Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tried By Fire

James M. McPherson is of the school of my favorite historians, the great popularizers; writers of sound and exciting prose narratives whose subject is history, whose audience is non-academics, and whose mission is to keep alive our history for the common reader.  Using the most comprehensive research, but not encumbered by endless footnotes detailing and rehashing the debates of point inevitable when historians disagree, McPherson's books are models of the kind of history that so seldom gets written nowadays, but always gets read. 

His new book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, takes a more narrow focus than most of the new Lincoln biographies, and concentrates on how Lincoln ran the war; fighting his generals, shaping public opinion in the North, using, and possibly even abusing his powers as Commander in Chief, all with the single goal of preserving the Union.  Presumably taking Lincoln's dogged concentration as his example, McPherson refuses the thousand distractions -- philosophical, anecdotal, biographical -- to which any writing about Lincoln and the Civil War are prone, and keeps to a linear telling of one man's efforts to do an almost impossible thing and how he triumphantly did it; at the cost of thousands of lives, millions of dollars, and ultimately at the cost of his own life.  It is the most remarkable individual story in our history, and this is an aspect of that story too little understood and never told in quite this way before.

McPherson's book is one of the best of the new Lincolns, and I can not imagine a better writer to tell it.   I am not a reader of military history.  I have too little sympathy with the men who make war and not the right kind of brain to follow troop movements and tactics and the like.  But by placing Lincoln at the center of his book, and by telling the story of the war as it passed through Lincoln's hands, McPherson has managed the very difficult task of making this a thrilling, frustrating and even a very moving story of an individual man, a great man, without diminishing in any way the enormity of what happened or the sacrifices and tragedies of the millions who fought and suffered at his behest.  Lincoln emerges from McPherson's pages as a commander, not trained or experienced to conduct war, but determined to do whatever had to be done and doing it.  It is a fascinating portrait. 

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