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Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year Hardcover – October 30, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The year 1863 is often described as the decisive of the Civil War, given the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Von Drehle, editor at large at Time and author of the widely acclaimed Triangle (2003), the story of the infamous 1911 New York factory fire, asserts that 1862 was the transformative year that led directly to the ultimate Union triumph. It commenced with Union fortunes appearing bleak. Confederate forces threatened Washington, and Union general McClellan had a bad case of the slows, despite his command of a huge army. In the political realm, Lincoln was struggling to master the strong egos in his cabinet, and he seemed to lack the will or confidence to demand more aggressive action from McClellan. As the year advanced, von Drehle illustrates Lincoln’s transformation into a great political and war leader, who learned to manage and effectively utilize the talents of his advisors and decisively assumed the role of commander in chief, dismissing McClellan and beginning the advancement of fighting officers, especially Grant. This is an excellently researched chronicle of the year that helped change the direction of the war. --Jay Freeman


One of Kansas City Star’s Top 100 Books of 2012

Featured in PBS "Washington Week" Holiday Gift Guide

One of Kirkus Reviews’s Best Nonfiction 2012

"1862 was the year of Lincoln’s ‘Rise to Greatness’… Von Drehle recounts the dramatic military and political events of that year, interspersing them with human-interest stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times… These pages crackle with life and energy."—James McPherson, New York Review of Books

"Outstanding… Lean, insightful and often lyrical."—USA Today

"Spellbinding….Von Drehle has done a masterful job of extracting riveting anecdotes from original sources and balancing them with recent contributions to the field. Blending good research with a gift for page-turning narrative, he adroitly weaves together the complex military, diplomatic, political, legal and moral saga of the 12 months of 1862."— The Washington Post

"An invigorating, inspiring and often heartrending portrait of a great man and a troubled country…Von Drehle’s deeply researched book provides a degree of detail that Hollywood can’t touch."—Kansas City Star

"A compelling, sharply written narrative of the events of 1862, when the odds were against the survival of the Union itself…  Amid the shelves of Civil War tomes, Rise to Greatness stands out as a brisk, compact history of Lincoln’s evolution as a leader. Von Drehle persuasively calls 1862 ‘the hinge of American history’."—Miami Herald

"Riveting … 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… 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."— The Omaha World-Herald

"More has been written and discussed about Abraham Lincoln than about any other U.S. president, and for good reason… The Von Drehle book and the Spielberg film effectively serve as bookends to the story of how Lincoln’s personality allowed him to navigate and shape the beginning of the war and the end of it."—Harvard Business Review

"Appealingly written and artistically constructed…Von Drehle, a first-rank narrator, writes better than most historians… Von Drehle's largest contribution lies in his illuminating discussions of Lincoln as a superb leader."—The Oregonian

"A marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written." —Commentary Magazine

"In Rise to Greatness, acclaimed author David Von Drehle has created a deeply human portrait of arguably America’s greatest president fueled by a rich, dramatic narrative focusing on our most fateful year."—The Blaze

"Brilliant."—Real Clear Politics

"Von Drehle’s polished style and sense of drama will appeal to general readers interested in this formative time in American history… Von Drehle makes a strong case that Lincoln’s remarkable development both as a military strategist and as a political genius occurred during [1862], laying the groundwork for eventual Union triumph."—Library Journal

"A thoroughly engaging examination of the irreversible changes emerging from a year when the nation’s very survival remained in doubt."—Kirkus Reviews

"Von Drehle has chosen a critical year (‘the most eventful year in American history’ and the year Lincoln rose to greatness), done his homework, and written a spirited account."— Publishers Weekly

"With his keen journalist’s eye for detail, and the surefooted feel of an historian, David Von Drehle has produced an enthralling book. Rise to Greatness is a marvelous and important story, marvelously told."—Jay Winik, author of April 1865

"Rise to Greatness is a terrific read packed with fascinating facts that add color to a powerful depiction of the Civil War's second year.  The narrative is driven by Lincoln's movement toward freedom for the slaves and his growing disenchantment with General McClellan, climaxed by the general's removal from command and the president's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation."--James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"In the perilous year leading up to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln had to maneuver against his own generals and cabinet officers while fending off dark forces desiring disunion or dictatorship. By succeeding, as David von Drehle shows in this fascinating narrative, Lincoln saved the Union and redefined the American presidency. This is not only an important work of history but also a valuable manual on leadership."--Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein and Steve Jobs

"Rise to Greatness is a fascinating and fast-paced account of Lincoln's pivotal year. David Von Drehle brilliantly captures the epic events and outsized personalities that accompanied the birth of the Emancipation Proclamation. His book succeeds in making a well-known story feel absolutely compelling."--Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire and Georgiana

"In this vivid, writerly, well-researched account, David Von Drehle demonstrates, month by month, that 1862 made Lincoln’s presidency. In the haze of Civil War nostalgia, we can easily lose sight of the reality that the odds were terrible that a United States in any form would survive that harrowing year. Yet as Rise to Greatness shows, the events of 1862 gave birth to a different nation, one rooted in emancipation."--David W. Blight, author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

"With his great gift for stirring portraiture and historical narrative, David von Drehle takes us into the world of the Civil War and 1862 so convincingly that you almost wonder how it will all turn out."--Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080507970X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805079708
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #374,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

139 of 142 people found the following review helpful By Alan F. Sewell on October 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author David Von Drehle's premise is that 1862 was the pivotal year of the Civil War, the year that ultimately guaranteed the Federal victory orchestrated by President Lincoln. Having read about the Civil War for 45 years, this theme seemed dissonant at first. Is "1862" a typo? Doesn't Von Drehle mean 18 SIXTY-THREE? Didn't that year begin with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson running rampant at Chancellorsville? Didn't it end with the Confederates severed along the Mississippi and driven back toward Richmond and Atlanta? Wasn't THAT the year that the tide of the war was irrevocably reversed to favor the eventual triumph of the Union?

Von Drehle makes a convincing case that 1862 is AT LEAST AS DECISIVE as the later years. He points out that a lot of things could have gone wrong in 1862 that would have wrecked the Union BEFORE the calendar turned over to 1863:

1. The North might have convinced itself that the Confederacy was unconquerable. Conventional wisdom is that the North overpowered the South with manpower, industry, and railroads, but that was far from obvious in the early years of the war. Before the war most of the nation's foreign exchange was generated by the South's cotton exports. Cotton made money for Northern shippers, brokers, and banks. Could the North's economy sustain itself without the South? The immense land area of the Confederacy might have made the logistics of subduing and occupying it impossible even if the Federals somehow managed to win every battle.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By William C. Hagen on October 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a most interesting book chock full of information, both trivial and illuminating of behind the scenes action of both Abraham Lincoln and his opposition within the Washington political establishment during the year 1862. Von Drehle is able to translate chaos into mere complexity. A recurring image in my mind, especially when reading the opening chapters, was of an ancient seer sorting through the entrails of a goat in order to divine the future and here was an author up to his elbows in the same sort of mess trying to make sense of the past.

The book takes the reader in a month by month odyssey through the year 1862. There are indications that the original intent was to focus on that year as the most crucial in the greater history of America but devolved, in manner of speaking, into a close examination of the maturation of Lincoln as a leader. That is not meant to be a criticism but as an explanation of a seemingly dulling of interest in the bigger picture and concentration on the latter (or, maybe, the massiveness of the compilation of data led me to that feeling). As the book progresses, there is an emergence of the character of Lincoln from the flotsam and jetsam of the tumultuous years leading up to January 1, 1862.

Because its scope is limited to one year, it loses its contextual mooring and, therefore should not be read in isolation from broader histories of the Civil War Era. It augments those histories in a most useful way but should not be read in lieu of them. It might be better thought of as a social profile of a particular man at a particular time in his life rather than as a history.

There can be much that can be said about the content of the book but what it does not say is also of interest.
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Bill Shore on November 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book on it's pub date and had to blow off the rest of the day because I didn't want to put it down. Having read dozens of other books on Lincoln I found David Von Drehle's original, captivating, with every word just right. It will make you wish the author has future plans to write about Lincoln's other years in office!
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By T. Brown on November 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
They say that context is everything and this book provides needed context to turbulent year 1862, and to the man, Abraham Lincoln.

I read a lot of Civil War history, the problem is that by focusing on a particular battle or topic of that war it is easy to lose sight of the broader picture.

David Von Drehle has provided that needed context with this book. While the book appears to be another Lincoln biography/history, the author does an excellent job of weaving many additional players into the story.

The reader will gain perspective not only on Lincoln, but on McClellan, Grant, Mary Todd, Seward, Lord Palmerston, Emperor Louie Napoleon, and the other people that had great impact on the President and the nation during this crucial period.

This is not just a simple retelling of the history of the times. To understand the man Abraham Lincoln, we need to understand the events, the people, the issues, and the pressures that made him the greatest President in American history. This book succeeds in it's task.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Paul on November 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
By taking the year 1862, David Von Drehle has given us a thoughtful, well researched and excellent presentation in this critical year of Lincoln's life and administration.

Like many students of the Civil War, we tend to think of 1863 as the critical year, in which Lee is defeated at Gettysburg, Vicksburg is taken and the rest of it is downhill for the South, but 1862 was the year that set that up.

At the start of the year, Lincoln is somewhat a "rookie" president. The secession of southern states has turned into a shooting war, Lincoln is in the process of transforming himself from a newly elected underdog to the leader of the nation, which even in the North is still divided amongst itself, and Lincoln has to deal with personal tragedies, the nation's difficulties, the possilities of European involvement and a host of other things.

In the loss of his favorite son, Willie, early in the year, Lincoln was dealt a severe blow, and Willie's death only helped unleash the demons that were long inside his wife Mary. Her grief transformed her into a very unstable person, and while she was a great supporter of the president, she was often times one of his greates problems.

His need to find a military leader early in the war was another frustration. George McClellan, with an ego bigger than life, was a great builder of armies but terrifed of using them. Lincoln had to contend with his insolence, his actions which verged on treason, and the fact that every other man he turned to in order to rid himself of McClellan failed him. His selection of Henry Halleck to preside over all the armies, was not a good one. In fact, it almost caused Grant to leave the service of his country.
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