Abraham Lincoln regarded the Emancipation Proclamation as “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century” because it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” He announced the Proclamation in September of 1862 and signed it into law in January of 1863. Like most decisions Lincoln made during his presidency, it was controversial both to those in sympathy with the Proclamation, because it was too narrow (for example, it did not address slavery in loyal areas), and to those opposed, who felt it went too far. But the decree led to constitutional amendments that outlawed slavery completely and recognized men and women who had been freed as equal citizens. Many other of Lincoln’s decisions in that tumultuous year of 1862 had both long-term and short-range consequences for the future of the nation.

In Rise to Greatness, David Von Drehle guides us through the year chronologically and makes a strong case for his view that it was “the most eventful year in American history and perhaps the most misunderstood.” Among other things, it was the year the Civil War became a cataclysm and the Confederacy came as close to winning the war as it ever would. The country was transformed by advances in ways of communication, transportation, education and industrial growth. Most importantly, the author says, it was the year “Abraham Lincoln rose to greatness.”

Von Drehle’s compelling narrative details the tightrope that Lincoln walked. It is important to remember that Lincoln’s generation of political leaders had grown up in a country where the possibility of disunion was always present but each time a compromise had always averted war. Many felt that the way to hold the country together was to avoid the issue of slavery as much as possible. But that was not to be this time. Lincoln dealt with political and military realities each day. For the latter responsibilities, he taught himself enough to become a competent, but by no means flawless, strategist. Von Drehle devotes much space to the crucial conflict between Lincoln and General George McClellan, who consistently found reasons, or excuses, to keep his troops out of action when potential Union victories would help win the war and raise morale. McClellan, who aspired to the presidency himself (and was the nominee of the Democrats in 1864), attributed any setbacks he suffered to insufficient support from the Lincoln administration.

Politically, Lincoln used every bit of his judgment, cunning and pragmatism to hold the Union together. One of the most effective strategies was his use of patronage to give all of the factions in the country a stake in the success of the Union forces. Some political leaders did have military experience, others did not, but if Lincoln felt it would be helpful to the cause he did not hesitate to name generals regardless of experience.

Von Drehle demonstrates the pressure on Lincoln that came from every direction. In addition to pressure from political foes and friends in the U.S., the president was attentive to British and French reactions and the possibility of their intervention on the side of the Confederacy, not least because of the economic suffering the war caused across the Atlantic. Only late in the year did this concern diminish.

On top of everything else, Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, remained grief-stricken over the death of their son Willie on February 12, his father’s 53rd birthday. Another son, Tad, was also seriously ill but recovered. Lincoln also had to deal with his wife’s excessive spending and her attempts to cover it up.

Von Drehle, the author of the acclaimed and award-winning Triangle, has written a well-researched and thoroughly engaging exploration of how Lincoln met the overwhelming challenges of a crucial year in the nation’s history.

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