Sunday, May 12, 2013

One crucial year in the Civil War

Rise to Greatness, David Von Drehle

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read two very different books about the Civil War, and started a third.  I'm not sure what sparked this little read-athon.  I've all had these books on the TBR shelves for a while; maybe it was just their time. Or maybe reading about the First World War sent me back to a more familiar conflict.

The first, Rise of Greatness, is subtitled "Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year."  That year is 1862, which was indeed a momentous year in the Civil War.  This is a general overview, a month by month account, "as much as possible from Lincoln's point of view."  When 1862 began, the Union war effort was stalled, and Confederate hopes of European recognition and intervention were high.  The Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was a political appointment whose department was notorious for its corruption and incompetence.  In the east, Federal General George B. McClellan, the "Little Napoleon," openly snubbed Lincoln and refused to share military information with him.  The rise to greatness that David Von Drehle charts is Lincoln's own, as he grew into the unprecedented challenges of a presidency amidst civil war.

That war was not just between north and south, Federal and Confederate.  Lincoln faced divisions within the North, as radical Republicans pushed him to abolish slavery while Unionists in the critical slave-owning border states like Kentucky warned that would push them into the Confederacy.  There were no guarantees that the armies in the field, who enlisted to preserve the Union, would fight to free the slaves.  Northern society remained deeply divided over slavery, with many blaming abolitionists for the conflicts that led to the war in the first place.  Lincoln's Cabinet mirrored these divisions, and he also had to deal with a Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, who was already angling for the Republican presidential nomination in 1864.

One of Lincoln's first steps was to educate himself more deeply in military matters.  He was always a master of self-study, a true autodidact, though also willing to learn from others with more knowledge or greater experience.  What he learned over the next few months, primarily from books on military strategy borrowed form the Library of Congress, enabled him to assert his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.  With a new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, he began to set policies and strategy, and to find generals who would carry them out.  Some of the war's worst fighting came in that year's battles, at Shiloh, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and especially Fredericksburg.  General after general came and went, and one stayed: Ulysses Grant.  "I can't spare this man," Lincoln once said. "He fights."

Over the course of the year, Lincoln also came to recognize the role that slavery played in sustaining the Confederate war effort.  As Eric Foner argued in The Fiery Trial, Lincoln believed with many of his fellow Republicans (and most Democrats) that since slavery was protected by the Constitution, he could not interfere with it where it already existed.  However, he came to believe with many others that he could use his wartime powers to abolish slavery as a military necessity.  That step might also influence Britain at least against intervention or assistance (France meanwhile was playing a dangerous game in Mexico, where Napoleon III had put the Austrian archduke Maximilian on a puppet throne).  Lincoln first discussed emancipation with members of his cabinet in July.  He issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 23rd, and he signed the final formal document on January 1, 1863.

All of this took place against a background of personal tragedy for the Lincoln family.  On February 20th, their third son Willie died of typhoid fever.  He was Lincoln's favorite, many said the most like him.  Lincoln's own deep grief, mostly silent, was made even more difficult by his wife Mary.  Already extravagant, she was determined to make her mark as First Lady, and she seems to have crossed over the line into compulsive or addictive behavior.  One friend of the family remembered a bill for three hundred pairs of kid gloves.  To finance her extravagance, there were rumors that the president's wife was forging bills and taking kickbacks.  She also became obsessed with spiritualism, trying to contact Willie's spirit, falling victim to more than one charlatan.  The séances that she held at the White House made the President a target of ridicule from all sides.  It's impossible not to feel sympathy for Mary Lincoln in the loss of her son, while at the same time wishing someone could have sat her down for a serious talk and some professional help.

David Von Drehle is an editor at Time magazine who has written several other books, including a history of the Triangle fire (now on my library list).  This book is a good introduction to a very complicated year.  He puts the events, political and military, in context without overwhelming the reader, and he also manages a large cast of characters, deftly keeping them distinct.  He has an eye ear for the telling anecdotes, much like Lincoln himself.  His narration is brisk and even a bit breezy at times, which it makes for a lively story.

Initially I was going to write briefly about both books, but I had more to say about this book than I expected, so I'll put my thoughts about the second in another post.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!