On one side of the Civil War stood Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy: a graduate of West Point, seasoned by command in the Mexican War and four years as Secretary of War. The man who led the Union, however, had dramatically different experience:
"I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion," Abraham Lincoln said about his service in the Black Hawk War. "If [he] saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes."
In his lecture Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
, renowned Civil War historian James McPherson examines how a man with no formal training became what one historian called "a better strategist than any of his generals." Much as Lincoln had done to earn his law degree, he immersed himself in books on strategy and learned rapidly. He listened carefully to his top generals, and his correspondence reveals a keen awareness of their personalities and capabilities - particularly, McPherson argues, his loyalty to the controversial Ulysses S. Grant. But the final decision on all questions of strategy rested with Lincoln, and his terms for ending the war were unconditional:
"[Jefferson Davis] cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it," Lincoln said in 1864. "It is an issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory."
James McPherson is the recipient of the 2007 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. He is the author of fifteen books and the editor of another dozen, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,
and For Cause and Comrades
, winner of the Lincoln Prize in 1989. He is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History Emeritus at Princeton University, and a member of the advisory boards of the National Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the Gettysburg Foundation.
DVD 2008-03-14: James McPherson
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