Top Gun | The Nation


Top Gun

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I could go on only at the risk of tedium. But some errors are so egregious or inexplicable that they must be mentioned. In a discussion of the legal status of slaves as property, Perret interjects the irrelevant and ludicrous assertion that in 1861 the right to vote "extended only to the one-third of the adult male population that paid property taxes above a prescribed level." That had not been true for at least forty years. By 1860 virtually all white male citizens could vote, and more than 80 percent of them did so in the presidential election of that year. In his treatment of war finance, Perret maintains that "one day in the summer of 1862" Lincoln decided that he must issue paper money even if he had to "violate the Constitution." By the fall of that year the President by fiat had "created his own" currency. Nothing about this narrative is correct. Congress passed the Legal Tender Act creating the famous "greenbacks" in February 1862, the law was constitutional and Lincoln's only role in the process was to sign the bill. Perret commits several miscues in his discussion of emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. The worst of them concerns the recruiting of black troops in Kentucky, which was so controversial, he writes, that "not one black regiment was raised there." The matter was controversial, all right, but a total of 23,700 black soldiers were enlisted in Kentucky and organized in some twenty regiments of US Colored Troops.

About the Author

James M. McPherson
James M. McPherson, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author of many books on the Civil War, most...

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Woburn, Mass.

What Michael Lind believes Abraham Lincoln believed.

Perret's sloppiness on these and other issues reduces the credibility of some of his major arguments. He refers frequently to what he calls Lincoln's "Richmond obsession." The Commander in Chief focused obsessively on the capture of Richmond, Perret insists, to the neglect of the Mississippi Valley and the lower South, west of the Appalachians. Most historians disagree; indeed, a consensus exists that it was the Confederates who neglected these Western theaters, where Union forces enjoyed their greatest success and laid the groundwork for ultimate victory. Perret concedes the success but gives Lincoln little credit for it, preferring to reiterate that "Lincoln...remained obsessed with ending the war by taking Richmond."

Never mind that from the summer of 1862 on, Lincoln was convinced that the destruction of enemy armies--not the capture of Richmond--was the key to winning the war. Perret does quote Lincoln's famous telegram to Gen. Joseph Hooker on June 10, 1963: "I think Lee's Army and not Richmond is your true objective point." Perret considers this dispatch an anomaly: "It stands alone, unsupported, unrepeated." He could not be more wrong. Lincoln made the same point frequently to Generals George McClellan, George Gordon Meade, Henry Halleck and other commanders. "To attempt to fight the enemy slowly back to his intrenchments in Richmond...is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year," wrote Lincoln in September 1863. "I have constantly desired the Army of the Potomac, to make Lee's army, and not Richmond, its objective point. If our army can not fall upon the enemy and hurt him where he is, it is plain to see that it can gain nothing by attempting to follow him over a succession of intrenched lines into a fortified city." Tellingly, Perret does not quote this statement.

Some of the supposed Lincoln statements Perret does quote may be apocryphal. Perhaps no other person in history has been credited so often with saying things he never said. In the decades after the Civil War and Lincoln's martyrdom, hundreds of his contemporaries wrote articles or books reporting what Lincoln had allegedly said to them on various occasions. Some of these direct or indirect quotations provide important and reasonably reliable evidence on significant matters; others are spurious or at best doubtful. Perret cites or quotes too many in the latter two categories. He seems unaware of the painstaking scholarship of the late Don Fehrenbacher, one of the most knowledgeable experts on Lincoln. Fehrenbacher's immensely valuable book (written with his wife), Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, sifts these sources and grades them on a scale of reliability. To "a quotation about whose authenticity there is more than average doubt" he assigns a grade of D. A "quotation that is probably not authentic" gets an E. Several of Perret's sources earn D's or E's. One of them, for example, was Lucius Chittenden's Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration (1891). Fehrenbacher considers Chittenden to be one of those "who colored their memories with their imagination until their accounts became wholly unsafe as historical data."

Lincoln's War is essentially a study of military strategy. It also chronicles the evolution of Lincoln's policy of emancipation and, ultimately, the complete abolition of slavery. But Perret does not integrate these stories very well. He might have done so by linking military and national strategy. National strategy is the mobilization of all the nation's resources in time of war: political, economic, diplomatic, social and cultural as well as strictly military resources. Military strategy involves the effort to bring the nation's armed forces to bear against the enemy to their best advantage. Lincoln had an intuitive grasp of the integral relationship between these two forms of strategy. Slavery was the principal hinge between them. In the war's first year, Lincoln consciously avoided a policy of emancipation because his national strategy required the mobilization of the border slave states and of Northern Democrats for the war. Both groups would have been alienated by a premature effort to turn it into a war against slavery. But in the Confederacy, slave labor was a crucial resource mobilized by the Southern war effort. By the war's second year, Lincoln became convinced that, as he put it, "the colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union.... We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves [are] undeniably an element of strength to those who [have] their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us."

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which also authorized the enlistment of black soldiers in Union armies, thus became an essential component of his national strategy. But such a strategy must be compatible with the nation's war aims--the North could not mobilize freed slaves to fight for a Union in which slavery would continue to exist. So the abolition of slavery became a goal as well as a means of Northern victory. That is why Lincoln justified his Emancipation Proclamation as "an act of justice" as well as a "military necessity."

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