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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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on December 22, 2012
I have read a number of books on Lincoln but after hearing the author's interview on NPR, I became very interested in the story of Lincoln's great challenges and adaptions in the crucial year of 1862; dealing with multiple stressers coming from within his party, the democrats, the questionable loyalty of McClellan and his clique of generals, defeats and set backs in the eastern theater, the loyalty of the border states, the potential for France and England, a cabinet inhabited by some members who possessed a feeling of superiority over Lincoln; the personal challenges such as the loss of a son, a grieved intemperate wife and the additional paternal responsibilities for his youngest son Tad. The amazing balance act that Lincoln maintained in the face of so many pulling parties and calamities while seemingly never losing his composure is truly amazing. Some of his balancing includes reluctantly recognizing the rights to own slaves by the border states in the face of struct opposition from his on party to hol these crucial states in the union; dealing with a gifted organizer McClellan who not only was slow to advance but had democratic leanings, egotistical, with southern sympathies, an ambitious cabinet, particularly Chase, among other challenges while learning to be an excellent commander in chief. Lincoln even personally prompts General Wool to invade and capture Norfolk while visiting the penninsula in a frustrated attempt to motivate McClellan to move. Lincoln is criticized for selecting Burnside but his options were limited due to too many McClellan loyalists who later work against Burnside at Fredericksburg particularly General Franklin (See William Marvel's bio of Burnside). My favorite parts of the book are the details on Lincoln's dealings with McClellan, the egotistical, disrespectful commander; and Lincoln's handling of the Committee on the Conduct of the War who want to have Seward dismissed after being fed incorrect information by the unscrupulous Chase (the author recognizes that this is covered well by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, 'Team of Rivals'). The astonishing thing about Lincoln, although it tooks its toll on him physically, is that he had the patience and forseight to see the long term impact of all his decisions and non-decisions particularly the long term political effect. Lincoln's quotes are always a joy to read such as expressing controlled frustration with McClellan with polite sarcasm such as his response to McClellan's complaint that his horses were still fatigued after 6 weeks of inactivity, "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?".
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on January 8, 2013
This book could have been mind-numbingly boring. It goes month-by-month, often even week-by-week. Given that this is Lincoln and the Civil War, there's a mind-numbing flood of information available. What to highlight?

Von Drehle has a story-teller's keen sense of putting you there, right beside Lincoln, feeling his problems and pressures, truly grasping the most relevent details of his world: the war, the politics, the economics, the foreign relations, the many, many personal details which pierce our lives, whatever else is happening.

Every few pages there are, at least for me, tidbits that I never knew and that helped me know what Lincoln was facing.

A few examples.

From the first chapter, January 1862: "Strategies for reviving pro-Union sentiments in the South were stymied by the sheer size of the breakaway Confederate States of America, which covered an expanse larger than the entire European territory conquered by Napoleon."

Growing up in the century of world wars, I had no idea how vast a military conquest was needed. And this with an Army that, more-or-less, was created from scratch with a kind of warfare never before seen.

From March 1862: "Compensated emancipation, freely chosen by the states, was for Lincoln a way around the most difficult problem he faced in regard to slavery: the Supreme Court. With the appointment of Justice Swayne, Lincoln was beginning to remake the panel, but for now it was still Roger Taney's court."

Taney, of course, was the Chief Justice & the architect of its Dred Scott Decision, letting any slave-owner take his slaves into any state. I knew Taney was still Chief Justice, but I hadn't realized what this meant for Lincoln and emancipation.

From September 1862, looking back at the disastrous 2nd Battle of Bull Run hard on McClelland's withdrawal from the Peninsula Campaign. And, as we know, also looking forward to the Battle of Antietem, the bloodiest day in American history.

"And what about that [Union] army? The ranks were in disarray. Soldiers who had signed up expecting a short war were leaking from their units in every direction. Fewer than half of the troops dispatched to Pope (at Bull Run) were still present and accounted for; McClellan, too, could find only about half of his army. Trying to fill the Federal ranks and keep them filled was 'like shoveling fleas across a barnyard,' Lincoln complained in his office one day. 'There was no doubt that some of our men permitted themselves to be captured,' in hopes that they would be paroled by the Rebels and sent home, the president concluded."

I had no idea how severe the problem of desertion or just plain leaving was.

Von Drehle also has a story-teller's keen sense keeping the story lively & moving. I know what's coming next and still, at points it was almost hard to put it down -- like with a good action story. Von Drehle gave a real balance between Lincoln's internal life and the world of personalities around him with what was actually happening: Shiloh, the Peninsula Campaign, Bragg's invasion of Kentucky almost all the way to Ohio, the shock and near-disaster of the Confederate ironclad, Virginia, having its way for only one day, the horror of Fredericksburg and Antietem.

And throughout, Von Drehle moves his main story-line briskly: winning both the war and that which created the war -- slavery.

I've done some Civil War reading, but I'm in no way of fanatic or geek. I enjoy history. But much of my enjoyment is loving a good story well-told in a way that puts me thoughtfully "back there".

As I read through 1862, it was as if Von Drehle was explaining Lincoln and his world in a way I might explain to my Polish friend what all the political & cultural fuss, here, in 2012. How, for example, do you explain the 2nd amendment and the different responses to the Aurora, CO, theatre shooting and the Newtown, CT shootings? And how this interacts with the complex religious issues of making insurance policies pay for condoms? And what all this means before & after a presidential election that retained a solidly Republican House while electing a Democratic president? And how would I add the Senate with fillibustering, taxes, and the fiscal cliff? All this in an engaging and enlightening way.

That's what Von Drehle did for me.

If within this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, you'd like to know about the celebrated year just past, 1862, I heartily recommend this book. It's an enjoyable, even entertaining read. And it will leave you with a more thoughtful understanding of what it was like to live, through Lincoln's eyes.
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on November 12, 2013
I have read other books about Lincoln so was a little hesitant to read "Rise to Greatness" but glad I added it to my reading list.

If your already familiar with Lincoln, there are no real surprises here and I was a little disappointed the book did not offer a real "in-depth" study of the events of 1862. However, for the average reader who does not want to get bogged down in a heavy read, the book offers a good amount of general information.

I did appreciate a book that focuses on 1862 which I had not considered a pivotal year during Lincoln's presidency until reading this book. But as "Rise to Greatness" demonstrates, 1862 was a year of events that could have easily "broken" Lincoln more so than any other year of his presidency.

Instead, you see how Lincoln goes from being an inexperienced and questionable leader in early 1862 to a masterful politician and skillful leader by the end of 1862.

If you are new to the study of Lincoln, I would suggest "Team of Rivals" to get a well written and in-depth study of Lincoln. If you are already familiar with Lincoln, and want more detail on a very critical year of His presidency, this is worth the read.
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on September 6, 2013
In this remarkable book, David Van Drehle deals with the issue of how Lincoln became one of our greatest presidents. When asked who were the great presidents Van Drehle replied Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. The common denominator is that all served during perilous times when the fate of the Union was at stake. To quote Thomas Payne "These are the times that try men's souls." For Van Drehle, these are also the times that allow exceptional men to become great. This book is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to come to grips with this complicated man.

According to the author, Lincoln was set on the path to greatness during the crucial year of 1862. The book consists of a month-by-month chronicle of events during 1862 and describes in detail how Lincoln struggled to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Van Drehle begins with a litany of events that augured poorly for the survival of the Union. At the beginning of 1862 the Union had no experienced generals and none had led large numbers of troops. The general in charge, McClellan, suffered with typhoid and was thought to be close to death. With the South consisting of such a large landmass, easy victory seemed unlikely since the South could claim victory by simply holding on. The early battles clearly pointed to the Confederacy being better prepared for war than the North. First and second Manassas, the war in the Peninsula, and Fredericksburg all resulted in Southern victories. An exception was Shiloh. Although Shiloh was a Northern victory, Grant was vilified for the number of casualties. Finally the support of Great Britain and France for the Confederacy was looming. The manner by which Lincoln dealt with portents of failure is the subject of the book.

As David Van Drehle points out, Lincoln was poorly prepared to lead the country. He won the presidency, after 1 term as a congressional representative with no executive experience. There was little to suggest he was destined for greatness. Yet he succeeded and his success assured his greatness. Van Drehle accounts for his success by using the trope of a card game. He introduces the trope in the prologue when he states, "the cards had not yet been turned over." Hence, Lincoln had no precise vision for the country, but was dependent on subsequent events for his decisions. As the "cards" were turned over, Lincoln was forced to play the hand that he was dealt. In such a game, success depends on the canniness of the player. Lincoln had all the talents of an expert card player. He understood the game, could play the odds and was able to judge his opponents' skills and deficiencies. He may have also developed a vision for the nation that became clearer with time.

Although Lincoln was dealt a bad hand, he played the cards in a manner that assured his own legacy. Ironically his greatness was assured not by the players he knew and understood but the player who never showed his hand. Lincoln never had a personal relationship with God and was unaware of how God played the game. In the second inaugural address he confessed that he was not sure on whose side God was. In the end God dealt the final hand. Lincoln became a martyr and secular saint insuring greatness as the ultimate outcome of his game.
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on November 30, 2012
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. For more on this, see The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution. This excellent book shows the relationship with McClellan and the importance of the Antietam victory for both the union cause and the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The author makes a very interesting point regarding the brutal defeat of Union forces at Fredericksburg late in the year. Although Confederate casualities were much smaller, Lincoln noted that if they continued on at that rate of killing, through attrition, Lee would be destroyed and the war would be won. That was an eyefull for me and this is the first book in which I have discovered this observation by Lincoln. It speaks volumes and helps the reader understand completely why Lincoln stuck with Grant later in the war in spite of the death toll. Lincoln and Grant knew that, like a grist mill, rebel troops would be ground down, and Grant's great tenacity was that when he was defeated, he simply kept pressing to the consternation of Lee and eventually won the war.

Primarily through his secretary of state, Henry Seward, Lincoln was able to successfully keep European powers out of the American conflict. While I feel that Seward was the most influential cabinet member, it was to the good fortune of the country that England and France never recognized the Conferate States. See A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman for an excellent history and large cast of characters. Walter Stahr's Seward gives good information on the secretary and his relationship with Lincoln.

There is a great deal of characters woven into this story, and the writing is excellent.

One small criticism is the treatment of Lincoln's relationship with a young captain, which offers the suggestion that Lincoln may have been bisexual. I suppose the author goes down this road because the officer and Lincoln had stayed up late one night, and Lincoln invited him to sleep in his bed, but I hardly think that is enough evidence, since Lincoln spent years riding circuits while a frontier lawyer and it was very common that when there was a lack of space more than one man would sleep in a bed, so I think that is a stretch, but enough of one for me to rate the book four stars instead of five. With that said, I would highly recommend this book for the fans of Lincoln and the students of America's most destructive war.
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on December 8, 2012
The writing is fluid and effortlesss to read. He pulls off the neat trick of giving the reader enough information so as to provide texture to events but not so much as to bog a reader into details. Even the maps, unlike most books on the civil war, are useful and illuminating. We see Lincoln slowly evolve his position on slavery and the war, sadly concluding that the war must be one of subjection, winner take all. Three highlights:the passages on the panic in DC when the Merrimac was seen streaming towards it;Lincoln's own military adventure when he and Stanton helped direct Union forces in taking Norfolk;the intrigue in London and Paris by American diplomats keeping France and Britian from recognizing the Confederacy. Above all, Lincoln was a master politican. One of the best books I have ever read on the war.
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on November 21, 2012
I have read scores of books about Lincoln and yet this one was especially wonderful. The detail is unmatched and fleshes out Lincoln through his most trying year.The North was losing most of the year, Lincoln's son Willy died sending Mary round the bend but Lincoln could not give in to his grief and had to deal with the grief of his nation. The emancipation was produced and Lincoln was beset on all sides constantly and had to maintain his laserlike focus on saving the Union.It appeared that England and France may come in on the side of the Confederacy and there was the constant squabbling among his Cabinet. Never has there been such a leader and with his unique gift with words we are still moved by the poetic force of his reasoning and the power of his compassion.
What a man this was! What a book this is!
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on November 25, 2012
This is the best book I've read about the Civil War. Von Drehle makes a very convincing case that the direction and ultimate outcome of the war were forged within this very pivotal year. What many initially hoped could be settled by a war of maneuvre quickly becomes a war of mass slaughter with the Battle of Shiloh, and with that change in outlook, so too the end point. Lincoln's humanity and vision for our country are portrayed clearly and sympathetically with just the right level of detail so that we can see him as a real person. And the problems that confronted him are carefully explained allowing the reader to understand the conflicting voices in terms that relate to the world as it existed then. There's none of the politically correct preachiness that spoils so much of what passes for history these days. Instead, we see the world thru his subjects' eyes, including their prejudices and goals, so we can better understand the forces at work that had to be dealt with by Lincoln. Von Drehle takes great care to set the stage and events flow naturally. I read this book in two sittings on my Kindle, and I've ordered a hardcover to share with my family. I plan to return to it often. Von Drehle has written a masterpiece.
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on September 4, 2014
A great book about a great man in the American and world history. President Lincoln abolished the slavery, won the civil war and kept the Union intact. His actions shaped the world into a better place and surely generations to come will lnsipire from his legacy and look upon him as the greatest stateman in the free world.
This book outlines President Lincoln's crucial year in office and the way he fought the civil war and his ultimate greatness in war and peace. A classic ever written in the Lincoln literature .
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