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Book Review - Tried By War

Updated on August 14, 2014
James M. McPherson
James M. McPherson | Source

The Author

The author of the Abraham Lincoln biography, Tried By War, is the prize-winning historian James M. McPherson. Of the many biographies I have read, this biography, while highly engaging, perhaps offers a smaller glimpse into the life and motivation of the author than any of the biographies so far experienced. His qualifications, as presented in the book itself, seem to be based purely on academic achievement which, while still having significant merit, leave somewhat to be desired by those who would prefer at least a little more personal flavor from the author.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Commander in Chief

But despite all that, the purpose and intent of the book is clearly laid out in the opening pages, and that same purpose and intent seems to be accomplished expertly by the book’s closing. As is stated on the very cover of the book, this book chronicles President Abraham Lincoln with a laser-like focus on one specific, and yet very important, job of the United States President—that of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The biography attempts to convey to the reader that Abraham Lincoln, while possessing no real military or strategic knowledge before his inauguration and also having nearly no executive experience to speak of, was able to train himself sufficiently in the strategies of offensive and defensive movement to the point he probably could have been a better field commander than most of the generals he appointed to command throughout the war years.

The President

However, while the focus of the book is on the role of the Commander in Chief, the author, out of pure necessity, is forced to wander into the realms of nearly all the other jobs a sitting United States President is required to perform. This demonstrates the difficulty in history to draw perfect lines which historians so often attempt to use to explain what is sometimes utter chaos in a concise over-simplified manner that often lead to incorrect conclusions. A good historian, such as James M. McPherson, learns to recognize the areas where overlaps occur, where complexities have evolved, and how to begin following the never-ending connection of patterns down the winding rabbit-hole of true historical research, hopefully to emerge with at least a glimpse at the true meaning and significance of historical occurrences, both big and small, which make up the story of the human experience.

Tried By War

Beyond simple academics and historical anecdotes, a deeper feeling and meaning can be felt flowing from the pages of Tried By War; a feeling that moves this book towards the realm of lasting impact and true insight. The very title is telling—Tried By War. The author is presenting to us a story from history of a man who was given a monumental task which he never asked for but which he accepted and attempted to complete. Abraham Lincoln had to adapt, evolve, and overcome—indeed he was tried as perhaps few men in history have ever been tried. The conclusion of the author, and a conclusion most could agree with regardless of personal feelings or political persuasion, is that Abraham Lincoln stood up and succeeded in his trial. He succeeded through patience, perseverance, and overall the ability to change and adapt along with the circumstances he was presented with. This insight is infinitely valuable, not just as an aid to understanding what it means to be tried as a leader on a national level, but what it means for anyone to be placed in a trying period in their lives. Often history is inevitably merely the recollection of how individuals, groups, and nations reacted to the trials of their times.

In Conclusion

In the end, and in spite of these insights, it must be admitted that Tried By War is directed much more towards an audience of historical and military scholars. This book will most likely not be found on a book shelf rubbing covers with Hunger Games and Harry Potter but will be a read picked up in a library or perhaps laying on the desk of a dedicated History teacher, probably even being used in college history seminar classes and read by students who have never heard of the title or author until assigned the book to be read. But like a rare gem, viewed only by those diligent enough to seek it, Tried By War will be read with excitement and offer lasting illuminations if the diligent explorer of the human experience but chooses to pick it up.

© 2014 TL Flanigan


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