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.