In Which Abraham Lincoln Tries to Inspire His Generals to Win the Civil War

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Tried by War  —  Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, persuasively tells one of the more interesting stories of the Civil War.  A beleaguered Abraham Lincoln had a heck of a time getting his generals to wage an offensive war.  Lincoln was famously more aggressive than most of his generals, who were generally more terrified of losing a battle than they were anxious to win the war.  With the outstanding exception of Ulysses S. Grant and a few others, Lincoln’s generals seemed to have an imperfect understanding of what it would take to win the war and save the Union.

At their worst, as personified by George McClellan, these generals cultivated unbelievable arrogance and condescension, mixed with a willful blindness to their superior odds and resources.  They persisted in denial about the need to engage Lee’s army and kept behaving as if the war were going to end in some sort of compromise between the parties.  Not so!.  They either didn’t grasp or didn’t care that Lincoln was determined to achieve a complete victory.

The most striking thing for me was the effort Lincoln undertook to teach himself military strategy.  It is a good thing that Lincoln was good at educating himself, because it seems that he had few contemporary tutors.  As the war began, Lincoln hit the books and read up on military history and strategy, and fortunately proved to be an excellent pupil.  He was profoundly educable and leaned whom to trust.  This was is just part of what made Lincoln THE best possible president for his time.

If you don’t know much about the Civil War’s specifics, this very readable book presents excellent background on the military strategy and battles.  The character sketches of the participants are strong and insightful.  If you do happen to know a lot about the Civil War, this book is also welcome, because of McPherson’s masterful focus on Lincoln’s struggles in the face of the unremitting obstruction from so many of the generals under his command.  I strongly recommend this book!

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts Gives Rich Background to Civil War Washington

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Cokie Roberts, the NPR and ABC New political commentator, has written an entertaining and informative book about the women in Washington, DC. during the period 1848 to 1868.  Capital Dames does an excellent job of recounting the lives of a well chosen swath of women who lived in Washington, DC, during the middle of the nineteenth century.  The book particularly focuses on Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, Rose Greenhow, Jessie Hart Fremont, Elizabeth Blair Lee and Varina Davis, but there are also wonderful cameos of Dolley Madison, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Julia Grant, Dorothea Dix, and many other equally fascinating women.  Slavery and the Civil War are the focus of much of the book, which shows how much women contributed to the debate and to the work that needed to be done.  These were active women, who had wide circles of influential friends and who didn’t hesitate to back one politician over another.  Even where they disagreed, many of these women remained close friends.  When they hit hard times, some of them proved exceptionally resilient, even as others simply never recovered.

It is a rich story that is elevated far above what ladies wore or the mere fact that a woman was the spouse of a famous man.  Many of these women were particularly astute and active.  Whether they knew it or not, they contributed to the development of feminism because of their activities and because of how they saw themselves in this highly charged, political environment.