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Customer Review

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Focus on 1862, October 30, 2012
This review is from: Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year (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. To Von Drehle's credit, there is no aggrandizing of "Father Abraham"; that was to come later after elevation to Sainthood brought about by the successful conclusion of the war and his assassination. There is even reference to his alleged bi-sexuality and the purely politically inspiration for the issuance of the Proclamation of Emancipation and the timing of McClellan's ouster. By these omissions, the author adds to the credibility of his work.

It is apparent that Lincoln was not the Master of the Ship of State in the opening days, weeks and months of 1862. The idea that man (read Lincoln) drives or drove events versus the proposition that events define the man is clearly decided. The seeds of the Civil War (or War Between the States) were planted well before that time during the arguments surrounding the ratification of the Constitution - the arguments presented in the Federalist Papers and the anti-federalists were to be decided on the fields of battle rather than the halls of debate. The immoral specter of slavery snuffed out the political pertinence of those legitimate arguments. The head to head confrontation between proponents of an unlimited central government and those in favor of shifting the balance of power to the states was, rightfully, overwhelmed by the immoral conviction that a state, or any level of government, can rightfully overrule the God-given rights of justice and freedom for all. Except for rare and oblique references to "States Rights", Von Drehle avoids this issue that was, arguably, central to the secessionist's motivation. Did Von Drehle omit or not find supporting evidence or did Lincoln not know that State's Rights was an issue or did not care? He knew and acknowledged that fact because he hung the portrait of Andrew Jackson as a constant reminder of a similar crisis in that administration. The seeds of civil strife may have been fertilized and incubated by the Abolitionists but their germination was inevitable with or without the intervention of Lincoln, his cadre of supporters and detractors or the will of plantation owners - the war was predestined to occur, each battle demanded of itself to be fought, and every outcome was beyond the control of the military leaders involved. Lincoln's legacy was shaped as much or more by events outside of his sphere of influence as by his strength of character. I attribute those conclusions as much to what the author says as to what he does not say.

As a corollary to the above, I was struck by the revelation that, apparently, little strategic thinking went onto the North's conduct of the war - it was conducted as a series of tactical operations and the accumulation of tactical operations bear no resemblance to strategic planning regardless of the fact that, in this case, the results were indistinguishable. Lincoln was equally engrossed in political manipulation and patronage, family tragedies, the cultivation of personal relationships and the establishment of a permanent legacy as he was of excising the cancerous growths eating their way through the flesh of our new nation not yet four score and seven years old. The author was either unable to find the wizard behind the screen manipulating the chessmen acting out the national tragedy of that era or there was no puppet master or group of conspirators pulling the strings - the North wallowed its way to victory with only a moral compass to guide it.

I draw these conclusions as the result of a review of this book and its limited range between January 1 and December 31, 1862; a broader view and inclusion of supplemental knowledge might offer mitigating evidence. Further reading of histories and commentaries broader in scope might well offer contrary evidence.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 25, 2012 9:22:35 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 26, 2012 10:12:53 AM PST
R. Stewart says:
Like you, I appreciated Von Drehle's efforts to document the development of Lincoln as a strategic thinker. He argues that this was badly needed because the existing high command was not trained along these lines, they were basically Indian fighters. Along the same lines, I was fascinated by Lincoln's role in the capture of Newport News, which I'd read of before, but didn't fully appreicate until I read this book. He also comments on the significance of Grant's initial campaigns. They were aimed at strategic goals which distinquished Grant immediately from the mediocrity of his superiors. Von Drehle also gives ample coverage of McClellan whom he paints sympathetically. I was left with the conjecture that McClellan accepted his firing because he recognized that Antietam was the reality, and his hopes of a simple war of maneuvre were no longer operative.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2012 5:14:07 PM PST
JA says:

GREAT review/comment!!
Do YOUR self a SUPERFLOROUS FAVOR, and Bust your buttocks to see the Movie "LINCOLN!!"

I knew/presumed Daniel Day Lewis(LINCOLN) and (always) Sally
Field (Marry/Molly) would be phenomenal..YEPPER! The
GREAT "FROSTING" on the cake however: TOMMY LEE JONES
(Thaddeus Stevens) WOW!!

I will be seeing this AGAIN..and BUYING the DVD/Movie when it is available. And the movie theatre is 95 MI away. IT was worth EVERY mile I drove to see this!! PROMISE!


And read DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: "TEAM OF RIVALS" AND I could bore you with 100's more.

When to MAINE, stop by JIMS BOOKS, MACHIAS (that is really me);
I have 1000's of Civil War/LINCOLN & other GREAT WAR I HISTORY books amongst the 14,000 selections!


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