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Lincoln on War: Our Greatest Commander-In-Chief Speaks to America

by Harold Holzer

Rating: 3.9/5.0

Publisher: Algonquin Books

In Lincoln on War, Harold Holzer gathers numerous speeches from Lincoln’s political career, both as president and during his term in the House of Representatives, presenting a cohesive narrative of his ever-changing outlook on war and its necessity. Lincoln on War is so much more than a simple portrait of one of the most highly praised presidents. By collecting primary source documents – mainly speeches and letters – spanning Lincoln’s career as a politician, Holzer, a distinguished Lincoln scholar, has crafted a meticulously detailed depiction of nobility and compromise in the face of increasingly monumental decisions.

In his earliest speeches, Lincoln demonstrates a certain amount of flair, humor and aggressiveness – an eager anti-war activist with a fiery sense of oration and wit. Holzer highlights these speeches, such as those against the Mexican-American War, with his own comments and retrospective insights. From Lincoln’s famous “Spot Resolutions” speech – which questioned whether the land truly belonged to America in the first place – to his impassioned evocation of the “right to rise up” when speaking to the House of Representatives in 1848, the first section of Lincoln’s writings firmly establish him as a strictly anti-war politician. These first addresses act as the building blocks not only for his political career, but also as a way of setting up an arc for the book’s narrative.

When Lincoln became president, he dealt with the most significant pressures against his anti-slavery and anti-war ideals; his vehement stance against the American-Mexican war helped him get elected as president, but with Civil War looming, Lincoln had no choice but to contemplate wartime strategies. The latter portion of Lincoln on War details many of his letters to Ulysses S. Grant as the two strategize ways to suppress Confederate advances. Holzer uses these pieces of writing to create a dichotomy. In a sense, he presents two different Lincolns – the enthusiastic anti-war advocate versus the experienced, battle-ready veteran – and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the man himself. Was he a man who compromised his beliefs for a greater good? Or did a sense of power invade his conscience? The questions are purposely ambiguous.

As the war strategies become successful for the Union, Lincoln turns into a grateful but mournful speaker, one who is proud of his countrymen for having stopped the spread of slavery but regretful for the blood that was shed. Holzer sets up Lincoln on War in a way that better exemplifies the daily struggles of a president under siege, and because of that attention to structure, the sometimes dry material proves compelling. Holzer’s brief introduction and encapsulation to just about every speech and letter is meant not only to clarify what may be a dated sense of language, but to also bring the moral and ideological struggles into the light of the 21st century.

Though the prose is different, the humanistic struggles are the same. We get to see Lincoln as a man who expresses doubt, humility and confidence all at once, a stark contrast to the politicians of today if you consider the likelihood of any contemporary president composing a letter of apology to the media for a war strategy gone wrong. In this sense, Lincoln on War is much more than a history lesson. It is a lesson on the need for humanism, compassion and logic in modern politics.

by Kyle Fowle

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