Monday, October 23, 2006

Marvel: "Mr. Lincoln Goes to War"

William Marvel's Mr. Lincoln Goes to War wasn't quite what I expected. Rather than a focused and structured analysis of Lincoln's judgments and policies, the book reads more like a narrative history of the war's first few months sprinkled with commentary. This often results in the greatest amount of detail in the text being devoted to subjects (largely military) covered well or better by other works, leaving the reader wanting more depth when Marvel discusses his own interesting views or interpretations. It just seemed to me that the focus was backwards, so often pushing Lincoln himself into the background of people and events. [However, some of this becomes clear upon reading the Acknowledgments at the back of the book, which mentions that the project started out as a Ball's Bluff monograph. If nothing else, that explains why so much space was devoted to tactical details of that battle.]

Marvel's argument that economic forces were a primary consideration [on what scale this factor was greater than, or largely apart from, patriotism, ideology, etc. he doesn't say, but it would certainly be difficult to measure] for enlistment in the Union army was interesting, mostly for how it brought into focus the Panic of 1857 and the later effects that secession itself had on nationwide commerce. It made me wonder just what was the overall economic situation in the U.S. during the 1860 election season, and was it even a factor in a national political campaign so overwhelmed by sectional issues.

How Lincoln handled his constitutional authority was another major theme. Here, Marvel is less forgiving than Neely and Farber. Again, although I recognize the book was written in popular non-fiction form, I would liked to have seen a more structured criticism of the current Lincoln scholarship on the subject of civil liberties in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. As an aside, in his assessment of Nathaniel Lyon in Missouri, Marvel, with some confirmation provided in his Acknowledgments section, appears to be heavily influenced by Christopher Phillips's psychobiography of the general [Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (1990)], which I heartily recommend reading. As another aside, Marvel certainly adheres to the traditional view of Robert Patterson's valley campaign, with no mention in the text or bibliography of David Detzer or Russel Beatie's recent contrarian arguments.

In the end, perhaps the greatest criticism leveled at Lincoln by Marvel is his opinion that Lincoln insisted on war from the very start, eschewing any serious consideration of peaceful alternative options--either to just let secession stand or to buy time for passions to cool in hopes of later reconciliation. However, Marvel's argument lacks needed punch as it fails to clearly delineate just what those options were and what relative strengths and weaknesses they offered. This doesn't even get into how acceptable any of them would have been to the cabinet, the Congress, the courts, and an inflamed American public--a subject certainly worthy of deep consideration.

By his own estimation, in the interminable "Lincoln--saint or satan?" debates, the views of Marvel come down somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. His hard but still nuanced look at Lincoln's actions may disappoint some readers wishing to read a book whose thrust is more black and white or provocatively partisan, but we've seen enough of those in recent times. On the other hand, instead of using them in conjunction with a lengthy, well-trodden narrative history of the Civil War's early months, I rather wished Marvel had expanded more on his own arguments--and more sharply defined and supported them.

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