James M. McPherson on “Lincoln as Commander in Chief”

Author of Commander in Chief James McPherson
James McPherson is a professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University and author of Commander in Chief, which appears in the January 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine. David K. Crow

James M. McPherson, a professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University, has written prolifically about abolitionism, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction. Published in 1988, his Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era earned him a Pulitzer Prize, and his latest book Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief—like his story “Commander in Chief” in Smithsonian’s January issue—focuses on Lincoln as a military strategist.

What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis a bit?
I wrote the story of Lincoln as commander in chief because, in my research and reading about Lincoln and the Civil War, I became convinced that it was an understudied topic given the huge amount of time and effort Lincoln spent on the tasks of defining and articulating Union war aims, mobilizing the people and resources to fight the war, and coming up with a military strategy and the commanders to carry out this strategy necessary to win the war. Lincoln spent more time on his duties as commander in chief than anything else, but most biographies of him and studies of his presidency devote disproportionately little space to this topic. I tried to redress that balance in my article and in the book from which it is derived.

What was your favorite moment or favorite find while researching this story?
My favorite find was the close relationship that developed between Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant—at a distance before March 1864 when they met in person for the first time, and in person on many occasions thereafter. Lincoln identified Grant as the kind of general he was looking for fairly early in the war, and then defended Grant against critics and rivals who tried to derail his career. Lincoln's support for Grant may have been the most important contribution the commander in chief made to ultimate Union victory.

You have written extensively about Lincoln, but what managed to surprise you about the role he played as commander in chief? What did you find most interesting about his military strategy?
The most striking thing about Lincoln's strategy as commander in chief was the way in which he viewed Confederate offensives more as an opportunity than a threat—an opportunity to strike at invading or raiding enemy armies while they were strung out or deep in Union territory far from their home base. Five times in the war Lincoln tried to get his field commanders to strike at vulnerable Confederate armies when they were on the offensive—in Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign in May and June 1862, in Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland in September 1862, Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky the same month, Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in June-July 1863, and Jubal Early's raid to the outskirts of Washington in July 1864. Each time his commanders failed him, until Phil Sheridan did attack and cripple Early's army in the Shenandoah Valley in September-October 1864 and George Thomas wrecked John Bell Hood's Confederate army at Nashville in December 1864. Studying Lincoln's strategic ideas and orders in all of these campaigns—the failures as well as the successes—offered me some of the most important insights into his performance as commander in chief.

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