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Lincoln Prize Goes to McPherson and Symonds

The judges for the prestigious and cash heavy Lincoln prize got it just right this year with their selection of two authors as winners of the 19th annual competition. With 127 books to consider, they selected James M. McPherson's "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief," and Craig L. Symonds' "Lincoln and his Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy and the Civil War."

McPherson and Symonds will each receive a $25,000 cash award and a bronze bust of Lincoln at a dinner at the Union League of New York on April 7.

The panel of three judges also named three honorable mentions. They went to Jacqueline Jones of the University of Texas at Austin for "Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War;" Fred Kaplan of the City University of New York Graduate Center for "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer," and William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia for "President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman."

McPherson, who previously won the Lincoln Prize in 1998, is the George Henry Davis professor of American history. Symonds, who was a finalist for the 1993 prize, is professor of American history emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The two historians are each wonderful story tellers, having practiced the craft for decades as popular professors at their schools. As writers, they have a wonderful ability to draw the reader into history, by creating a world of people we seem to recognize, and then taking us along on the adventure that was the Civil War. The titles may be off-putting, but the reader needs no expertise on either land or naval battles to enjoy them.

McPherson points out that Lincoln was our first commander-in-chief. He had no real guidance for his new role. Neither the Constitution nor existing legislation spoke to how a President ought to declare war or dictate strategy. He just had to make it up as he went along, and in the process took controversial steps while achieving his goal of preserving the Union.

He builds his book about this president who learned the art of warfare just as he had once learned the law. He was a good student, reading all the books available to him and listening to his military leaders. Then he decided what to do, knowing that war should not be left up to only the generals.

McPherson writes that Lincoln never read Carl von Clausewitz’s famous treatise, “On War.” However, the president’s actions were a consummate expression of Clausewitz’s central argument: “The political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. …Therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.”

Many of the generals disagreed with Lincoln’s meddling in their war and wished he would stay out of it, but it was up to the president to “juggle the complex interplay of policy, national strategy and military strategy.”

Lincoln was a war president who won his war. From the beginning, he understood that the war was a test of national sovereignty over a union of all the states. There was no room for compromise.

That issue was “distinct, simple and inflexible,” he said in 1864. “It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”

In his book, Symonds reminds us that there was a naval side of the war that Lincoln was conducting at the same time he was worrying about the land battles. Although the admirals are not as well known as the generals, they are every bit as interesting. Like their counterparts in the army, they were a varied lot ranging from the stolid and reliable David Farragut to the flamboyant and confrontational Charles Wilkes.

He begins by telling us that Lincoln confessed to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I know but little about ships.” Lincoln, ever the able student, changed that through his many visits to the Navy Yard and his fascination with what Symonds calls, “the gadgetry of warfare.” The President watched and participated in weapons testing and became a knowledgeable advocate of heavy caliber naval guns, armored warships and floating mortar platforms.

Welles is one of the two key characters in Symonds’ book. Early on he shares this memorable portrait of the Navy secretary:

“The fifty-nine-year-old Welles wore a wig that he had purchased years before when his hair was still light brown and only tinged with gray. He continued to wear that same wig as a cabinet secretary even though his beard was now snowy white and the contrast was jarring. Moreover, Welles tended to wear his wig like a hat, plunking it on his head in the morning without paying serious attention as how it rested on his balding dome, and pushing it back on his head absentmindedly as he worked at his desk. If he sneezed or shook his head violently, the wig skittered about independently.”

This is indicative of Symonds’ style. You can almost feel his passion for his subject and he plays the good host, introducing each of the characters in similar fashion.

The judges were Eric Foner (chair), the Dwitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University; Lucas Mundy, Garwood visiting fellow at Princeton University, and Carol Bundy, an author of film and art publications in the U.S. and Great Britain whose first book traced the life of her great-great-great uncle, Charles Russell Lowell.

Announcement of the Lincoln Prize was made earlier this month by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College, which administers the awards. The $50,000 annual prize was co-founded and endowed by businessmen and philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman.


By Linda Wheeler  |  February 26, 2009; 11:21 AM ET
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