Abraham Lincoln: “Rise to Greatness”

Alexander Gardner’s February 1865 photograph of Lincoln

[Here’s the Post’s live blog on the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.]

This is Architecture Season in Washington. It’s the time of year when you suddenly notice the buildings in all their architectural glory (or lack thereof). Two factors are at work, the first purely botanical, the second astronomical (though they’re connected of course). In the first half of December the urban trees lose the last of their leaves, and the devegetated landscape suddenly is rendered transparent — a cityscape of the type you see on Google Earth. The second factor is the light, which is horizontal all day long as the sun malingers near the horizon and even at noon isn’t even halfway up the dome of the sky. The slanting light makes the buildings blossom. Unconsciously we register this change in the landscape, and see the masonry details we’d missed during leafier times.

Go to McPherson Square and suddenly, without the leaves on the big oaks, you see how the buildings supervise this public space. The city has done a good job of preserving historic facades, though in most cases it’s just a skin on a brand-new building. But the old skin is better than nothing. It’s a reminder that we exist in a world built by others, in layers, over time, in a series of bequests to future generations. (As you know, I’m an easy audience for anything historical, like an old building. I come from a place where the most historic structure was the Steak ‘N Shake on South 13th Street.)

When you get older the past becomes paradoxically closer. So it is that the Civil War seems closer than ever. What would you have been doing if you were in Washington, say, 150 years ago? No doubt hearing the horrifying reports from Fredericksburg. The wounded would be coming into the city. That was a meat-grinder of a battle for the Army of the Potomac, a tragic waste of life as the federals tried repeatedly to take Marye’s Heights, where the rebels had taken up an impregnable position on a sunken road. Here’s our story on the battle, by Michael Ruane.

Such historical moments have been exhaustively documented, though the challenge, as always, is to make them seem real to us today as we go about our business. How do you, for example, make a schoolkid feel any connection to something that happened 150 years ago? You can’t just show the student a museum exhibit, or even an old building. Recall (those of you long past school age) how dreadfully dull most history lessons were — how utterly unrelated to the throb and beat of your daily life, which was defined by more urgent needs and interests.

 This is why narrative history is so important: When well done, it helps us understand the world as it seemed at that moment, when the future was enfogged, and no one knew how things were going to turn out or what the historians would consider important.

This year I had the pleasure of reading “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year,” by my great friend David Von Drehle (as everyone here knows, our friendship is antediluvian — I remember when Dave first showed up in Miami, an Oxford-educated Marshall Scholar who could quote the entire oeuvre of T. S. Eliot. I am pretty sure he spoke entirely in iambic pentameter, if not in palindromes. It was like having Cicero suddenly come to town. And I bet you dollars to donuts he owned a toga.)

You can take this next statement as a reflection of my bias as a friend, but I offer it as someone who has been reading the guy for nearly 30 years: Dave is a great writer, both creative and disciplined, and when you read one of his books you set it down at the end and wonder if there was a single word that you would have changed. Every phrase is bolted down tight. He’s thoughtful, fair, and gets his facts right. This book has 66 pages of footnotes.

It’s about Lincoln and the year 1862. The story is chronological. Month by month, we see Lincoln coping with personal tragedy, a feuding Cabinet, bitter political enemies, a vainglorious general with a case of the slows (McClellan), and a series of battlefield defeats and false starts and partial victories. No one knows how long the war will last. No one knows if the European powers will intervene on the side of the Confederacy. And then there is the question of slavery, and emancipation, and how to advance the cause of human freedom even as Lincoln is desperate to maintain the loyalty of the border states.

From page 268 — early September, after the Union defeat at Second Manassas and before Antietam:

“Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.

“He was almost ready to say this. But how could he be sure? As the Army of the Potomac, under the unreliable George McClellan, prepared to set out from Washington, Robert E. Lee was marching northward through the gentle Maryland countryside, where the first hint of yellow touched the dark green of the trees. Abraham Lincoln made an unspoken accommodation to this power beyond his own. It wasn’t a bargain, exactly, because one cannot bargain with the wind. In making his commitment, he was more akin to a captain checking his position by a fixed star: if his calculations were correct, he would know which way to steer. He promised himself, as would later become clear, that if God willed a way for the Union to drive Lee back across the river, Lincoln would interpret the news as confirmation that the Almighty sought freedom for the slaves. And he, Abraham Lincoln, would be the human instrumentality of that divine will, making the war for the Union into an emancipating force unlike any the world had seen. He would follow that path to its end, in the conviction that God would have his way in his good time. And woe to all of them by whom the offense came, the blue as well as the gray.”

So then you have Antietam. Massive bloodbath on the 17th of September. Lee is forced to retreat into Virginia (McClellan doesn’t follow him, and Lincoln finally has to fire him). But the Antietam victory gives Lincoln his signal, and he issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and signs the final proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

From page 374:

“…Lincoln was very much a work under revision, a man feeling his way among obstacles unlike any navigated by his predecessors. He did not know from one day to the next what would be required of him, nor did he know which tools he would employ to meet each day’s challenges. He began the year possessing the raw materials of greatness; those who looked into his workshop could see him fashioning one element one day and a different element the next. But when the first day of January came around again, Lincoln’s greatness was no longer raw. Even as he had redefined American society, he had invented the modern presidency. He had steered himself and the nation from its darkest New Year’s Day to its proudest, and in the process Lincoln had become the towering leader who forever looms over the rebirth of the American experiment.”

Speaking of late autumn: Here’s my ode to the brown season, from 4 years ago:

Late autumn, as a season, gets no love. It is the least glorious time of year, widely decried as gloomy, drab, even pointless. The period right after Thanksgiving is known primarily for the retail shopping associated with the holidays, and technically one is not expected to set foot outside at all. At first glance, the late fall is betwixt and between, neither here nor there, neither dramatically autumnal (which requires colorful leaves) nor snow-blanketed and merry. The foliage websites show peak color long gone, as the land fades to brown.

The sun-worshippers flee south, the skiers head to the high country. Those left behind find the days short and dark, and getting shorter and darker still.

Those prone to the blues blame the season itself, and doctors declare it a disorder, as though the planet in its gyrations and subsequent failure to illuminate has become pathogenic.

So let us defend the late fall. Let us praise the brown season.

In the woods, the fallen leaves are still dry, not yet degraded into the wet mulch of winter. You rustle as you walk. On a good day, the air is clear to the edge of space; everything is in sharp focus, or HD as we now say. The sun at midday remains sulky in the south, but the effect is dramatic, putting everything in chiaroscuro, the tree trunks lit up so brightly you’d think the place staged for a photo shoot. Invariably, you find yourself discovering how big the trees are, how majestic, now that you can really see their bones.

The oaks, of course, never get the memo about fall; deep into December, they’re still hanging onto those dead leaves, as though afraid to get undressed.

This is the season of stocks. Not the Wall Street kind, which we know to be toxic. [Who was it who kept declaring confidently for years that only an idjit would keep money in a money market account rather than invest in stocks? Oh, right, that was me. Never mind.] In late fall, you want to get all your stocks in order, and not just chicken stock and beef stock. You want to have some fish stock, made from scary fish heads. You can become a stock broker for the neighborhood. Or you can buy the stuff in a can, if you lack all self-respect.

The yard, the great domestic timesuck, has finally calmed down and gone to sleep. It’s too late to plant bulbs. The leaves are raked; the city has come by and vacuumed them away. You goal is to feel that you’ve sufficiently battened down all of your hatches. To others, your yard will look like a rather bleak, sad, dormant patch of land, but you will perceive it as poised, prepared, ready to handle whatever winter throws at it.

In late fall, you want to keep your home fires burning, and your thoughts turn inevitably to firewood. Firewood can become an obsession, like food, football and (speaking for myself) dressing up in furry-animal costumes. Splitting wood has been more aspirational so far than I’d have liked — which is to say, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, and have been burning last year’s split wood — but we’ve got excellent wood-splitting weather and I can’t wait to start flailing away with the wedge and sledge. The wedge so often careens lethally through the air that you should stand back merely reading these words.

So perhaps it is not the best time of year, what with such heavy competition from the more storied seasons. But late fall has its subtle beauties. There’s good will and virtue in the air. Now who wants to go walk in the woods?


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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