Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War' Abraham Lincoln had almost no military experience when he arrived at the White House in 1861. In Tried By War, author James McPherson explains how Lincoln defined the role of the American commander in chief as he led the country through the Civil War.
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Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

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Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

Lincoln Was A President 'Tried By War'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington and here are headlines from some stories we're following here today at NPR News. Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke today endorsed a plan for a new economic stimulus package. Democrats in Congress have supported such a package. Thus far, the White House has been skeptical, though President Bush said today he is open to the idea. And Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama campaigned in Florida. Early voting began in the Sunshine state today.

Meanwhile, Republican John McCain stomped through the swing state of Missouri, we'll have details on those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, one five-year-old boy and sister that God had made a mistake that he was meant to be born a girl. Another, from the moment he could speak said he wanted to wear a dress. We'll talk with parents of transgender children about parents, toddlers and the struggle for identity. Plus, this American moment Madeleine Albright joins us, next Talk of the Nation from NPR News. The war powers of the president and the role of the commander in chief are issues much in debate over the past four decades, the last several years in particular and of course they're an important part of this presidential campaign.

In a new book, historian James McPherson argues that both the war powers of the president and the modern concept of commander in chief are the invention of Abraham Lincoln. The author joins us in just a moment. If you'd like to talk with James McPherson about Lincoln's model of war powers, how he exercised them and how his decisions reverberate through American history, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. James McPherson's new book is called "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and he joins us here in studio 3A and thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. JAMES MCPHERSON (Author): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And among the many problems that Abraham Lincoln faced upon election was that his own military experience consisted in his own words battling mosquitoes during the Black Hawk War some 30 years before he took office.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's quite true and otherwise he had no particular military training or experience. He was as green as the greenest recruit in the union army. But he learned on the job, he worked very hard at learning on the job and because of his mental acumen, his shrewd common sense, his ability to penetrate to the core of a problem. By the second year of the war, I think he was an extremely competent commander in chief and probably had a better grasp of what was necessary to win that war than most of his military commanders.

CONAN: In fact for large portions of the war, you argue that in fact he did act as his own General in Chief.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Yes he did inherit the General in Chief, Winfield Scott but Scott was old, tired and past his prime, so he disappointed Lincoln, he appointed the young Napoleon as press hailed him. General B. McClellan is General in Chief, but McClellan turned out to be an even greater disappointment. Then Lincoln eventually turned to Henry W. Halleck who likewise refused to take responsibility, make decisions, give orders. So as a consequence, many of the - much of the burden of decision making of command decisions of orders fell on Lincoln's shoulders.

Those shoulders turned out to be broad, but when he finally managed to get Grant in as General in Chief, then Lincoln could unburden himself of some of those command decisions and turn them over to Grant. But he and Grant so eye-to-eye and Lincoln throughout the course of the war had defended Grant against critics, had prevented pressures from building up that would have removed Grant from subordinate commands and finally brought him to the Supreme Command in Washington in the spring of 1864.

CONAN: And indeed we think of the president's role as commander in chief, well certainly it's got to include grand strategy, it's got to include a strategy even operations to some degree but you say Lincoln was involved not just on those levels, but involved on the level of tactics and very involved in the issue of selecting weapons for his army.

Mr. MCPHERSON: It's quite true that on more than one occasion - but one occasion in particular Lincoln got involved in technical decisions and technical orders, this was in May of 1862 when he went down to the Virginia Peninsula, Hampton Roads to try to prod McClellan into greater action. And in the course of his visit there, he actually gave orders to subordinate commander to occupy Norfolk and went out on Tug to select the best landing place for Union soldiers who land in Norfolk. He also spent a lot of time testing new weapons that were offered by various inventors. He went into what is the ellipse now, behind the White House - it was just bare land out there then - and tested repeating rifles, repeating carbines and it was his decision to give contracts to the Spencer manufacturing company which turned out the best weapons of the war. He overruled his Ordinance Chief, who was a very conservative stick-in-the-mud kind of a guy and Lincoln was responsible for making sure that these improved weapons, revolutionary new, improved weapons got into the hands of many of the soldiers by the last two years of the war.

CONAN: And the Union capital which had been so dismal through much of the war, in part because of those repeating rifles proved to be quite effective in the last couple of years.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, the last year of the war, I think they were the best unit in the union army.

CONAN: As you go through the history of Abraham Lincoln and his generals as you mentioned, all of the disappointments, McClellan twice, then Burnside and all of the others fighting Joe Hooker and the other people that he put in-charge of the Army of the Potomac at various times and all of them disappointed him. Some of whom he knew were his political opponents - as certainly General McClellan and certainly other. Nevertheless, all he wanted them to do was win.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's quite true and in fact, he once was quoted as saying and maybe the story maybe a (unintelligible) but it certainly embodies Lincoln's attitude that he would be willing to hold McClellan's horse if McClellan would only give him victories. McClellan behind the scenes, in private letters to his wife was calling the president the original gorilla. He was contemptuous toward Lincoln. I think Lincoln realized that McClellan held him in low regard and nevertheless, he could work with McClellan. Lincoln had a - ability to shrug off personal insults and to work with people who may have held him at low regard, if they were the people who could get the job done. But, you're quite right that many of the - of Lincoln's commanders especially the Army of the Potomac who seemed to be the best choice for that position when he appointed them turned out to be great disappointments to him.

CONAN: What did you make of - what do you make of statements that we've heard in recent years that the decisions have to be made by the commanders in the field?

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well that was one of the problems with Henry Halleck, general and chief. Halleck said precisely that that the commander in the field was the best person to make a judgment on certain strategic - and even tactical and even strategic decisions. But Lincoln wanted Halleck who had a reputation as being a military genius. He was called hold brains and - he wanted Halleck to take the responsibility and give the orders. He even - he wanted Halleck to go to the front to go visit General Bernside down at Fredericksburg or across the river from Fredericksburg and size up the situation and decide what to do and Halleck would not do it.

So, I personally think that it's not always the best to leave the decision to the commander in the field. The commander in the field is sometimes, in the case of Civil War, Union commanders frequently risk a verse. They don't want to lose and so they don't take any risks of losing which means they don't take any risks at all. They don't take the initiative. What Lincoln wanted was generals who would, who are willing to take risks, who would take the initiative and that's why he liked Grant so much. Grant was one of those persons.

CONAN: He also was aware of the politics of the situation as president and Commander in Chief. Generals always weren't and would complain about some of his appointments in terms of the militia generals and that sort of thing. Political appointments necessary to reward the people who provided the troops to fight the war.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's right. These were the so-called political generals. Men that Lincoln had appointed to high rank because of their political prominence, not necessarily because of their military competence. And he did so because these men had a large constituency amongst several parts of the northern population. And this was a war fought almost entirely by volunteers, by citizens in uniform. It was a war or mass mobilization from the bottom up and part of that mobil - much of that mobilization was accomplished by political leaders at all levels. The local level, the regional level, the state level and this was Lincoln's job as commander in chief was just as much to mobilize the political support to wage this war as it was to supervised a military strategy necessary to win it.

CONAN: Yeah and your description of the - his struggle for reelection and the difficulties that his army has faced and how all of that played in to the presidential campaign of 1864 is fascinating.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, it's quite true that at a low point in the union military situation, in the late summer of 1864, Lincoln was sure that the would be defeated for reelection because things seemed to be going so badly. Then came military victories. Principally Sherman's capture of Atlanta on September 2nd, 1864 followed by several victories in the Shenandoah Valley by General Sheridan, that turned the situation around 180 degrees and it's a perfect illustration of the very close relationship between politics and the military in the American Civil War.

CONAN: We're talking with James McPherson about his new book, "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." 800-989-8255, e-mail us talk@npr.org. Mark is on the line from Lansing in Michigan.

MARK (Caller): Hello. Professor McPherson, I kind of had basic educational question, though conveniently we're discussing Lincoln primarily. We have separation of powers and grant to the legislature of making the laws. I don't have the Constitution in front of me, but could you please educate us - well, I've wondered for quite a while how Lincoln could be credited with freeing slaves - the emancipation proclamation. Could you tell us how or what provision of the Constitution would grant the president to make such a proclamation or a declaration, have the effect of law?

Mr. MCPHERSON: The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the Army and Navy. But it doesn't define what the powers of the Commander in Chief are. It's a kind of a blank slate on which Commanders in Chief like Lincoln have written, what they called, the war powers and Lincoln based his emancipation proclamation on his powers as Commander in Chief to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States. That enemy property with slaves, slaves constituted the principal labor force of the confederacy.

They provided the logistical support for confederate armies and just as a general had the power to seize railroads, to seize factories manufacturing weapons, to seize any kind of material - war material being used to wage war against his side, the president as Commander in Chief, the one who is above all the generals claimed that the had the war power to seize enemy property, slaves and to confiscate that property which in the context of slavery meant to free the slaves.

CONAN: And he did not think that way just a year earlier though?

Mr. MCPHERSON: No, at one point, he had said he could not do that. He could not make permanent rules of property by executive declaration. He could seize property for a temporary military use, but a little further thought convinced him, as I think it would convince anybody that once you seize slaves being used by the enemy for example, to build fortifications, you're not likely to give them back to the enemy when you're done with them and since these are human beings, as well as property, seizing them means freeing them and not sending them back and Lincoln finally came to that conclusion.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the question. A good one.

MARK: Thank you. It was my lack of knowledge in the time-line. That was - for example, in the state of Michigan, the Attorney General can issue an opinion and unless that's contrary to statute or is modified by statute of the opinion of the Attorney General stands as lost. So thank you very much for the history lesson.

CONAN: OK, Mark. Appreciate it. We're talking again with James McPherson about his new book, "Tried By War." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we revere Lincoln but we also look back at the powers and how he exercised them and people today would be disturbed I think by the way that he suspended the use of Habeas Corpus, another issue that's come up in recent years.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That was one of the most controversial actions that Lincoln took. The Constitution does permit a suspension of Habeas Corpus in cases of rebellion or invasion and of course, we clearly had a case of rebellion, in the case of the Civil War. The big controversy was whether the president had the power to do that by executive order or whether only Congress had that power. That clause of the Constitution occurs in Article One, which outlines the powers of Congress. But Lincoln made the case, and it's a persuasive case that this is an emergency power, and that only the Commander in Chief in war time, has the quickness to act in an emergency. Congress isn't always in session. That takes a long time for Congress to do anything, as we well know and so Lincoln claimed - and a lot of legal authorities, Constitutional authorities supported his argument that he as Commander in Chief, had the power to do this.

He did not think that this was necessarily a president to be used in all future cases. The Civil War was the greatest crisis this country had faced. It was a crisis that actually threatened to survival of the United States as one nation, indivisible. And Lincoln claimed that the Constitution as - gave him powers as Commander in Chief to do what was necessary to fulfill his Constitutional duty to preserve the nation, to preserve the Constitution if you will. And one of the things that he did was to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus and several thousand people, mostly in the border-slave states where the war was an active - which were an active war zone were arrested and kept in preventive detention for certain like the dime under his suspension of Habeas Corpus but he himself said, that once the war was over, once the emergency was over, there would be now constitutional power for him to do so and the Writ of Habeas Corpus would revert to it's traditional status.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can squeeze in another caller. Michael with us from San Andreas in California.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Was Abraham Lincoln really surprised or shocked when the General Robert E. Lee turned him down when he was offered the union generalship or leadership position? And was the - what was the risk of that and did the blockade of the southern commercial ports - was that Abraham Lincoln's brain child?

Mr. MCPHERSON: To answer your second question first, yes, the blockade was Abraham Lincoln's brain child. He declared a blockade of the confederate forts only four days after the surrender of fort Sumter and he continued to widen it during the course of the war. The other question now, I've forgotten what it was.

CONAN: The general offering the job of the...

Mr. MCPHERSON: Oh, the offering the position, offering the command of the principal union field army to Robert E. Lee. I don't think that Lincoln was surprised when Lee turned him down. That offer was made through general in - well, through general - Secretary Frank, Francis Blaire. But really through general - then general and chief Lynfield Scott. Scott was a fellow Virginian. He tried to persuade Lee that as a Virginian he could remain loyal to the United States, even though Lee's sons and nephews were going over to the confederacy. And when Lee said he could not lift his sword against his native state, Lynfield Scott told him, well, I was afraid that would be the case. And I think that you speaking for Lincoln as well.

MICHAEL: That was truly tragic.

CONAN: Yes. And Michael, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And James McPherson, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, thank you.

CONAN: James McPherson's new book, "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." He joined us here in Studio 3A. He's the George Henry Davis 86 Professor of history Emeritus at Princeton University. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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