Untold Story of America’s Greatest President

Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander In Chief[1]

Reviewed by Captain Douglas L. Simon[2]

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Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he chooses to say he deems it necessary [and] you allow him to make war at pleasure  . . . [Your] view places our President where Kings have always stood.[3]


Few presidents spark the nation’s interest, curiosity, and sense of reverence than Abraham Lincoln.  A sometimes depressed, often overworked president who was scorned by many and loved by few during the most difficult years of the Civil War, Lincoln lifted the spirits, the courage, and social conscious of a country that was again trying to find itself.[4]   Scores of books and articles have been written to detail the traumatic experience of life during the Civil War, both for Lincoln and the country. In this current work, Geoffrey Perret attempts to build on the current literature by offering yet another dimension to Lincoln’s life: his role as Commander and Chief.

In Lincoln’s War, Geoffrey Perret tells the story how Lincoln created what is known today as the modern presidency.[5]  To do this, Perret argues that Lincoln, in times of imminent crisis, invoked an often overlooked power–or a power that remained in dispute even to the Framers of the Constitution[6]–known as the “war power.”[7]  This power, Perret argues, had little involvement in prior presidents’ foreign policy.  In fact, Perret is quick to mention that even James K. Polk (the architect of the Mexican-American War) proudly claimed that he did not have to “broaden or deepen the president’s power.”[8] The constitutional mindset of Polk and prior presidents (to include Lincoln when he was a member of Congress) is offered by Perret to demonstrate that little attention was given to expanding the inherent powers of the president until the coming of Lincoln and the onslaught of war.  With that in mind, Perret mentions his overarching thesis: “The war power was Lincoln’s creation, . . . [and] he shaped it and used it–sometimes brilliantly, sometimes badly–through four years of war.”[9]  In other words, the dismemberment of the Union had reached to such a level of imminence that Lincoln had no choice but take all necessary measures–to include the advancement of the war power–to save the Union.  For Lincoln, this meant that in order for him to fully satisfy his obligations as Commander and Chief, both as a leader and strategist, the war power needed to be more fully developed to meet the challenges to come.  In that respect, this review will address Perret’s argument, both in a complimentary and critical light, considering first how Lincoln used the war power to enhance his role as Commander and Chief; and second, how Lincoln muddled through the complex maze of law, politics, bureaucracy, military strategy, and more broadly, civil war, to achieve the expansion of presidential powers, and ultimately, the final capitulation of the Confederacy

Perret’s work is rich in tracing the development of Lincoln’s total philosophy in prosecuting a war, whether it be through managing the top leaders in the military (to include military procurements, appointments, dismissals, and curt recommendations to his field commanders on appropriate military strategy), to his cajoling of the Congress to meet continuing recruitment and financial demands of the war, to the constant give-and-take with the press and public opinion, or to his outright attack on civil liberties.  In each situation, the reader is expected to surmise how these events led to the rise of the war power and the modern presidency.  Yet Perret’s work falls short in one critical respect: he is excellent in providing the historical backdrop on the manner in which Lincoln used the war power and complement presidential powers, but he is deficient in explaining how each event set the conditions for successor presidents to exploit presidential power and prerogative.  For instance, Perret in the Preface provides a cursory review of how former presidents viewed the war power, but he fails to acknowledge how Lincoln’s exercise of such power influenced his successors.  Examples abound, from Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans (suspension of the writ of habeas corpus), to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War.[10]  One would not expect Perret to provide the full historical record of such an expansion of the war power (such is not his approach or theory), but he so eloquently articulated the lack of a war power before Lincoln, it seems logical that he could provide the rise, if not existence, of the war power after Lincoln.

Beyond this glaring criticism, Perret offers a compelling story of a man who not only grew into his role as Commander and Chief, but redefined it to meet the necessity of the day.[11]  It is here where Perret’s extensive research and gifted writing style provides Lincoln admirers a wonderful source to enrich their understanding of Lincoln’s military role during the Civil War.

An area of constant alarm for those opposed to the War was the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which caused untold grief to Lincoln and members of his cabinet. As a gifted lawyer and politician, Lincoln recognized the immutable qualities of the writ of habeas corpus to the American culture, yet he was the first to realize that such a right had the potential to be a dangerous “luxury.”[12] Perret offers an account of this struggle between liberty and the war power, and eloquently references Lincoln’s legal claim to justifying the suspension of the writ.  Perret provides in detail Lincoln’s comments on his authority to suspend the writ, and how he delegated much of the decisions to arrest those who would engage in anti-Union activity to his Secretary of State, William Seward. [13] More importantly, Perret provides support to his thesis that Lincoln enhanced the war power to new levels by authorizing the suspension of the writ; he writes, “[i]mprisonment by executive fiat . . . continued till the end of the war.  The powers Lincoln had assumed or created to make the president a jailer of enemies real or presumed would be passed intact to all his successors.”[14] One need only turn to Franklin Roosevelt’s authorization to detain Japanese-Americans during WWII to see how Lincoln provided much of the legal legwork to justify such actions.

The political landscape remained dangerous throughout the Civil War years, but no issue grabbed the attention of Americans then the issue of emancipation.  As Perret writes:

Lincoln came under intense pressure to declare an end to slavery. These demands came not only from radical Republicans in Congress, . . . but also from people respected, such as Charles Sumner . . . and from newspaper editors whose support he needed, such as the irrepressible Hoarce Greeley.[15]


Perret attempts to draw to light Lincoln’s intense inner struggle with emancipating the slaves.  The struggle did not rest on whether the institution was good or evil (Lincoln certainly realized the evil of the practice), but rather the intense political fallout that could result from freeing the slaves (Lincoln believed that if such a proclamation were issued, the states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri would surely secede).[16]  Perret provides the decision making that led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and in so doing, provides insight on the political, legal, and moral strategy Lincoln would use to justify this grand measure.

Perret provides an effective and amusing account of Lincoln steering an entrenched bureaucracy resistant to change.  When one young machinist approached Lincoln with a new weapon, a new breech loading carbine that could fire twenty-one rounds a minute, Lincoln gave him his opportunity to showcase it.  Firing the carbine down at Treasury Park, Lincoln realized the need for this weapon to be employed with the Union Army.[17]  After the young machinist failed to win the full approval of the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley (an obstruction of sorts to new technology), the young machinist directly appealed to Lincoln, who then directed Ripley to purchase 10,000 breech loading carbines.[18] Perret provides this illustration to demonstrate two facets of Lincoln in his role as Commander and Chief: (1) that Lincoln had an intense fascination with new, innovative weapons; and (2) that a bureaucracy resistant to change would answer directly to Lincoln.  In other words, and as Perret effectively argues:

The policy [development of new weapons] clashed directly with Lincoln’s willingness to go through a hundred failures in pursuit of the one success that would help win the war.  Ripley dismissed this behavior as an amateurish fascination with wonder weapons.  It was indeed, a commander’s impatience with the incrementalism that, while sometimes right in peacetime, can be deadly in wartime.[19]


This account, as Perret has artfully intertwined in his story, reveals yet another dimension of the Commander and Chief, one who would become directly involved with bureaucratic red tape in order to ensure that his Army had the most effective, innovative weapons to prosecute the war.

One could imagine the heavy burden that Lincoln endured in managing the war.  Throughout the pain, setbacks, and frustrations, Lincoln remained vigilant in his goal to save the Union.  Perret provides a telling account of Lincoln’s desire to sacrifice the Constitution in order to save the Union.  Perret writes:

What set Lincoln apart was his conception of the first of all presidential duties: saving the Constitution, whatever the cost and whatever the document’s literal or plain meaning.  Almost anyone else would gave looked for a compromise.  He never did so.  To Lincoln the equation was unarguable: no Union, no Constitution, as surely as no Constitution, no Union.[20]


In this statement, Perret carefully draws to the reader’s attention that Lincoln never questioned his primary obligation to the Constitution or to his county to suppress the rebellion, reunify the nation, and–once Lincoln adopted the “total war” doctrine– emancipate the slaves.[21]  From the reader and writer’s perspective, the brilliance in this statement is that Perret sets the conditions to reach this conclusion.  In other words, littered throughout his work, Perret sprinkled facts, historical quotes, and his comments to support the notion that Lincoln would resort to almost any legal or strategic measure to achieve victory.  From calling up the first 200,000 militia[22] to authorizing blockades of Confederate ports,[23] Lincoln exercised extreme powers under the Constitution, whether they were there or not, and Perret is there to offer a detailed historical account of such feats.

A revealing facet of Lincoln’s role as Commander and Chief is displayed in Perret’s thorough account of divisiveness between Lincoln and his military commanders.  To take one example, Lincoln would not accept, as Perret argues, Winfield Scott’s recommendation to initiate economic strangulation of the South.  Winfield Scott’s plan, which Perret agrees with and characterizes as Lincoln’s first military blunder, sought to position the Army of the Potomac in a defensive posture, holding Lee’s forces at Richmond.[24]  While this occurred, a force of some 100,000 Union troops would capture strategic points in the West and move eastward to attack the Confederacy at its most vulnerable point, the rear.[25] Coupled with an effective blockade of Confederate seaports, the Southern states would be forced into submission.  Lincoln dismissed this recommendation, and instead, went forward with the political expedient course of action, a full frontal assault on Richmond.  Such a decision, as Perret argues, extended the war and led to seven failed attempts to capture Richmond, resulting in immense human suffering.[26] Perret provides an effective argument that Lincoln misjudged the will of the Confederacy to defend Richmond, and moreover, that a relic from the Mexican-American War, Winfield Scott, held the key to a quick victory.  To buttress Perret’s claim, he cites future campaign plans by the Germans in WWI and WWII, both of which effectively employed an outflanking strategy similar to the one Winfield Scott had supported.  Furthermore, Perret cites the historical record that key Confederate strategic points in the West were largely undefended, as Winfield Scott believed; consequently, such an assault from the West would lead to rapid, successful military campaigns, resulting in an end to hostilities within a year.[27]  This argument offered by Perret is revealing in that it provides a realistic, if not human characteristic of Abraham Lincoln: that he did make, from time to time, bad decisions.

As interesting an argument as this campaign from the West is, it does not fully give readers a flavor for why Lincoln chose to march to Richmond  For one, it is arguable that the length of the war may be attributed to incompetent commanders, like George B. McClellan, rather than a failed strategy to take Richmond.  In fact, it is well known, and conceded even by Perret, that McClellan continually misjudged the strength of the enemy and failed to press his advantage, both in numbers and equipment.[28]  Again, one could easily make the claim that the incompetence exhibited by McClellan led to the unnecessary extension of the war.  Furthermore, it should be noted that even though Perret provides comments by Winfield Scott to support his argument, the level of scholarly support is scant.  This conclusion is drawn from Perret’s own notes, where he cites one book on military strategy.  It seems logical that if this theory is truly viable, more attention would have been given to it by academe, and if such attention were given with the result of scholarly publications, Perret would have used these resources to support his argument.

Even though Perret’s work fails to address how Lincoln’s use of the war power created the modern presidency–which is Perret’s thesis–and does not adequately provide support for his Western campaign theory, this reviewer’s impression is still positive. Perret’s readable prose, extensive research, and keen sense of historical detail make this book a good read for both the amateur historian and the Civil War buff.

[1] Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander and Chief (2004).  Perret offers this quote, like many other historians, to show that Lincoln became what he thought a President should never be: an unchecked tyrant who usurped power from the people in order to prosecute an unnecessary war.  It is fitting then to use this quote as a transition into the substance of the review, one that shows the development of, as Perret argues, the modern commander and chief.


[2] United States Army.  Written while assigned as a student, 53rd Judge Advocate Officer Graduate Course, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia.


[3] Perret, supra note 1, at xv.


[4]See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 371 (1995).


[5] Perret, supra note 1, at xiii.

[6] See also Norman A. Graebner, The President as Commander in Chief: A Study in Power, 57 J. Mil. Hist. 111, 115. (1993).


[7] Perret, supra note 1, at xv.

[8] Id. at xiv.

[9] Id. at xv.

[10]Graebner, supra note 6.

[11] Perret, supra note 1, at 41.

[12] Id. at 301.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 305.

[15] Id. at 196.

[16] Id. at 200.

[17] Id. at 152.


[18] Id.


[19] Id. at 150.

[20] Id. at 397

[21] See also Daniel E. Sutherland, Abraham Lincoln, John Pope, and the Origins of Total War, 56 J. Mil. Hist.  567, 573-574 (1992).


[22] Perret, supra note 1, at 47


[23] Id. at 41.

[24] Id. at 56.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 60.

[27] Id. at  415.

[28] Perret, supra note 1, at 172-173.

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