Check out Jonathan D. Horn's review of Lincoln on War, Harold Holzer's latest addition to the more than 16,000 books about our sixteenth president. The book focuses on Lincoln's thoughts and speeches about war, and Holzer has pieced together a narrative that allows the reader to follow the president's thought process as he leads the nation through the most difficult period of its brief history:
“Modern commanders in chief . . . have routinely and repeatedly (if sometimes inappropriately) cited Lincoln’s resolve, and quoted Lincoln’s words (often unpersuasively), to justify wars of their own,” he writes. In the selections that follow, it is easy to see why. There seems to be a Lincoln for every political taste. There is the young man who worried about whether his generation could preserve the freedoms that the then-greatest generation (the Founding Fathers) had won. There is the congressman who opposed the Mexican War but voted for funding the troops (not the other way around, Senator). There is the commander in chief who suspended habeas corpus and asked Congress, “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Holzer omits that last line in a rare editorial misfire.
Like most compilations, Lincoln on War risks becoming a book that students of history merely consult in parts instead of reading as a whole. One can imagine White House and congressional aides stockpiling copies so they can arm their bosses with quotations for the next military debate. It would be a shame, however, if Lincoln on War ended up as a martial version of Bartlett’s. When stitched together by an editor of Holzer’s skill, Lincoln’s writings still provide one of the best narratives of the Civil War. That these documents remain so coherent a century and a half later speaks to how Lincoln never lost sight of the war’s larger historical context even as he struggled through its day-to-day trials. If, as Holzer notes, the president’s “words on war ultimately approached the sublime,” the path that led Lincoln there began long before the Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural.