For those leaving theaters after viewing Abraham Lincoln's final triumphs in Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln,” David Von Drehle's account of Lincoln in 1862 will be a revelation. Many of us grew up viewing Lincoln in awe as our greatest president — a boding presence on his throne, surrounded by his inspiring words, looking up the Mall toward the Capitol.
What Von Drehle gives us is a Lincoln surrounded by doubts and schemes, with not only the Union hanging in the balance but our very form of government. The story of that fateful year is written in a clean, easy-to-follow chronological narrative. Equal parts war story, political intrigue and character study, the book at times reads as much like a John Grisham page-turner as serious history. Yes, yes, we know how it turns out. But what terrible turn is waiting in the next month of the war?
Some of the themes remind us that today's battles in Washington are hardly as unprecedented as we may think from reading daily accounts. Here is Lincoln wary of a conservative court ready to block his every initiative concerning slavery. Liberals in his own party see him as too tentative and too willing to compromise with conservatives and too respectful of governors from the border states that never voted for him. Conservatives (then the Democrats) saw him as an instrument of radicals bent on overturning the vision of the Founders.
The generals in charge of Union armies are largely dismissive of their commander in chief. Opponents rub their hands waiting for the next election to topple this inexperienced pretender from Illinois. Foreign adversaries see the chance to weaken the mounting strength of a rich continental power.
“Rise of Greatness” details how Lincoln maneuvered from doubt and crisis to put the Union on course to victory and pull the nation away from slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. But it was a long, hard road, as Von Drehle lays out over 379 pages. For Lincoln, 1862 was a year of unimaginable tragedy. As he was fighting with Gen. McClellan to move his Army of the Potomac on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., the president also was dealing in February with the illness and death of his precocious son, Willie.
With the death of a son behind him, Lincoln's wife, Mary, and family gave him little respite from the daily challenges of trying to hold the Union together during setbacks on the battlefields and criticism from all corners.
In April, the terrible price of war was brought home despite the rare Union victory at Shiloh.
“One field was so thick with corpses,” Von Drehle writes, “in (Ulysses) Grant's description, 'that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.'”
Grant would write years later, we are told, “Up to the battle of Shiloh, I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the government would collapse suddenly and soon.”
Lincoln was among the first to realize that the war would not be short. But even in battlefield defeats, Lincoln recognized by the end of 1862 that the armies of the north ultimately would wear down the rebels and deliver a final victory.
We learn how Lincoln had to carefully balance competing demands. Abolitionists demanded that he act swiftly to end slavery, which at that time was protected by the Constitution. Critical border states — Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri — were slave states that remained part of the Union. Lincoln saw these states as vital to the survival of Washington and the Union. Appointments to important positions in the military and government went to pro-slave Democrats to help mollify the border states, to the outrage of New Englanders.
The year 1862 has special resonance for those of us in the Plains and West. Congress enacted the Homestead Act to populate the prairie, and established land-grant colleges that enabled the creation of great state universities, including the University of Nebraska and Iowa State. With the outcome of the war still greatly in doubt, Congress enacted and Lincoln signed the law authorizing the transcontinental railroad — the Union Pacific.
These achievements get scant attention from Van Drehle, who is more concerned with how Lincoln survives this most terrible of years and comes out stronger, in control of his party, the military and his own back-biting Cabinet. The reader also comes away with an understanding that seemingly Lincoln alone understood the need to hold the nation together with brutal, unrelenting force to fulfill a vision of a transcontinental power.
Of course, Lincoln's flaws were not ignored. There were times that he tried to run the war from the White House with deadly results. His first idea for freed slaves was to create foreign colonies. There was no initial thought of an equal, multiracial nation.
For those with an invigorated taste to learn more about Lincoln — the real man, not the icon — “The Rise of Greatness” is a must read.
David Von Drehle, an accomplished journalist and writer, delivers an accessible and riveting narrative on the year when the nation's future hung precariously in the balance.
C. David Kotok is a longtime political reporter and the retired managing editor at The World-Herald.