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It takes a certain amount of audacity to put out a book on nearly the same subject as one of the best-selling Lincoln books of all time, but that is what historian Chester G. Hearn has done with his latest book, an examination of President Lincoln's working relationship with his top political and military advisors.
In Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals, Hearn seeks to illuminate Lincoln as executive and commander in chief, and to show him not as the "legendary Lincoln of folk yore" but as the "determined, compassionate, complex, and self-made rustic lawyer" who occasionally fumbled and eventually triumphed as president (p. xi). Rather than focus on Lincoln's travails with his cabinet members or with his top generals—as previous books have done—Hearn attempts a synthesis of Lincoln's relationship with both groups.
Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals begins at the 1860 Republican convention, where it introduces Abraham Lincoln and his rivals for the presidential nomination—the rivals who would ultimately form his cabinet. The book then travels a chronological flow from Lincoln's victory, to the formation of his cabinet, to his relations and power struggles with his advisors and commanders through the war, and ends at the assassination.
Hearn, an experienced writer with numerous books to his credit, proves again that he is an excellent Civil War historian. He offers up an impressive encapsulation of the war and its Union leadership in less than four hundred pages and he writes a book based on academic research yet accessible to the popular history market. His endnotes illustrate his command of the subject and the primary-source materials yet do not swell to dizzying heights, while his smooth narrative style is both informative and compelling to the reader.
Unfortunately, Hearn reaches too far in this book and does not [End Page 139] achieve his ultimate objective. He wanted to go beyond previous books that had focused on Lincoln and his military commanders—such as the masterful Lincoln and His Generals by T. Harry Williams (1952) or the recent Lincoln's Political Generals by David Work (2009)—and on Lincoln and his cabinet—such as the unparalleled best-selling Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin—and instead show Lincoln's workings with both groups. But to achieve this goal and keep the book at a manageable size, Hearn had to narrate the entire war and give only the briefest of surveys of the men and events involved. As such, Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals reads as only a general summation of the Civil War with no real theme other than Lincoln as leader. Quite simply, Hearn tries to cover too much material in too little space.
When dealing with the military relationships, Hearn offers only the basic military plans and battles, and stories about Lincoln and this or that general. He tells the famous stories of McClellan going to bed while Lincoln waits in his parlor; of Hooker saying the country needs a dictator and Lincoln responding; of politicians telling the president to relieve Grant but Lincoln saying he can not spare the man because "he fights." Likewise, he tells the familiar political stories such as the cabinet crisis in 1862 and the attempt to undermine Lincoln's renomination in 1864. Hearn never goes below these surface stories to really delve into relationships and explain who these people were and how they affected or were affected by Lincoln.
In the end, Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals is a fine book for what it is: a general summary of the war, Lincoln, the cabinet, and the generals. But it offers nothing new in subject or interpretation, and fails to deliver on the promise of illuminating Lincoln's growth during the war and his relations with his top advisors. [End Page 140]
Jason Emerson is an independent historian from upstate New York. He is the author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007) and Lincoln the Inventor (2008), and currently is...