By David Von Drehle
The Time: January 1, 1862 – January 1,1863, America's most perilous year. The Place: The United States, a country torn in half by a war between its Northern and Southern sections. Since the surrender of the United States garrison at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861 and the defeat of the Northern Army at Bull Run on the following July 21st, the Southern forces have managed to keep their Northern counterparts at bay. As the sunset fell on the final day of 1861, the future looked very bleak for the Union cause.
How Abraham Lincoln, President of all of the United States overcame military, political, social and economic challenges during the first full year of the war and transformed it from merely a war to restore to the Union the eleven seceded states to a revolution against slavery is the topic of David Von Drehle’s book, “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”
Many people justly claim the twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg of the Federal Army on July 1-4 is the point at which the war turned in favor of the Union, but Von Drehle challenges that convention with his thesis that it was the slow and steady progress of the Federal Armies, in concert Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation is the true turning point of the war.
Beginning on New Year’s Day 1862 Von Drehle’s linear narrative chronicles the military victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh; the lethargic advance of Major-General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign; the routing of that same army during the Seven days Battles; and the trouncing of the Union Army of Virginia at Second Bull Run and the tactical draw, but strategic Victory at Antietam, after which Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation.
Lincoln’s evolving views on emancipation are thoroughly covered; from his plan for gradual and compensated emancipation; the colonization of the blacks, and finally to his singing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
Another thread running throughout the book is Lincoln’s often antagonistic relationship with Major-General George B. McClellan. Lincoln’s constant pushing and prodding for McClellan to advance the Army of the Potomac and fight; Lincoln trying his own hand as commander of the military and failing drastically; the firing, rehiring, and firing again of McClellan amply demonstrate how Lincoln grew into the job of Commander-in-Chief, and the slow and steady rise in his confidence and abilities while guiding the Northern population through their social, political and economic fears of emancipation.
“Rise to Greatness” is thoroughly researched and well written in an easily read, conversational style. It is a great joy to read and is a book for academics or Civil War novices alike; everyone can learn something from the pages between its covers.
ISBN 978-0805079708, Henry Holt and Co., © 2012, Hardcover, 480 pages, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $30.00. To purchase the book, click HERE.