Monday, January 14, 2013

"Rise to Greatness" by David Von Drehle (2012)

When I was growing up; in the days before computers and the internet; the best authorities on Abraham Lincoln were Bruce Catton, and also Carl Sandburg. Their biographies of the nation’s 16th President were the best resources available at the time. The internet age has allowed so much history; that was previously tucked away in obscure corners; to come forth, and the result has been that authors are now able to concentrate more fully on particular areas of interest. Author David Von Drehle has certainly availed himself of just about everything that Lincoln said, or wrote, in the year 1862 to create this remarkable account of Lincoln’s second; and perhaps most difficult; year as President of the United States, at a time when we were anything but.

During his second year in office, Lincoln had to deal with a recalcitrant General McClellan; who simply put; would not fight, forgoing many advantages, while continually overestimating the enemy’s strength. At the same time, he was also plagued with keeping the country out of war with France and England, secure the cotton trade, establish a naval blockade, ensure that his generals were prosecuting the war in an aggressive manner, and keep his sanity as he struggled with his composition of the Emancipation Proclamation. All about him was chaos, and it would be on his shoulders to bring order to it all, if he hoped to hold together the Union.

Even with General Grant there were problems. Although he would fight, he took some extraordinary measures to achieve victory. His infamous Order Number 11; evicting all of the Jewish people from Paducah; which resulted in a delegation from that city undertaking a journey to Washington for an audience with the President, is a prime example of the myriad of problems which constantly besieged him. In this same year he would also lose his favorite son, Willie, to an epidemic of yellow fever, leaving the President haunted and empty. This would prove to be the hardest year of Lincoln’s life, as well as the most perilous to a Union victory.

Some of the most compelling portions of the book deal with General McClellan and his “missed” opportunities to turn the tide of the war in the Union’s favor during its first year. His failure to capture Richmond with superior numbers of troops will always baffle historians. Was he just meek, or was he trying to influence the outcome of the war? We may never know. What is sure is that no President, save Truman, ever had to deal with such a problem some General, and Truman freely admits to having looked to the history of the Civil War in an effort to deal with MacArthur effectively.

Having lived in the area around Washington and Baltimore, where many of these events took place; made the events seem even more real to me than they already were; notwithstanding that I have visited most of the places involved. While in the Navy I was stationed at Norfolk, where each day I could look out and see the site of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack; the first battle ever fought between two armored vessels.  France and England may have already had ironclad vessels; but the Civil War was the first test of how they would fare against one another; as opposed to an ironclad vessel undoubtedly being superior to a wooden one.

The book is filled with things that will be new to some students of the Civil War; the economic aspect of which is very interesting. At one point there was a “gold for cotton” program by which the United States bought cotton from the South, who then bought more arms from the French and British. This was a short-lived program, as people were furious at the stupidity of it. There were a number of programs which dealt with freeing the slaves in the hopes of shortening the war. The principal one dealt with in this book was the Compensated Emancipation program, which worked in the same manner as the “gold for cotton” fiasco. Essentially, the slaves would be bought by the government at the rate of $400 per slave and then set free. It was a system designed for abuse and was as long lived as the cotton deal.

The Emancipation Proclamation is explored by the author as it took shape during the year in which Lincoln worked on it. The President was walking a tightrope, impossibly trying to appease all factions; an impossible feat to accomplish; as he himself had stated in an 1858 address that “a house divided among itself cannot stand.” Although that speech referred to the Union in the days leading up to the Civil War, it was no less true of trying to govern the North alone, with its many opposing views on how to win the conflict.

The Supreme Court, and Lincoln’s uneasy relationship with Chief Justice Taney; author of the Dred Scott decision; is another aspect of the Lincoln Administration which has been relegated to the back shelf of history. And here again, Mr. Von Drehle takes it down and dusts it off for a clearer understanding. The Court; constitutionally composed of 9 judges, was down to just 6 when Lincoln took the helm of the nation in 1861. He, like those before and after him, hoped to pack the court with justices he could count on to back him up in his interpretation of the constitutionality of the laws proposed by himself as President, as well as those of the Congress and Senate.

There is a bit of humor in this well written account of Lincoln’s; and the nation’s; most troubled year. At one point; when he was having troubles with his toes; he was seen by a podiatrist in Manhattan, Isachar Zacharie, who was so successful in resolving the President’s problems. Lincoln wrote him a note thanking him and affirming the success of his treatments. The good doctor lost no time in having handbills printed with the President’s complimentary remarks, which he then had distributed all over New York. Of course, the New York Herald lost no time in holding this up as an example of the Presidents misplaced priorities, going so far as to blame the recent military failures on Lincoln’s paying too much attention to his feet. Some things never change, and the predilection towards sensationalism by newspapers is a prime example.

The Emancipation Proclamation has always seemed to be a bit duplicitous to me. It freed the slaves only in the states under rebellion, even as slavery was still in force in Maryland, Delaware and even parts of Pennsylvania. Nothing short of a Constitutional Amendment would ever be strong enough to truly free the slaves in the entire country. But the story of 1862; Lincoln’s most difficult year; is the story behind the birth of that Amendment. With his careful and far ranging study of that year, Mr. Von Drehle has taken us on a month by month journey leading up to the final revision and actual release of the Proclamation itself. 

And though President Lincoln would not live to see the culmination of the events he had played such a significant role in achieving; without him our nation may have foundered before having ever achieved equality under the law for all of its citizens. And that work continues, even unto this very day.

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