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A fresh view of 1862 as the pivotal year of the Civil War
on October 30, 2012
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.
Pressure aside, the idea that the Confederacy-- now a powerful country in its own right-- could be tamed and forced back into the Union by an army of raw volunteers, led by an unschooled frontier lawyer as commander in chief, struck most European observers as far-fetched, even preposterous. "It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South," the British, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.
2. Lincoln had to convince the North that it was fighting on the right side of history. The notion that the United States was a confederation of sovereign states was widespread even in the North. In the years before the war Jefferson Davis' States Rights speeches had been cheered as loudly in New York City and Boston as in Charleston and Savannah. Confederate leaders expected to reverse-engineer the United States such that even most of the Free States would secede from the old Union and seek admittance to the Confederacy. Lincoln had to win the NORTH over to the idea that the United States was a nation indivisible.
3. Lincoln had to mobilize the North for war. The logistical effort of raising, training, and equipping a National Army of hundreds of thousands was immense. Lincoln understood that besides mobilizing an army he had to finance it: "The result of this war is a question of resources. That side will win in the end where the money holds out longest."
4. Lincoln had to manage egotistical personalities in his Cabinet, in the Federal Congress, and among his army officers --- most of whom thought he was a hick. Cabinet members like Simon Cameron and Generals like McClellan were outrageously insubordinate. Yet their services at the beginning of the war were essential. The Congress' Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War constantly second-guessed Lincoln's decisions and interfered with his chain of command.
5. He had to ferret out the Union's military talent and promote it to high command. Lincoln had astoundingly bad luck with most of the generals who were prominent early in the war. Fremont, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and McClellan all had failings that made them ineffective as army commanders. Lincoln had to discern the abilities of men he did not know, such as Grant, Sherman, Thomas and get them promoted to army command where they could be effective in winning the war.
Lincoln's job was to glean somehow, from these thousands of unproven men, the few with the stuff of true leaders. As he was already discovering, a West Point education or a long stretch in uniform provided no guarantee of military ability.
6. He had to manage diplomacy, including irritating incidents like the Trent Affair, so as to keep the British and French from recognizing the Confederacy and perhaps intervening on its behalf. To keep the Europeans from intervening he had to prove that his armies could fight well enough to have reasonable prospects of restoring the Union by force of arms.
7. He had to time the Emancipation Proclamation perfectly. If he had done it any earlier he would have driven Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy. If he had waited any longer the Republican Party would have shattered and undermined the war.
8. He had to maintain his Administration on an even keel during times when rumors of exaggerated calamities, such as McClellan's retreat from the Peninsula and the slaughter at Fredericksburg reached Washington. Had Lincoln once given way to the panic that infected many in his Cabinet, his army, and in the Congress, the war effort would have unraveled.
9. He had to make his generals and the people understand that attrition favored the Union. After the slaughter of Burnside's army at Fredericksburg he said: "If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone, and peace would be won.... No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered." This foreshadowed the rise of General U.S. Grant to supreme command in the following years.
10. Finally, he had to overcome personal tragedies in 1862 that would have incapacitated many men. His wife's erratic behavior was a public and private embarrassment. He endured the death by typhoid of his most beloved son Willie. He had to maintain his sanity, let alone his judgment, with both a family and a nation in turmoil.
The book demonstrates that by the end of 1862 Lincoln had accomplished substantially all of these objectives. He had mobilized for the war and financed it. He had convinced most Northerners that the United States was a real nation, not merely a confederation of "sovereign" states. He had replaced his old fogey generals with Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and other rising stars. He had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And he had proven HIMSELF to be a great deal more than the backwoods bumpkin that so many had perceived him to be the year before. The war would continue for another year and a half, but by the end of 1862 the pattern had been set.
The book is written in an engaging style that takes the reader right into the Civil War. It is an education on the higher level aspects of the war that Lincoln dealt with as well as his colorful day-to-day routines. It will satisfy scholars and casual readers of popular history, including those who may not have read much about Lincoln or the Civil War.
It also provides insights into the controversial characters that surrounded Lincoln, such as George McClellan, Henry Halleck, Edwin Stanton, William Seward, Simon Cameron, and not least Mrs. Lincoln. The right amount of emphasis is paced on the military operations and battles --- explaining them sufficiently but without bogging the reader down in detail. Maps are included.
This book is all the more convincing because Von Drehle's knowledge of the Civil War and how people thought and acted in that time is COMPLETE. His expressive style conveys the drama of that year day-by-day in diary style so that the reader can imagine being right there at Lincoln's side as he receives each day's news, some of exhilarating victories and others of brutally discouraging defeats.
I approached this book skeptically, doubting whether Von Drehle really had a sound premise in his concept of 1862 being the pivotal year of the war. I finished the book by being educated as to all the reasons why it was. It's hard to believe that ANY book about the Civil War could seem "fresh" after so much has already been written, but David Von Drehle succeeds in presenting a uniquely fresh perspective to the war in focusing in on 1862 as its critical year.