Rise To Greatness: Abraham Lincoln And America’s Most Perilous Year, by David Von Drehle
The author of this book makes the case that 1862 was the most perilous year in America’s history, and in doing so presents a compelling case for looking more seriously at the history of 1862 and the dramatic shift the year offered in American history, when the Civil War turned into a more revolutionary conflict. It is a subject of considerable importance where this change took place. The book itself suggests that it was a gradual thing–for example, the Battle of Shiloh introduced Americans on both sides to horrific casualties that brought the cost of war home to tens of thousands of households. After that came the growing hard hand of war as Americans wrestled with the fate of slavery and Lincoln himself dealt with the death of one of his sons, as well as a divided cabinet and a divided nation, and the end result is a Lincoln singing the final Emancipation Proclamation and making a return to the old America of the antebellum period truly impossible. 1862 is where things crossed the line from the way things were and how they would never be again. And there is something poignant about that.
This book is a lengthy one at fifteen discs, but it is the sort of book that really goes into a lot of detail about various matters that show Lincoln’s greatness through the mundane actions he took on a day to day basis. We see him dealing with his sons, his wife and her shady financial dealings, as well as lots of problems with his cabinet, with various generals, and with Congress. We see him pushing his generals forward at the beginning of the year to do something and his frustration at their inability to put the nation’s well-being about their own petty and selfish political ambitions. We see Lincoln’s deft managing of difficult people and how it is that he was able to motivate a large coalition of people with very different ambitions and perspectives to unite together in defense of the union and freedom in a profound way that really did change the course of American history in a profound way, even though the costs of it were really horrific for both Lincoln personally (given that he lost his life as a result) as well as the nation as a whole.
When looked at in detail, 1862 was a dramatic year, and this book conveys just how important it was for the Union effort. Despite some major blunders in choosing generals, and despite some struggles in managing the press and the political situation, Abraham Lincoln’s handling of various political crises in 1862 was truly deft. One of the more interesting aspects of this book that receives plenty of attention is Lincoln’s handling of diplomatic problems, beginning with the aftermath of the Trent affair at the beginning of the year and then continuing through the recognition crisis with the French and British, and ending with a much more confident diplomatic situation by the end of the year as Lincoln basked in the support of the British working classes who saw the Union as a bulwark of freedom for both working class whites as well as blacks. And the result of this book’s ability to move between military events and political events and some that were both, including Grant’s unfortunate order dealing with Jews (as a class, not as an ethnicity, interestingly enough), makes this a very interesting book and one that deserves attention from students of Civil War history.