Geoffrey Perret,
Lincoln's War:
The Untold Story of
America's Greatest President
as Commander in Chief

(Random House, 2004)

Have you ever wondered about Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief of the Union Army and Navy? Here is a book that can show you what he was like in that position. Geoffrey Perret has collected information from various sources and given a presentation of them through this book. He has written four other biographies on Douglas MacArthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight David Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Perret has written a very readable book. The chapters are not too long, so a reader is not overwhelmed. He uses a narrative style of writing that is not dry at all. He combines quotes from various sources with the story. He tries and succeeds in showing the real Abraham Lincoln, who was very human.

Lincoln had served as a captain in the state militia during the Black Hawk War, so he was not without some military experience. Many Americans do not realize this, thinking of him only as a backwoods lawyer before he was elected president.

Still, Perret notes, Lincoln had to learn to be commander-in-chief while on the job. It took him time to learn how to do this, and his first few generals were of no help to him. It was not until 1864 that he found his chief general in the person of U.S. Grant. They saw eye to eye on how the war was to be conducted.

As Lincoln saw it, his main task as president was to save the Union as quickly as possible. Slavery was a secondary issue for him. He did whatever he could to meet his goal, even to the point of opening new areas of presidential powers. He did things that previous presidents had never done, like suspending the writ of habeus corpus and calling a draft. He also, in what some in the War Department considered meddling, was personally involved in selecting weapons -- even to the point of trying them out and commanding their purchase against the advice of so-called military experts.

Many of the war powers the president has today started with Lincoln. He entered new waters and usually the Congress would later approve his actions.

Perret shows Lincoln's human side by giving examples of him visiting lots of military hospitals. He also intervened in military cases where a soldier was to be executed for desertion or some other offense. He was also human in a political way. He knew that some of his actions or those of his administration could have political ramifications, especially around the time he was seeking re-election. He did not want to alienate certain groups; for example, he should have removed Gen. Franz Siegel, but kept him on to get the German vote. After the election was over it was easier for him to get rid of such generals.

The reader of Lincoln's War will be entertained by Lincoln's stories and his wit. But Perret also shows the horrible loss of life, limb and property that many on both sides of the Civil War suffered, and how this affected Lincoln. Lincoln wanted his enemies to be treated with compassion even if they would not return it.

Perret's Lincoln's War is a great read. It is a very lively history of one of America's most beloved presidents and how he functioned as commander-in-chief, even to the point of exploring uncharted waters in his post. Lincoln set an example for his successors.

This book is a must for any Civil War collection.

- Rambles
written by Benet Exton
published 30 April 2005

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