“Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” by David Von Drehle

A case can certainly be made — and is ably advanced in this spellbinding new book — that 1862 was the most important year of the Civil War. After all, its 12 fraught months saw the bloodiest battles of the conflict yet, the exercise of presidential power (some complained) run amok, an off-year election that tested the resolve of the Union to save itself and the epochal Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Of course an equally strong case can be — and often is — made for 1863, the year the proclamation took effect and Lincoln burnished its leaden prose with the poetry of the Gettysburg Address; or 1864, when Lincoln courageously insisted that to postpone that fall’s presidential election would be tantamount to conceding defeat to the Confederacy; or 1865, when Lincoln helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery (an event that certainly gets Steven Spielberg’s vote for the most momentous of the era).

Actually, the debate over which war year deserves the title as most important inspired controversy even while events were unfolding. When William H. Seward first glimpsed a new, monumental painting of Lincoln reading the draft Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet, the secretary of state remarked that it hardly depicted the most important Cabinet meeting ever convened. Far more crucial, he argued, was the 1861 session at which the administration suspended civil liberties to make sure federal troops got through hostile Maryland unmolested to the defense of Washington — a decision, Seward contended, “that might have brought them all to the scaffold.”

Happily, it is not necessary to choose one’s favorite year to savor David Von Drehle’s rich, nimble “Rise to Greatness.” 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.

Though we know how the year will end — Lincoln will sign the proclamation and change the course of American history — Von Drehle is talented enough to make the events unfold like a good thriller whose outcome hangs in the balance. Like Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Team of Rivals”) and, more recently, Amanda Foreman (“A World on Fire”), he manages not only to describe but to reanimate these incidents and to make the reader feel not only a lucky observer of the inside story but a virtual participant in the drama.

Von Drehle, a former Washington Post reporter and now a Time magazine editor at large, is new to this field, like Goodwin and Foreman before him, but his lack of experience heightens his ability to take a fresh look at ground that has been well covered by earlier historians.

He certainly has his point of view. He is clearly a Ulysses S. Grant fan, and one feels his frustration over the lack of credit the western commander earns for his battlefield triumphs early in 1862. He makes the reader ache to see Grant’s superiors get their comeuppance for inhibiting his rise — instead, his jealous boss gets a promotion. By the same token, Grant gets off too lightly here for his 1862 order banning Jews from his area of command, though Lincoln deservedly gets praise for overturning the ill-conceived edict.

Conversely, Von Drehle feasts on the hapless, pompous commander of Union forces in the East, Gen. George B. McClellan. Von Drehle’s “Little Mac” is not only sluggish and incurably ineffectual — points that have been made by many others — but a paranoid coward, schemer and traitor. The author perhaps puts too much stock in hindsight history: He sees McClellan as the inevitable Democratic challenger to Lincoln’s reelection two years into the future, before many contemporaries so believed. And he bemoans the general’s inability to appreciate Lincoln’s superior understanding of military strategy when the fact is, most 1862 contemporaries thought the president a feckless commander in chief.

Like others before him, Von Drehle has fallen under Lincoln’s considerable spell, and his admiration palpably deepens as the months of 1862 go by. His heroic Lincoln exhausts himself nearly to death balancing perilous challenges from Congress and foreign capitals, overcomes the tragic loss of his precious middle son, and watches helplessly as his wife descends into mental instability. Von Drehle finds few redeeming qualities in Mary Lincoln, it might be noted; his is decidedly a post-feminist, or maybe even pre-feminist, view of this beleaguered woman, who was perhaps more addled and less larcenous than the author argues.

One might also take exception to his contention that Lincoln’s ascent to national leadership was largely kept “hidden” from the public or that “the press of work had forced Lincoln to borrow a third secretary,” the latest one from the Interior Department — when the clerk in question, William O. Stoddard, a supporter from back in Illinois, had in fact been hired by Interior at the president’s specific direction for pre-arranged assignment to the White House a year earlier.

But these quibbles in no way detract from Von Drehle’s overall accomplishment. Within a rigidly chronological structure that pivots seamlessly from the White House to Capitol Hill to the battlefields of war and back, he has beautifully reimagined the roiling milieu of Lincoln’s first full year in office. As Von Drehle puts it with consummate clarity, there was always “another headache” — and the author has captured most of them, as they multiply and test Lincoln’s political skills.

Perhaps Von Drehle breaks no significant ground here, but few authors have done a better job of juggling such a nourishing and delicious potpourri of Civil War history — keeping all the balls floating in the air while paying meticulous attention to every key aspect of Lincoln’s brutally taxing, and perhaps even most momentous, year.

bookworld@washpost.com

Harold Holzer most recently wrote “Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America,” the young-adult tie-in book to the Steven Spielberg film.

RISE TO GREATNESS

Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year

By David Von Drehle

Henry Holt. 466 pp. $30

 
Read what others are saying