This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.
By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness.
Rise to Greatness takes us through 1862 month by month. It’s a marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written. And this is how the book concludes:
The first day of 1863 did not mark the end of the war, or even the beginning of the end. That would come later in the year, when Grant drove the Rebels out of Vicksburg and Chattanooga on his way to replacing Halleck as general in chief. But the close of 1862 — to borrow from Winston Churchill — brought the nation to the end of the beginning. And like the Shakespearean dramas that spoke so powerfully to the genius of Abraham Lincoln, the events of the final scenes were fated by the decisions, actions, omissions, flukes, failures, and successes of the early drama. When that fateful year began, a shattered land looked backward at a dream that seemed forever lost. When a new year arrived, the way forward was perceptible, an upward climb into a challenging but brilliant future.
As another new year arrives–a century and a half after the end of the beginning of the Civil War–it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary journey America has traveled, the terrible “original sin” of slavery the United States had to overcome, and how close things came to unraveling. It’s also a good time to recall just how fortunate we were that, at the most arduous moment in our history, America produced its greatest president, an individual whose intellectual, political, and rhetorical gifts converged in a way unmatched in all our history.
Even with all the political nonsense we see unfolding before our eyes today, call us blessed.