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Books  >>  Biography

David Von Drehle

Rise to Greatness

David Von Drehle Rise To Greatness Abraham Lincoln And America's Most Perilous Year
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Biographical note:

David von Drehle is the author of three previous books, including the award-winning Triangle, a history of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire that The New York Times called "social history at its best." An editor-at-large at Time magazine, he and his family live in Kansas City, Missouri.

Excerpt from book:

Prologue

“So Much Was All Compressed”

The year began with a day so warm and fine that only the calendar said January. There would be few pleasant moments in 1862, but New Year’s Day in Washington, D.C., was one of them. Everyone was out enjoying the sunshine that morning—women in demure bonnets, men wishing they had left their overcoats at home, children dodging and shouting. The dusty streets of the half-built city were filled with people making their way toward the White House, where, by tradition, the president threw open the doors on the first day of each year.

Never had there been so large a crowd. The capital had doubled in size in the previous six months and was rapidly doubling again, as young men by the tens of thousands poured into Washington to join the Army of the Potomac. In April 1861, when war broke out between North and South, the entire U.S. Army numbered about 16,000 men, spread in little garrisons across the continent. By November, nearly five times that number, some 75,000 troops, could be mustered in a single field outside Washington for a presidential review. The ranking U.S. general planned to lead a column of more than a quarter of a million troops against the rebellious South.

Everywhere one looked in the capital, there were soldiers and more soldiers, brimming with zeal, eager for action, ignorant of war. They filled camps covering miles of hillsides in all directions. By day, the untested warriors marched and drilled, or cut logs and dug trenches to ring the capital with forts and firing pits. By night, some crowded into slapdash saloons and boardinghouse brothels. This instant army, like a great magnet, attracted regiments of merchants, job seekers, journalists, do-gooders, adventurers, spies, thieves, and would-be war contractors. A dull, swampy city was transformed in weeks into an overcrowded hive of patriotism, opportunism, and paranoia.

On the new year’s first morning, multitudes packed themselves into the blocks around the Executive Mansion, flowing down wooden sidewalks and dirt streets onto Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington’s only paved thoroughfare. There, the clip-clop of horseshoes and clanking of swords signaled the passage of freshly minted officers in full regalia: gold braid, white gloves, yellow sashes, obsidian boots. Carriage wheels rattled and friends called greetings, while somewhere in the distance, a Marine band blared martial music. Directly north of the White House, in the grand town houses around Lafayette Square, servants hurried to finish polishing the silver and laying out refreshments, for it was also tradition that the owners of these houses—cabinet members and sea captains and confidants of presidents past and present—would open their own doors.

The New Year’s Day open house was a ritual of democracy in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, whose statue, atop a rearing horse, adorned the center of Lafayette Square. On this one day, everyone was welcome in the halls of power, from statesmen to workingmen, from consuls to clerks, from the Roman-nosed senator Orville Hickman Browning to the scoundrel who picked Browning’s pocket. It was “the greatest jam ever witnessed on any similar occasion,” one newspaper correspondent observed. The people of Washington, it seemed, had somehow agreed for a few hours to forget their desperate situation and celebrate a new beginning.

Absent the holiday exuberance, however, a cool assessment of the country’s presen

“Outstanding...Lean, insightful, and often lyrical.”—USA Today

“These pages crackle with life and energy.”—James McPherson, The New York Review of Books

“Spellbinding...Von Drehle has done a masterful job....He adroitly weaves together the complex military, diplomatic, political, legal, and moral saga of the twelve months of 1862.”—Harold Holzer, The Washington Post

“An invigorating, inspiring, and often heartrending portrait of a great man and a troubled country...Von Drehle’s deeply researched book provides a degree of detail that Hollywood can’t touch.”—The Kansas City Star

“Von Drehle’s polished style and sense of drama will appeal to general readers interested in this formative time in American history… Von Drehle makes a strong case that Lincoln’s remarkable development both as a military strategist and as a political genius occurred during [1862], laying the groundwork for eventual Union triumph.”—Library Journal

“Von Drehle has chosen a critical year (‘the most eventful year in American history’ and the year Lincoln rose to greatness), done his homework, and written a spirited account.”— Publishers Weekly

“With his keen journalist’s eye for detail, and the surefooted feel of an historian, David Von Drehle has produced an enthralling book. Rise to Greatness is a marvelous and important story, marvelously told.”—Jay Winik, author of April 1865

“Von Drehle has chosen a critical year (‘the most eventful year in American history’ and the year Lincoln rose to greatness), done his homework, and written a spirited account.”—Publishers Weekly

Rise to Greatness is a terrific read packed with fascinating facts that add color to a powerful depiction of the Civil War's second year. The narrative is driven by Lincoln's movement toward freedom for the slaves and his growing disenchantment with General McClellan, climaxed by the general's removal from command and the president's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.”—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“In the perilous year leading up to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln had to maneuver against his own generals and cabinet officers while fending off dark forces desiring disunion or dictatorship. By succeeding, as David von Drehle shows in this fascinating narrative, Lincoln saved the Union and redefined the American presidency. This is not only an important work of history but also a valuable manual on leadership.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein and Steve Jobs

Rise to Greatness is a fascinating and fast-paced account of Lincoln's pivotal year. David Von Drehle brilliantly captures the epic events and outsized personalities that accompanied the birth of the Emancipation Proclamation. His book succeeds in making a well-known story feel absolutely compelling.”—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire and Georgiana

“In this vivid, writerly, well-researched account, David Von Drehle demonstrates, month by month, that 1862 made Lincoln’s presidency. In the haze of Civil War nostalgia, we can easily lose sight of the reality that the odds were terrible that a United States in any form would survive that harrowing year. Yet as Rise to Greatness shows, the events of 1862 gave birth to a different nation, one rooted in emancipation.”—David W. Blight, author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

“With his great gift for stirring portraiture and historical narrative, David von Drehle takes us into the world of the Civil War and


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