Presidents of War

By Michael Beschloss


I was a History major so know that first, but THIS was my favorite non-fiction work of the first quarter. While the book covers the time period of each President who held office during one of our wars, I’ll share just these bits of our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln:

What was tormenting Lincoln was his new comprehension that victory over the South would require him to be the executioner of immense numbers of Americans on both side. Empathy was part of Lincoln’s political genius. But through the coming four years of pathos, it made misery his unshakable companion.”

Evincing the religious subtext of some of his reactions to wartime events, he wrote to himself, ‘The will of God prevails…In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party…God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet…He could have either saved or destroyed the Union with a human contest…Yet the contest proceeds.’ What other wartime American President besides Abraham Lincoln would have been so skeptical about himself and his cause to concede—even in private—that Providence might not necessarily be on his side? More important, Lincoln was expressing his suspicion that by withholding victory from both sides and prolonging the war, God must wish the conflict to end not simply with the reunion of North and South but with emancipation.

“Lincoln told Congress, ‘We cannot escape history…the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation…We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.’ “

Lincoln’s strength amid his own trial by fire was all the more admirable in light of his lifelong struggle with depression. His childhood had been one of loss and alienation. As he later said, he was a ‘poor, friendless boy.’ His mother, Nancy, had perished when he was nine, his only brother, Thomas, at three days old, and his only sister, Sarah, who had looked after him, when he was eighteen. He felt so estranged from his gruff, willful, illiterate father, Thomas, that he never permitted Thomas or his second wife, Sarah, to meet Mary or their children. When Thomas was dying, Lincoln asked his stepbrother to ‘say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant,’ and he declined to attend his father’s funeral.”

“Despite his natural melancholy, Lincoln did not try to wall himself off from the agonies of the national struggle. He believed it was important for him to see fallen Union soldiers being buried in the cemetery…”

“The President had few close friends, and amid the sadness and chaos of these years, the instability of Mary Lincoln deepened his anxieties…”

“As the war ground on, although Lincoln told friends, ‘I have all my life been a fatalist,’ he found some surcease in religion. As a young man, he had written an essay doubting Jesus Christ’s divinity and the notion that the Bible was a reliable indicator of God’s purposes, and it was burned by a friend, Samuel Hill, who feared for Lincoln’s political future. Campaigning for Congress, in the mid-1840s, he had to deny rumors that he was ‘an open scoffer at Christianity.’ But as President, he pronounced himself ‘an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.’ Late in the conflict, Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s Springfield roommate, was startled to find the old skeptic, absorbed in his Bible. The President admonished Speed, ‘Take all of this book upon reasons that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.’ “

“His sublime abilities as thinker and writer, his legal background, his Bible reading, and his self-acquired knowledge of history let him, at almost every turn, connect his aims to Americans’ shared historical memory, their understanding of the Constitution, and their sense of morality. His persuasive eloquence—which no other American President, earlier or later, surpassed—assuaged the people about setbacks on the battlefield and steeled them to support the Union cause, however long and bloody the conflict turned out to be. His decision to widen the aims of the conflict to include abolition lifted the Union struggle to a higher level of moral intensity, which, as he argued, helped to ensure victory.”

The book shares the personal stories of every American President who held office during one of our wars. It’s a cautionary tale because it’s all true, just a wonderful book.