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Book Review: Rise to Greatness

By (November 1, 2012) One Comment

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

by David Von Drehle

Henry Holt and Company, 2012

The central case David Von Drehle makes in his stunning, revelatory new book (with its boring title), Rise to Greatness, is one too many Americans forget, if they ever knew it: the Confederate States of America came very close to winning the American Civil War. The standard rationales all yell against it: they cite the North’s vastly greater manpower reserves and technological infrastructure. But this is mostly just a misunderstanding of what a Southern ‘victory’ needed to be – it of course never needed to be a conquest of the North, so disparities in manpower and manufacturing don’t enter into it. Saying otherwise is like saying the only way the fledgling United States of America could have won the American Revolution would have been to pack Minutemen onto ships, sail them across the Atlantic, and sack London. No, in order to win, the Confederacy had only to prove itself viable as a country – then, as in the Revolutionary War, intervening European powers would have settled the question. And in 1862, the ‘most perilous year’ examined here month by month, that’s very nearly what happened.

Partly because of one very big club in the Confederacy’s arsenal:

The Confederacy … wielded a powerful economic weapon: near total control of the global cotton supply, at a time when textiles were driving the industrial revolution and cotton was perhaps the world’s most important commodity. The cotton embargo enforced by rebel leaders was a gun to the heads of the British and French governments, putting tremendous pressure on them to support Southern Independence.

Although one of the most satisfying aspects of Von Drehle’s lean and fast-paced book is how expertly its focus contracts and expands – even the booming cotton trade, it’s pointed out, was only a part of a larger whole:

Pressure aside, the idea that the Confederacy – now a powerful country in its own right – could be tamed and forced back into the Union by an army of raw volunteers, led by an unschooled frontier lawyer as commander in chief, struck most European observers as far-fetched, even preposterous.

As 1862 began, Lincoln’s Treasury Department was all but broke; Northern banks refused to redeem paper money for coin, and by the end of December 1861, the war was costing around $50 million a month. Congress was hostile and obstructionist; Lincoln’s own Cabinet (his celebrated “team of rivals”) was fractious and largely contemptuous of the new President; and the seceding Southern States had taken with them the cream of the military men that would otherwise have been at Lincoln’s disposal, leaving him with well-intentioned but conceptually outdated figures like Generals Silas Casey, William B. Franklin, and Samuel Heintzelman – of whom Von Drehle rightly comments:

These men knew everything that books could teach about war. They looked splendid in dress blue. But time would show that none was a true warrior-general, nor were many others like them.

(This dearth of talent forced Lincoln to turn to thirty-four-year-old General George McClellan, referred to as one point as “overall leader of the world’s largest armed force,” a baffling claim that would certainly have pleased McClellan)

Although in the early months of 1862 the South had had a string of popular though evanescent military victories, Von Drehle correctly alludes to the question of slavery as cloud hanging over all these other issues, and like everything else, it required extremely delicate handling by President Lincoln, who wanted badly to keep pivotal slave-states like his native Kentucky out of the Confederacy’s orbit (and who wasn’t sure how the rank-and-file of the Northern populace would react to a war over slavery). Declare against slavery too early, and he would alienate those feckless border states he thought he needed; delare against it too late, and the South has time to recruit foreign allies who would (and eventually did) balk at the prospect of fighting for the slave trade.

The one larger issue even than slavery – the question of whether or not the Federal government had the right to contest the South’s secession at all – is a quagmire that’s seen but not really entered in Rise to Greatness, although Von Drehle sketches in detail the almost ubiquitous talk of “states’ rights.” Half a century before 1862, during the War of 1812, New England had been full of talk about pulling out of the Union, and as late as 1846, Texas had been a separate nation – Von Drehle does a shrewd and persuasive job of pointing out that before the relatively untried President could concentrate fully on the rebellious South, he had to convince the North that the Civil War was worth fighting in the first place. Regardless of where any of Von Drehle’s more reactionary readers might stand on the debate, the portrait of Lincoln that emerges from these pages is arrestingly three-dimensional. He’s very much more a working politician than a proto-saint – although as our author points out, he had the full measure of a saint’s woes:

On the first day of the new year, Abraham Lincoln shook those outstretched hands [of visitors to the White House] until his fingers trembled because with the public on his side he might be able to untangle this horrible knot: master the army, hold Europe at bay, tame the Congress, coordinate the government, rescue the Treasury, launch an offensive, hold on to the border states, solve the problem of slavery, and somehow preserve his own sanity.

Even readers steeped in Civil War literature will find themselves turning the pages of this book eagerly, almost as though they wanted to find out how it all ends. Henry Holt has produced Rise to Greatness with comparatively little fanfare (the reprint of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals sporting a movie-poster cover, for instance, has predictably ten times the exposure this season), but Von Drehle has written a lean, localized masterpiece – it deserves to enjoy a victory of its own, this holiday book-buying season.