Sunday, May 29, 2011
Book review: Lincoln on War
Read the words of the man who fought the Civil War and reunified a nation.
President Abraham Lincoln presided over the United States during its only internecine conflict.
Today, 150 years after the start of hostilities in rebellion against the Constitution, we have an opportunity to read the words of President Lincoln about that and other military conflicts.
Renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has assembled Lincoln's public statements and documents along with some private comments on war. The assembled works benefit from Holzer's editorial comments, which explain the context of each.
Lincoln's first public statements about war were made when he was a congressman. He raised questions about the validity of the pretext President James Polk used to wage war against Mexico, questioning whether U.S. forces were attacked on U.S. soil, as alleged, or whether our forces initiated the attack.
Reading the history of the Mexican War today, it is easy to know that the pretext for the Mexican War was not valid, and he questioned the president's assumption of powers outside the Constitution's guidelines for balance of power among the three branches of government.
Some of Lincoln's opinions about the conduct of the Mexican War would be used by his political opponents during the Civil War. However, Holzer's presentation makes it easy to see that a consistent theme was beginning to develop in Lincoln's public statements about war and his concepts of American government.
The first inaugural address provides a good example of Lincoln's thought and Holzer's editing expertise.
In the inaugural address as delivered, Lincoln sounded like the leader of a nation torn apart by internal strife. Holzer's parenthetical notes show that the original version of the speech was more bellicose and less conciliatory.
Throughout the book, we read Lincoln's public statements and see that he was, in modern parlance, a great "spin doctor." He worked to keep the nation focused on his message. That message was about reunifying a divided country.
What we also see in his correspondence is a commander in chief who wants to end the war as quickly as possible. He shows frustration with his commanders in the field who did not share his desire for decisive action -- until he put Ulysses Grant in charge of the Union forces.
So often, the stories of the Civil War are told from the perspective of the Confederacy -- the Lost Cause. Holzer presents the story of the war from the perspective of the man who engineered its end -- and the beginning of a newly reunified nation.