Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year

By the middle of 1863, it was obvious to most observers that the Confederacy was doomed; it was only a matter of time.  If the North could just find the will to keep fighting, the Union would survive.  But only eighteen months earlier, the outcome had been very much in doubt, and were it not for the particular talents of one man, things might have turned out very differently.  As often seems to have happened throughout history, the right man was in the right place just when he was most needed: Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year is David Von Drehle’s account of how Lincoln, during 1862, evolved into exactly the leader the United States so desperately needed if the Union were to win the Civil War.   The book offers a month-by-month account of the challenges faced by a President in command of an army led by one incompetent general after the other.  Von Drehle makes a strong case that if Lincoln had not been up to the challenges of 1862, the military successes of 1863 may never have happened because it could very well have already been to late by then.

Lincoln’s first task was to build an army almost from scratch.  The military was unprepared to fight a war of the scale of the one it now faced, and the thousands of newly recruited soldiers depended on a handful of experienced officers (thanks to the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848) to get them ready for combat.  By 1862, Lincoln expected his army to be the aggressor, but he had little luck in finding a commanding general capable of taking the fight to the enemy.  That he allowed the incompetent egomaniac George McClellan to keep overall command of the Union army for as long as he did was, perhaps, Lincoln’s biggest failure.  But by the end of 1862, when he had finally ridded himself of the insubordinate little man, it was obvious that Lincoln had solidly redefined his role as Commander-in-Chief - and that he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to win the war.

David Von Drehle
Incompetent generals with no game plan were not Lincoln’s only problem.  The civilian population of the North did not seem to have any more of a will to fight, or confidence in ultimate victory, than most of his generals had.  His cabinet was, by Lincoln’s choice, filled with political rivals with agendas of their own.  And in addition to his political problems, the president had to overcome the great personal grief of losing a son to typhoid, and had to endure the erratic, often embarrassing, behavior of his wife as she tried to cope with the same loss.  Not a moment of peace, would this president know.

But, endure it, he did, and in the process, Lincoln would claim his place in history as one of the greatest leaders, especially in time of war, that the world has ever seen.  David Von Drehle’s account of the year Abraham Lincoln “invented the modern presidency” is a fascinating one that now has a permanent home on my bookshelves.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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