Top Gun

Top Gun

Of the making of many books about Abraham Lincoln there is no end.


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.

In a puzzling number of cases, Perret gets wrong the rank, date of promotion or unit of command for army and naval officers. Details on tactics, terrain, numbers of troops engaged or casualties are wrong for several important campaigns and battles: First Bull Run, Fort Donelson, Pea Ridge, the Corinth campaign of May 1862, First Winchester, Perryville, the battle of Corinth in October 1862, Second Bull Run, the campaign and battle of Antietam, Chancellorsville and the Vicksburg assault of May 1863. For good measure, Perret confuses the 1864 battle of Nashville with the battle of Franklin in the same year. In his discussions of Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in May-June 1862 and of the maneuvering before Second Bull Run in August, Perret has the units in the wrong places. If they had been where he claims they were, strategic decisions by Lincoln and his army commanders in both cases might have been quite different.

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.

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.”

The complex story of how the war to preserve the Union evolved into a war to give that Union “a new birth of freedom” has been told many times–but never so well as Allen Guelzo tells it in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Once considered Lincoln’s greatest achievement, the proclamation’s reputation has declined in recent decades. Citing its dry legalistic language, the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter famously declared that the proclamation “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” By limiting its application to states or parts of states under Confederate control, critics assert, Lincoln’s proclamation freed no flesh-and-blood slaves and left those in areas controlled by the Union forces still in slavery. Real emancipation, insist many African-American historians, was accomplished by the slaves themselves. By running away and entering Union lines during the war, they not only liberated their own persons but also forced the issue of emancipation on a laggard Lincoln. “Freedom did not come to the slaves from words on paper,” writes the Columbia University historian Barbara Fields, but “from the initiative of the slaves.” And the institution of slavery came to an end with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, not with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Conceding the partial validity of these critiques, Guelzo painstakingly disentangles truth from distortion and error. The proclamation’s language was dry and technical because it was framed by a lawyer/President who wanted to make it as legally airtight and politically inoffensive as possible at a time when a large part of the Northern population opposed emancipation. The proclamation applied only to areas in rebellion because its legal basis was the President’s war power as Commander in Chief to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States. Even if little of this property was instantly liberated on January 1, 1863, the proclamation constituted a promise that it would be carried out by advancing Union armies. As Lincoln said many times thereafter, “the promise being made, must be kept.” The physical achievement of freedom did indeed occur when slaves came within Union lines. But it also happened when the armies moved into areas where slaves lived. Guelzo persuasively maintains that, by making freedom an official policy, the proclamation produced a quantum leap in the number of slaves seeking that freedom. Word of Lincoln’s edict spread widely by the slaves’ “grapevine telegraph” and “triggered a cascade of running away in 1863 that began sweeping off the underpinnings of slavery.”

Lincoln understood better than anyone else that the proclamation was a war measure that would cease to operate when the war was over. He also worried that the courts might invalidate it retroactively on the grounds that the Commander in Chief could seize enemy property but could not permanently free slave property. Lincoln’s preferred method for ending slavery was by the constitutional actions of the slave states themselves. In 1862 he tried to persuade the loyal border states to take such action, hoping that a domino effect might topple slavery state by state until all were free. The border states refused. Lincoln moved beyond them to issue the proclamation, and in 1864 he ran for re-election on a platform promising a constitutional amendment to end slavery everywhere. Lincoln called the Thirteenth Amendment a “King’s cure” that “alone can meet and cover all cavils.” The Emancipation Proclamation was the single most important step in the journey to that King’s cure. Guelzo concludes that even if the Emancipation Proclamation was “not…the most eloquent of Lincoln’s writings, it was unquestionably the most epochal,” and that even if Lincoln was not “the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had,” he manifestly “was the most significant.”

Although he does not express it so unequivocally, William Harris agrees with this appraisal. His study of the last six months of Lincoln’s life, from his re-election to the assassination, includes a lucid account of Lincoln’s resistance to powerful pressure in 1864 to back away from his commitment to emancipation. Harris also emphasizes the President’s key role in getting the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. Lincoln’s reputation as “the Great Emancipator,” writes Harris, “is truly deserved.” Under his “careful, step-by-step management,” the “Constitution had been changed to a document of freedom.”

Guelzo and Harris have driven a stake into the heart of recent arguments–especially those of Lerone Bennett Jr. in his Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000)–that Lincoln did more to hinder than to help the cause of ending slavery. While Guelzo keeps his focus on the central theme of emancipation, however, Harris covers a wide array of issues that Lincoln faced during his last months in office. Indeed, the book at times becomes a virtual laundry list of such issues without clear distinctions between the important and the routine: patronage, foreign policy, emancipation, reconstruction, Indian policy, licit and illicit trade with the South, re-election, peace terms and negotiations, and the assassination. Part of one chapter documents the increasingly “careworn” and haggard countenance of the President as he grappled with these problems. “Though only fifty-five years of age when re-elected,” Harris writes, “Lincoln was worn down and unable to shake his feeling of dread at the prospect of four more years of the presidency…. It is conceivable that Lincoln, after having achieved his purposes of saving the Union and ending slavery, would have seriously contemplated resigning as president at war’s end.” Despite this startling speculation–for which there is no evidence whatsoever–Harris stops short of implying that the assassination was therefore a blessing in disguise.

Next to emancipation, the most challenging problems for Lincoln during these months were terms of peace with the Confederacy and terms of reconstruction for the South. The platform on which he ran for re-election demanded “unconditional surrender” of the enemy as well as a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln never deviated from these terms. At the Hampton Roads meeting in February 1865 between Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward for the Union and three Southern commissioners headed by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Lincoln reiterated this policy of unconditional surrender–without using the words. The words he did use, however, meant precisely that: “The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States. No receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.” Because Lincoln also promised liberal terms of amnesty to Southerners who gave up their rebellion, Harris denies that Lincoln’s policy was one of unconditional surrender. But the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, who denounced Lincoln’s terms as a “humiliating surrender” and the New York Times, which declared that “we have always demanded ‘unconditional surrender,'” were closer to the mark.

On the issue of voting rights for blacks in the reconstructed South, Harris insists that Lincoln intended to leave the question up to whites in the restored states. Other historians have pointed to evidence that during the winter of 1864-65 Lincoln was moving toward the radical Republican position of requiring at least limited black suffrage in the reconstructed South. In what turned out to be the last speech of his life, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln said that he would like literate freedmen and those who had fought in the Union army to have the right to vote, and hinted at a forthcoming “new announcement to the people of the South.” It is not far-fetched to state that Lincoln gave his life for the cause of black voting rights. Standing in the crowd listening to the President that evening of April 11, 1865, was John Wilkes Booth. When he heard those words, Booth turned to a companion and snarled, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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