BOOK REVIEW: 'Rise to Greatness': 1862 and 'The end of the beginning' of the Civil War and the Preservation of the United States
Monday, March 11, 2013 - 13:35 Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Near the end of his outstandingly readable "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year" (Henry Holt and Co., 480 pages, 8-page insert with black and white photos, 4 maps, notes, bibliography, index, $30.00) David von Drehle quotes churchill to sum up the year 1862 that he covers so well in a book that all Civil War and Lincoln fans will have to read. Never has 1862 been treated with the respect it deserves as von Drehle describes it in" Rise to Greatness". The book chronicles a year of triumphs on the battlefield for the rising stars who would later lead the Union to victory, generals such as U.S. Grant, George Thomas, William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan. After his early successes defeating rebel forces in 1861 at Phillippi and Rich Mountain in what is now West Virginia, Gen. George B. McClelland began to see Confederates everywhere, phantom soldiers whom he erroneously believed outnumbered his forces -- leading to his belief that he could never win. It was a sad ending for McClelland, who was finally dismissed by Lincoln for failing to take advantage of his superior forces and occupy Richmond, the Confederate capital.
As 1862 dawned, the American republic was at death's door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed, the U.S. Treasury was broke, and the Union’s top general was gravely ill. The Confederacy —with its booming economy, expert military leadership, and commanding position on the battlefield — had a clear view to victory. To a remarkable extent, the survival of the country depended on the judgment, cunning, and resilience of the unschooled frontier lawyer who had recently been elected president.
Twelve months later, the Civil War had become a cataclysm but the tide had turned. The Union generals who would win the war had at last emerged, and the Confederate Army had suffered the key losses that would lead to its doom.
At year's end, Lincoln decided to defy the constitution and recognize the loyal unionists of western Virginia by creating the state of West Virginia, which entered the union the following June 20. The blueprint of modern America—an expanding colossus of industrial and financial might—had been indelibly inked with the creation of the land-grant college system by the Morrill Act and the authorization of the transcontinental railroad.
1862 also saw the introduction of the military draft and the federal income tax. And, the crowning achievement by a president who had once proposed the deportation of all the nation's African-Americans to colonies in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean -- the Emancipation Proclamation. Von Drehle presents us with Abraham Lincoln, a man in full, the man who brought the nation through its darkest hour, a man who had been forged by events into the irreplaceable leader.
In "Rise to Greatness", von Drehle has created both a deeply human portrait of America’s greatest president, whose life was torn asunder by the death of his beloved young son Willie and the stresses of living with Mary Todd Lincoln. Maybe to be fair to the First Lady, the stresses of living with Lincoln! In "Rise to Greatness" the author presents us with a rich, dramatic narrative about our most fateful year. I particularly liked a Dickensian -- "Tale of Two Cities" -- characterization of Lincoln by an early biographer, J.G. Holland, quoted by von Drehle on pages 373-4:
"he was one of the saddest men that ever lived, and that he was one of the jolliest men that ever lived; that he was very religious, but that he was not a Christian...that he was the most cunning man in America, and that he had not a particle of cunning to him; that he had the strongest personal attachments, and that he had no personal attachments at all....that he was a tyrant, and that he was the softest-hearted, most brotherly man that ever lived....that he was a leader of the people, and that he was always lead by the people, that he was cool and impassive, and that he was susceptible of the strongest passions."
Just listing the battles fought in 1862 -- Shiloh, Antietam, Mill Creek, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Second Manassas (2nd Bull Run), etc. -- recalls the apt characterization of the horror of what one observer said "This isn't war, it's murder."
I didn't get the book in the usual manner, as a review copy from the publisher. Henry Holt doesn't send me review copies, which I regularly get from all the major publishers, Random House, Simon & Schuster, St. Martin's, Atlantic Monthly, Wiley, etc. etc. -- as well as specialty houses like Encounter, Other Press, Mysterious Press, Penguin, etc.
I found it in the new books section at my local library where I went to donate my review copies. I couldn't resist this book that hit the bookstores at the end of October 2012. If you saw the movie "Lincoln" (I had to drive 70 miles to Rockport TX to see it) by all means pick up "Rise to Greatness" to flesh out your understanding of the movie.
About the author
David von Drehle is the author of three previous books, including the award-winning "Triangle", a history of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire that The New York Times called "social history at its best." An editor-at-large at Time magazine, he and his family live in Kansas City, Missouri.