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'Rise to Greatness' review: Lincoln in 1862

President Abraham Lincoln stands in the center in

President Abraham Lincoln stands in the center in this photo at Antietam, MD, with left, Allan Pinkerton, and Maj. General John A. McClernand. (Oct. 3, 1862) Photo Credit: Handout

RISE TO GREATNESS: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, by David Von Drehle. Henry Holt, 466 pp. $30.

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. It had the deadliest 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 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).

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 a complex military, diplomatic, political, legal and moral saga.

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, 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 the year. 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 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 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 re-election 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 Todd Lincoln; his is decidedly a post-feminist, or maybe even pre-feminist, view of this beleaguered woman.

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 re-imagined the roiling milieu of the president'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, in Lincoln's brutally taxing, and perhaps even most momentous, year.

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