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Senior Vice President for External Affairs, the largest and most comprehensive art museum in the western hemisphere. Though skeptical of Civil War another Lincoln book during the sesquicentennial, CWL was won over in an hour of reading. Holzer presents portions of 160 speeches, address, proclamations, letters, drafts, telegrams, remarks to small groups, personal meditations, memorandums, letters to newspapers and mutterings to windows. Twenty five of these occurred between 1832 and April 15, 1861. The first one is a receipt dated April 28, 1832 for 30 muskets, bayonets, screw and wipers which Lincoln was obliged to return when the Sangamon County militia company is finished with them. The second item is an address to the Young Men's Lyceum regarding the importance for oral history provided by veterans and the notion themselves provide a living history. The third is Lincoln's anti-war Spot Resolution that was introduced to the House of Representatives in 1847. Holzer's editing of the documents is judicious and usually he offers Lincoln's thoughts in ones, two or three pages. Holzer provides brief and to-the-point introductions to each item. Lincoln On War provides casual personal reading and small group and classroom discussion material. As a collection of primary sources with a central theme, Lincoln On War is accessible for members Civil War Round Tables, book discussion groups, high school and college classrooms. There is a place on CWL' bookshelf for Lincoln On War, right beside Holzer's Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President and The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln in Popular Print.
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