Of the making of many books about Abraham Lincoln there is no end. But the rest of this updated proverb from Ecclesiastes may be inapplicable: Much study of these books is not necessarily a weariness of the flesh. New research, new perspectives, new questions and new answers to old questions about this complex and endlessly fascinating man continue to inspire books that are a stimulation of the mind, if not also of the flesh.
In the current crop of Lincoln books, two focus on the most important achievements for which he is remembered: directing the war for the Union that preserved the United States as one nation; and proclaiming freedom for the slaves. Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War is the first systematic study of Lincoln as Commander in Chief in a half-century. Having written several books of military history plus biographies of Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, Perret would seem well qualified to tackle this subject. The result, unfortunately, proves otherwise.
The Constitution specifies that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” but fails to define the scope or limits of the President’s powers when acting in this capacity. In Lincoln’s War, Perret makes a good case for his thesis that “it fell to Lincoln to create the role of commander in chief.” By invoking his “war powers” (which are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution), Lincoln in effect pre-empted Congress’s authority to declare war and define war aims. He called up the militia to suppress insurrection, suspended the writ of habeas corpus and arrested enemy sympathizers, proclaimed emancipation as a “military necessity,” appointed military governors of occupied portions of Confederate states, made key decisions concerning military strategy, overruled and when necessary dismissed army commanders and established the conditions of peace and reconstruction. Lincoln’s understanding of his war powers was breathtaking. “I conceive that I may in time of emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress,” he declared in 1864. “The war power was Lincoln’s creation,” writes Perret, and “this book tells how he did that and, how, in so doing, he created the modern presidency.”
Perret’s story was hardly untold before he told it, however. And if some things in his book were previously untold, it is because they were not true. Lincoln’s War is riddled with an appalling number of errors large and small–by my count at least 120 of them, including multiple mistakes in the same paragraph on a single subject. For example, a paragraph on the battle of Chancellorsville contains four errors, and another four occur in a paragraph about the Conscription Act of 1863. Perret describes a “furious fight” for Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville while Union soldiers “walked up Marye’s Heights like tourists.” In fact, the opposite was true: Union forces withdrew from Hazel Grove without a fight while those who attacked and carried Marye’s Heights suffered heavy casualties.
Some minor errors creep into every book, of course, and they would not be worth mentioning if this book had only the normal quota of such mistakes. But the level of carelessness and ignorance manifested by the number and importance of miscues in Lincoln’s War seriously compromises its integrity and undermines its value. Many of the errors group themselves in patterns. For a military historian, Perret seems particularly confused about matters of geography and terrain important to military operations. The area between Washington and Richmond was not “nearly all dense woods.” Paducah, Kentucky, and Corinth, Mississippi, are not on the Mississippi River. Perret has the Tennessee and Shenandoah rivers flowing in the wrong direction; on one occasion he confuses the Rappahannock and York rivers and on another the Rappahannock and Pamunkey. He also mixes up Gaithersburg, Maryland, with Martinsburg, West Virginia. There was no railroad within thirty miles of Yorktown in 1862; and in 1864 Union Gen. Philip Sheridan did not drive Confederate Gen. Jubal Early to the “outskirts of Richmond” but to Brown’s Gap, 100 miles northwest of Richmond.