Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

( 50 )


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author reveals how Lincoln won the Civil War and invented the role of commander in chief as we know it

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, this study by preeminent, bestselling Civil War historian James M. McPherson provides a rare, fresh take on one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Tried by War offers a revelatory (and timely) portrait of leadership during the greatest crisis our nation has ever endured. Suspenseful ...

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author reveals how Lincoln won the Civil War and invented the role of commander in chief as we know it

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, this study by preeminent, bestselling Civil War historian James M. McPherson provides a rare, fresh take on one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Tried by War offers a revelatory (and timely) portrait of leadership during the greatest crisis our nation has ever endured. Suspenseful and inspiring, this is the story of how Lincoln, with almost no previous military experience before entering the White House, assumed the powers associated with the role of commander in chief, and through his strategic insight and will to fight changed the course of the war and saved the Union.

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Editorial Reviews

Jean Edward Smith
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. There is scarcely anyone writing today who mines original sources more diligently. In Tried by War, McPherson draws on almost 50 years of research to present a cogent and concise narrative of how Lincoln, working against enormous odds, saved the United States of America.
—The New York Times
Michael F. Bishop
In Tried by War, James M. McPherson agrees that Lincoln was America's finest commander-in-chief but convincingly argues that this status was achieved only after exhaustive study and heartbreaking setback…McPherson shows that Lincoln was a diligent student of military affairs and a shrewd judge of men. He immersed himself in works on strategy obtained from the Library of Congress and soon recognized the limitations of his commanders. His increasingly direct involvement in military matters and his eventual appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief led ultimately to victory…Tried by War supersedes Lincoln and His Generals as the definitive portrait of Lincoln as war leader
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Given the importance of Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief to the nation's very survival, says McPherson, this role has been underexamined. McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), the doyen of Civil War historians, offers firm evidence of Lincoln's military effectiveness in this typically well-reasoned, well-presented analysis. Lincoln exercised the right to take any necessary measures to preserve the union and majority rule, including violating longstanding civil liberties (though McPherson considers the infringements milder than those adopted by later presidents). As McPherson shows, Lincoln understood the synergy of political and military decision-making; the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, harmonized the principles of union and freedom with a strategy of attacking the crucial Confederate resource of slave labor. Lincoln's commitment to linking policy and strategy made him the most hands-on American commander-in-chief; he oversaw strategy and offered operational advice, much of it shrewd and perceptive. Lincoln may have been an amateur of war, but McPherson successfully establishes him as America's greatest war leader. (Oct. 7)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A leading Civil War authority assesses Lincoln's performance as head of the Union armed forces. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McPherson (This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, 2007, etc.) notes that Lincoln studies have examined nearly every aspect of his administration except his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armies opposing secession. The author proceeds chronologically, beginning with Lincoln's election, at which point the secession of several Southern states immediately confronted him with the decision of whether to let them go or take action to restore the Union. His first instinct was to calm passions; several speeches given before his inauguration show him reassuring his listeners that he has no intention of abolishing slavery, and that he will use force against the South only if the seceding states give him no other option. The scenario at Fort Sumter demonstrated the necessity of force, and subsequent events-especially the attack on Union troops passing through Baltimore-presented him with several other difficult choices. Finding a way to keep border states loyal was a key decision. So was finding a commander for the Union forces. Winfield Scott, the senior U.S. general, was opposed to an invasion of the South, as were several cabinet officers. Lincoln's first choice, George McClellan, proved insufficiently active and suspicious of the president's intentions. McPherson follows the course of the war, quoting from original documents, including private letters and diaries, to show the evolving strategy that led to the ultimate Union victory. The decision to abolish slavery was fundamentally strategic and political-as much as humanitarian-in itsintentions. Lincoln's determination to restore the Union became stronger as the war progressed, and Southern attempts to buy peace at some lesser price were rebuffed. McPherson's portrait of the commander in chief is brilliantly detailed, full of humanizing touches, and it provides fresh insight into his unparalleled achievement. Fluid and convincingly argued-one of the best Lincoln studies in recent years. For more information about Lincoln's relations with the Navy, see Craig L. Symonds's forthcoming Lincoln and His Admirals (2008).
Library Journal
McPherson proves that Lincoln succeeded in rallying and sustaining support for the Civil War and emancipation because he understood that military action serves national interest and recognizes political needs, that personal interest gives way to public service, and that leadership demands imagination, honesty, and courage. (LJ 9/1/08)
The Barnes & Noble Review
It is hard to imagine Lincoln except in black-and-white. The cover of James M. McPherson's Tried by War 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." --Max Byrd

Max Byrd is the author of Grant and Shooting the Sun.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143116141
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 169,065
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is the bestselling author of numerous books on the Civil War, including Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize, For Cause and Comrades, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, and Crossroads of Freedom. He lives in Princeton, NJ.

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    1. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 11, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      Valley City, North Dakota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Quest for a Strategy, 1861 9

2 The Bottom Is Out of the Tub 37

3 You Must Act 65

4 A Question of Legs 91

5 Destroy the Rebel Army, If Possible 111

6 The Promise Must Now Be Kept 135

7 Lee's Army, and Not Richmond, Is Your True Objective Point 161

8 The Heaviest Blow Yet Dealt to the Rebellion 187

9 If It Takes Three Years More 209

10 No Peace Without Victory 231

Epilogue 265

Acknowledgments 271

Notes 273

Index 315

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Customer Reviews

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( 50 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 50 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 30, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Lincoln's On The Job Training

    February 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Consequently, over the next year and a half, the average bookstore browser will be buried underneath an avalanche of new books on the most written about figure in all of American history. <BR/><BR/>¿Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief,¿ by James M. McPherson, noted Civil War historian & the George Henry Davis '86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University, is among the newest in the crop of the Lincoln Bicentennial titles.<BR/><BR/>In ¿Tried By War¿ Dr. McPherson highlights how Abraham Lincoln came to understand and define the largely undefined role of commander in chief. He takes us through each phase of Lincoln¿s development into the role: from first deferring to General Winfield Scott, then to prodding George B. McClellan into action. After studying military tactics, Lincoln felt confident enough and wondered if he might borrow the army when McClellan fell ill with typhoid fever. In the end McClellan was a disappointment to Lincoln, as were Henry Halleck, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, William Rosecrans and George Meade. Through each successive general Lincoln learned and grew into the role of commander in chief, not largely because he wanted to, but because he had to. Finally, with Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman & Philip Sheridan, Lincoln found generals who understood the defeat of the Confederate armies and not the surrender of Richmond, the Confederate capital, would bring the rebellion to an end.<BR/><BR/>Sadly there is little, if anything, new in fact or interpretation in this book. Dr. McPherson seems to have relied on the tried and true. Most of the content between the covers of ¿Tried By War¿ can be found in a number of other books on Lincoln.<BR/><BR/>The Lincoln-McClellan relationship is complicated, and one worthy of a book of its own. Dr. McPherson seems to have ¿cherry picked¿ every negative word and action of McClellan¿s for inclusion in his book. To be fair, McClellan has served up these quotes and snubs toward Lincoln (not to mention his overestimates of Confederate troop strength, his constant pleas for more men and his apparent lack of will to send the Army of the Potomac into battle) on a silver platter for historians. But I think Dr. McPherson¿s diagnosis of McClellan¿s ¿messiah complex¿ goes a bit too far.<BR/><BR/>If anything, at 270 pages of text, the book is too short. It is a great survey of Lincoln as commander in chief, but an in depth review of the facts and analysis of them it is not. On its merits, the book it well researched, and well written. Dr. McPherson¿s narrative flows effortlessly from topic to topic and is easily read. Though ¿Tried By War¿ may not be the book for the well read student of the Civil War it would serve as a great introduction for some one just developing their interest in the subject.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2008

    It reads almost like a novel! I hated to put it down. I was sorry when I finished it.

    James McPherson has the uncanny ability to put you right into history, and feel the pulls and tugs of the contemporary issues of the Civil War times. Lincoln is my favorite history subject, and McPherson is my favorite historical nonfiction writer. He doesn't just give lists of dates and battles, but gets you into the heads of the movers and shakers, and the common soldiers. And he does this without fictionalizing anything. He uses the actual words and diaries of 19th century people, and contemporary observations of their friends and colleagues, and seamlessly blends it all into a very readable narrative. The extent of his knowledge and research are awesome, and he's a good writer, too! I highly recommend this book, and I'm buying it for gifts to the history buffs in my own family.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Supplement for other Civil War Histories

    I read Battle Cry of Freedom a few months ago and found it to be possibly the best one volume history of the Civil War out there. The only problem was that I put it down wishing I knew a little more about Lincoln's role. Tried by War served this purpose well.

    Those who wrote reviews saying that McPherson didn't build up suspense have a point, but that was not the author's goal. If you want to understand the battles read another book; the battles themselves are not an important part of this book's thesis, the consequences were.

    I put down this book feeling I had a better understanding of Lincoln's role in managing the most important war in this country's history. And with that, McPherson did his job.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    If you are a history buff the book is very well done.

    The book presents the war from the perspective of Lincoln as the Commander in Chief. Therfore, if you are a war battle buff this book will leave something to be desired. However, if the politcis and political implications put upon the President by the Congress, People and the Generals themselves and Lincoln's handling of these trials - the book is excellant reading!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2009

    Another great work by the leading Civil War historian of our time.

    Extremely well researched. As a retired military senior officer, I found it to be very thorough and enlightening.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 22, 2010


    I have a couple of James McPherson's volumes on my shelves--"Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution"--and I've profited greatly from reading them both. In "Tried By War", the author sets out a most intersting thesis..."[Lincoln] proved to be a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president. He performed or oversaw five wartime functions in this capacity, in diminishing order of personal involvement: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics." Thanks to an extensive 100+ years of scholarship, the cards in both the Lincoln and the Civil War decks are all pretty much out on the table. What remains is largely a re-shuffling of them for new perspectives. This book by McPherson does a good job of rearranging the cards but I wonder why he wanted to make a book-length treatment of this rather than publishing it as a journal article. Perhaps to get this perspective into the "bloodstream" of popular as well as professional discussion.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Tried by War

    An awesome, very easy to read, page turner that puts school history books to shame. A great insight to what Lincoln did for his country...for our country...regardless of what some decisions could have done to his presidency and re-election. This book shows what an elected official should do while serving his/her citizens...serve those who elected you, your country, and make decisions that are the best for the greatest number...not your base or to lock a re-election bid.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Book showed Lincoln's incompetence as C in C.

    The book mainly repeats what has been written about Lincoln and his relationship with his generals . There is too much time spent on McClellan. What would have been interesting was any new information of why Lincoln allowed McClellan to ignore orders at , for example, Second Manassas allowing McClellan to actually sabotage his own side. McClellan was obviously mentally ill with probable bipolar disorder which exhibited itself in his incredible grandiosity which had no basis in reality. McClellan should not only have been relieved after Pope suffered his defeat but should have face a court martial and even been given the penalty traitors usually received. If anything , this book showed how incompetent Lincoln was in dealing with McClellan. To repeatedly givea control of the army to a totally incompetent, insubordinate general whose actions bordered on treason showed the opposite of MacPherson's thesis . When McClellan refused to assist Pope , Lincoln should have said if "you do not move by tommorrow , you will be relieved of command. If you attempt to retain command you will be shot for treason.

    Another factor is there were generals who were much better than McClellan such Phillip Kearny who was killed at Second Manassas. He was well-known to the regular army and after the Battles of the 7 days in front of Richmond , Kearny should have been given command. Lincoln should have investigated McClellan conduct during the seven days which were all union victories except for one battle. He would have found McClellan was incredibly incompetent, a coward, and he should be separated from the US Army permanently.

    Another area which I have never understood was giving commands of entire armies to Butler , and Banks. There must have been some other way of retaining their support for the war without giving them such responsibilities for which they had absolutely no qualifications. The book quotes Halleck which is as accurate a statement as any in the Civil War "Giving commands of whole armies to men like Banks and Butler is little short of murder". Bullseye What would Banks do if he didn't have command of an entire army? Become a copperhead? I doubt it. Lincoln showed more poor judgement in allowing these 2 to have any command for long into the war. The book actually proves Lincoln was not a military genius or genius in any way.

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2009

    Very Well Done

    This book is very interesting and written from a unique perspective. It also has some very interesting and informative source material. No matter how much you think you know about Lincoln this book proves that there is always more to learn. Unlike a lot of history related books it is not dry and moves along at fairly good pace. No question about it McPherson is a pro and this book is well worth your time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Anyone That Says "It Reads Like A Novel" Is A Moron

    Tried by war was a nice attempt to look at Lincoln from a new perspective. McPherson does a nice job on focusing on how Lincoln changed the role of the President during a time of war. What were lacking in this book were tension and any resemblance of an ending. McPherson does not build any tension before going into the battles of the war; Vicksburg and Gettysburg are not developed at all. Due to the lack of tension, you read this book and think "oh, Grant just forced Vicksburg to surrender...Lincoln is happy...that¿s nice." I understand that McPherson wanted to maintain his focus on the role of Lincoln in military affairs, but these stories are incredible, and so intriguing that the reader would appreciate the role of Lincoln even more if there was better development.<BR/>My only other complaint about this book is the ending. You finish the last chapter and cannot believe that is how the book ends. There is no climax, there is no summary of what Lincoln was able to do, there was no reflection on how the role of Commander-In-Chief changed after Lincoln's assassination...There was no mention of Lincoln's assassination! My only guess is that McPherson got bored and decided to stop writing instead of finishing the book.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 3, 2015

    Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

    This is a well written and well researched novel. It holds the reader's attention in a compelling manner. Easy to read. A must for all Civil War enthusiasts. Of great value to military historians. Of general interest to the public

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    I never understood the intricacies of the Civil War to the extent that this book describes it. The level of detail regarding what Lincoln was faced with and how he managed the war effort was very interesting. It should be required reading for history students.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2013



    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 7, 2012

    Highly Recommended - you must check it out!!

    Highly Recommended - you must check it out!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2012

    Although it rarely focuses on the specifics, McPherson creates a

    Although it rarely focuses on the specifics, McPherson creates a very readable account of Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. A nice quick read.

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  • Posted March 13, 2012

    Is there a discussion guide?

    Is there a discussion guide?

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  • Posted January 7, 2011

    Highly recommended!!!

    I have an interest in history, but I've found many of the history books to be very dry. I could barely put this book down! The way the information is presented keeps the reader enthralled! Will get more books by this auther!!

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  • Posted February 6, 2010

    Excellent book.

    Really good analysis of Lincoln's direction of the war and his relations with his generals. (Good to read in tandem with Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Lincoln, "Team of Rivals")

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2009

    Very Good

    A good review Placing Lincoln as comandar in chief

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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