- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. — Winston Church in a speech referring to the defeat of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps by British Empire forces in 1942 at El-Alamein, Egypt, collected in the book “The End of the Beginning” (Cassell, 1943).
1862 also saw the introduction of the military draft and the federal income tax. And, the crowning achievement by a president who had once proposed the deportation of all the nation’s African-Americans to colonies in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean — the Emancipation Proclamation. Von Drehle presents us with Abraham Lincoln, a man in full, the man who brought the nation through its darkest hour, a man who had been forged by events into the irreplaceable leader.
In “Rise to Greatness”, von Drehle has created both a deeply human portrait of America’s greatest president, whose life was torn asunder by the death of his beloved young son Willie and the stresses of living with Mary Todd Lincoln. Maybe to be fair to the First Lady, the stresses of living with Lincoln! In “Rise to Greatness” the author presents us with a rich, dramatic narrative about our most fateful year. I particularly liked a Dickensian — “Tale of Two Cities” — characterization of Lincoln by an early biographer, J.G. Holland, quoted by von Drehle on pages 373-4:
“he was one of the saddest men that ever lived, and that he was one of the jolliest men that ever lived; that he was very religious, but that he was not a Christian…that he was the most cunning man in America, and that he had not a particle of cunning to him; that he had the strongest personal attachments, and that he had no personal attachments at all….that he was a tyrant, and that he was the softest-hearted, most brotherly man that ever lived….that he was a leader of the people, and that he was always lead by the people, that he was cool and impassive, and that he was susceptible of the strongest passions.”
Just listing the battles fought in 1862 — Shiloh, Antietam, Mill Creek, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Second Manassas (2nd Bull Run), etc. — recalls the apt characterization of the horror of what one observer said of Fredericksburg: “This isn’t war, it’s murder.”
I didn’t get the book in the usual manner, as a review copy from the publisher. Henry Holt doesn’t send me review copies, which I regularly get from all the major publishers, Random House, Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s, Atlantic Monthly, Wiley, etc. etc. — as well as specialty houses like Encounter, Other Press, Mysterious Press, Penguin, etc.
I found it in the new books section at my local library where I went to donate my review copies. I couldn’t resist this book that hit the bookstores at the end of October 2012. If you saw the movie “Lincoln” (I had to drive 70 miles to Rockport TX to see it) by all means pick up “Rise to Greatness” to flesh out your understanding of the movie.
About the author
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.