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Author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
New York Times Bestseller
As 1862 dawned, the American republic was at death's door. The government appeared overwhelmed, the U.S. Treasury was broke, and the Union's top general was gravely ill. The Confederacywith its booming economy and commanding position on the battlefieldhad a clear view to victory. The survival of the country depended on the judgment and resilience of the unschooled frontier lawyer who had recently been elected president.
Twelve months later, the Civil War had become a cataclysm but the tide had turned. The Union generals who would win the war had emerged, while the Confederate Army had suffered the key losses that would lead to its doom. The blueprint of modern America had been indelibly inked, and Abraham Lincolnthe man who brought the nation through its darkest hourhad been forged into a singular leader. In Rise to Greatness, acclaimed author David Von Drehle has created both a deeply human portrait of America's greatest president and a dramatic narrative about our most fateful year.
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About the Author
David Von Drehle is the author of three previous books, including the award-winning Triangle, an account 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.
Read an Excerpt
Rise to Greatness
Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year
By David Von Drehle
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2012 David Von Drehle
All rights reserved.
NEW YEAR'S DAY
Abraham Lincoln stood that morning in sunlight slanting through the tall windows of the Blue Room, taking his place at the head of a receiving line with his wife, Mary. For most Washingtonians, this open house was their first chance to see the new president up close. He cut such a strange figure, all angles and joints and imperfect proportions: giant feet, impossibly long limbs, enormous forehead, pendulous lip. His huge hands were stuffed into white kid gloves — like twin hams, he was liable to joke. Some tall men slouch self-consciously, but not Lincoln. He had always been proud of his physique, and enjoyed challenging other men to contests of strength, which he inevitably won. He used his size subtly to intimidate, even as he used his humor to put people off guard. At fifty-two, Lincoln was 180 pounds of muscle on a six-foot-three-and-three-quarter-inch frame, and he wore his black suit narrowly tailored to fit his sinewy shoulders and thin waist. He would soon be wasting away, losing as much as thirty pounds in three years, but for now Lincoln was still the virile figure of his campaign propaganda, the rail-splitter whose blend of brain and brawn reflected America's favored image of itself: strong, bright, and independent.
His friend and occasional bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon stood close to Lincoln that day. Lamon, too, was a strong and solid man, but in the eyes of the artist Alfred Waud, sketching the scene from the corner of the room, he looked ordinary beside the looming, dominant president. Lincoln had a shambling animal force about him, which some found appealing and others found unsettling. Women were constantly flirting with him; at the same time, some of Washington's leading Democrats referred to him as "the gorilla." Countering this force was his gentle, sorrowful expression, which was, according to a painter who studied him for a portrait, "remarkably pensive and tender, often inexpressibly sad, as if the reservoir of tears lay very near the surface."
Magnetic, keenly sensitive, often able to understand others better than they understood themselves, Lincoln was, nevertheless, profoundly isolated, and this was a source of his sadness. He "never had a confidant," his law partner and biographer William Herndon wrote. "He was the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed." Lincoln usually masked this isolation behind jokes and anecdotes and apparent bursts of candor. But even his brief descriptions of his youth strike a note of profound loneliness; he was, he once wrote, "a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy." His mother died when he was nine; soon afterward, Lincoln's father abandoned him and his sister in the wilderness, to be cared for only by a slightly older cousin. The father returned months later to find the Lincoln children filthy, poorly fed, and in rags. Now, four decades later, Abraham Lincoln was no longer a lonely genius on a raw frontier, but he bore the internal scars of a boy who learned not to let others too close.
As eleven A.M. approached — the hour when Washington's dignitaries would greet the president — a throng of visitors formed into a long line winding down Pennsylvania Avenue. Stationed at intervals, maintaining order, were uniformed officers of the new District of Columbia police department. (The capital had never before been large enough to warrant its own force.) The police opened a path through the crowd for members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and generals. The carriage of Attorney General Edward Bates rolled up the curved driveway, past a mossy statue of Thomas Jefferson, and came to a stop at the tall doors. A Jovian man with thick gray hair swept back from his stern face, Bates took his place near the head of the line of dignitaries, and soon found himself reaching out to shake the president's hand. The master politician was an ardent hand-shaker, taking a half step forward and leaning into the grip while locking on with his blue-gray eyes. But as Bates felt his hand swallowed up and heard Lincoln greet him in his surprisingly high and reedy voice, he harbored unnerving doubts about this man's ability to meet the crisis.
The previous evening, Bates had been struck by how rudderless the president seemed, his apparent weakness revealing itself as never before during an extraordinary meeting at the White House. Coming at the end of a year of low moments, this was perhaps the lowest. With his cabinet gathered around him, Lincoln was forced to reveal under questioning by an aggressive delegation from Congress — the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War — just how little he actually knew about the plans and operations of the Union armies. After the meeting, Bates sat up late into the night, confiding his fears to his diary.
The meeting would have rattled anyone's confidence, even had confidence not already been in such short supply. What happened that evening was simple enough: Congress flexed its muscles. The potential for tension between the legislative and executive branches was built into the Constitution, but that tension was made worse by the timing of the war. Congress was not in session when the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, so the president — who had been in office only a little more than a month — was free to set the country's war machinery in motion, and he promptly issued a flurry of executive orders and called for troops to be mustered. In July, the legislators convened long enough to be told that they needed to raise some $300 million for the war, a staggering amount given that the entire federal budget was less than $80 million. By the time Congress returned in December, the price tag had doubled, to some $50 million per month.
Bristling with pent-up frustration and ambition, the senators and representatives surveyed the war effort and saw only confusion, corruption, failure, and delay. This was a Congress of unusual clarity and appetite: after years of stalemate, of southern lawmakers thwarting northern agendas and vice versa, the South's secession had broken the logjam. The awakening power of the 37th Congress invigorated the members of the newly appointed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and when they marched into Lincoln's workroom on New Year's Eve, they were champing at the bit.
The committee's chairman was Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, "Bluff Ben," a fiery abolitionist who believed that Lincoln was too soft on the war because he sympathized with slave owners. Twice in recent months, the president had overruled abolitionists in the military as they rushed to proclaim freedom for slaves. The first to do so was John Frémont, a hero in the president's fledgling Republican Party. When Lincoln voided Frémont's proclamation of freedom for slaves in Missouri, he outraged many of the same people who had worked to elect him just a year earlier. "The President has lost ground amazingly," wrote Senator William P. Fessenden of Maine. Then, in December, Lincoln had instructed government printers to destroy a report issued by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, in which Cameron called for emancipating slaves and arming them as Union troops. Again, the antislavery vanguard howled.
Lincoln endured the outrage because he believed the Union could not be saved without support from loyal slaveholders, especially those in his birthplace, Kentucky. That state was the strategic core of the country: Kentucky controlled the Ohio River and guarded the eastern flank of Missouri, another loyal slave state located on a key waterway. If Kentucky left the Union, and if Missouri followed, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers would fall under Confederate control, strangling American commerce. "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game," Lincoln once said.
This sensible view made little impression on Senator Wade, who was neither strategic nor pragmatic. He was a man of passions who drank hard and swore often. To Wade, Lincoln's slow and calculating approach to slavery provided clear evidence of weak character in a man who, as Wade once put it, was "born of 'poor white trash' and educated in a slave state."
Now, in the flickering glow of gas lamps, as the last hours of 1861 ticked away, Wade opened the meeting with a dire accusation. "Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery." The barrage continued from there. Why, the committee members demanded, had there been no movement of Union forces in the two months since the disastrous battle at Ball's Bluff, where the Rebels drove Union forces into the Potomac River, and bodies washed all the way to the Georgetown waterfront? Why were so many of the Union's leading generals members of the opposition Democratic Party? Was their lack of progress a sign of traitorous sympathy for the Confederates? Most important, what plans existed for attacking the rebels, and when would they be launched?
The interrogation of the president and his cabinet went on for some ninety minutes. Between the committee's hostile questions and the unsatisfying answers from Lincoln and his advisers, a "strange and dangerous" fact dawned, as Edward Bates noted: no one really knew what the generals were up to. "The secretary of war and the President are kept in ignorance of the actual condition of the army and [its] intended movements," the attorney general confided to his diary. Meanwhile, the rest of Lincoln's cabinet, Bates mused, came off as an assortment of chattering, uncooperative men, "each one ignorant of what his colleagues are doing." The blame for these sad truths, he concluded, lay with Abraham Lincoln, "an excellent man, and, in the main wise; but he lacks will and purpose, and, I greatly fear, he has not the power to command."
* * *
If Bates was correct, then never in the four score and five years of the nation's existence had such a gap yawned between a president's abilities and his burdens. On January 1, 1862, Lincoln's crises ranged from the fiscal to the global to the military — but they began at home. Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing a dark dress with a contrasting collar, and a flowered headpiece trailing ribbons, looked tiny beside the president as they greeted visitors to the White House. Yet, she too was a formidable person, and she presented her husband with a considerable set of challenges.
Nine years younger than he, Mary was less a soul mate than she was evidence that opposites attract. He was self-confident; she was insecure. He was disciplined; she was impulsive. He was melancholy; she was electrifying. Lincoln was swept away by the force of her personality, her sister recalled: "[He] was charmed with Mary's wit and fascinated with her quick sagacity." But Mary was also volatile, "one day so kindly, so considerate, so generous," the next "so unreasonable, so irritable." Her temper was notorious back home in Springfield, where she had once thrown hot coffee at her husband and another time bloodied his nose with a stick. If anything, her moods had worsened in Washington: the president's secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay complained about her behind her back, calling her "La Reine" when they were being generous and "the Hell-cat" when they weren't. But Mary was her husband's greatest supporter. She believed in him when others lost faith, and she nourished his enormous ambitions.
Unfortunately, Mary Lincoln's judgment was often abysmal. A friend recalled that as president, Lincoln lived "constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace." Her lavish spending and weakness for flattery had already threatened to fester into a scandal. "Flub-dubs for this damned old house!" Lincoln exploded when he learned how much Mary had poured into carpets and draperies and furniture and dishes at a time when Union soldiers were shivering under shoddy blankets. Soon enough the president would discover that she was manipulating White House accounts in an effort to mask her overspending. She was taking bribes from office seekers in exchange for her support. In one case, she was rumored to be having an affair with an unqualified job-hunter.
And there was more: a few weeks earlier an advance copy of the president's message to Congress had somehow turned up in the saucy New York Herald. Mary tried to have the White House gardener take the blame for the leak, but it was eventually traced to a disreputable bon vivant named Henry Wikoff — he preferred to be called "Chevalier Henry Wikoff" — who had sweet-talked his way into the first lady's confidence. The "Chevalier" was notorious for a memoir in which he described the time he kidnapped a woman in hopes of winning her love (only to wind up in prison), and his friendship with Mary scandalized the capital. "What does Mrs. Lincoln mean by ... having anything to do with that world-renowned whoremonger and swindler?" wondered one prominent Republican. General John Wool, a seasoned veteran of the regular army, reported with concern that Mary had called on Wikoff at Willard's Hotel, where she met him in the lobby, helped him don his gloves, and rode off with him in her carriage. "Some very extraordinary storeys are told of this Lady," the general concluded. Evidently, Wikoff had persuaded Mary to give him a look at the text of the president's message, and had passed along the best parts to the Herald.
Yet another family scandal involved one of Mary's half-brothers, David Todd, an officer in the Confederate army. Until recently, Todd had served as commandant of the squalid Richmond warehouses hastily converted into prisons to hold Union soldiers captured in the battle of Bull Run. Reports had begun to reach the North of Todd's drunken brutality. His prisons were filthy; he had beaten and even stabbed prisoners. If his captives stood too close to the windows, it was said, he allowed guards to take potshots at them from the streets. Most offensive of all to Northern sensibilities, Lincoln's brother-in-law reportedly kicked the body of a dead Federal soldier into a Richmond street.
Distrust and suspicion were the nitrogen and oxygen of Washington's atmosphere; the city inhaled ordinary disagreements and exhaled charges of treason. A few weeks earlier, for example, General McClellan had accused The New York Times of aiding the Confederates by publishing maps of Federal positions. "A case of treasonable action as clear as any that can be found," he fumed, and he "urgently" recommended that Secretary of War Cameron censor the paper. Upon investigating the leak, Cameron quickly determined that the information in the newspaper had been made public by his own War Department. A minor episode, but one that gives a whiff of the poisonous cloud over the capital. In such an environment, it was no small matter to have a notorious traitor in the president's own family, and a first lady who consorted with a spy.
Lincoln's domestic life was impossible to separate from his official duties, not least because his home and his office were all crowded together on the second floor of the White House. Construction of a separate office wing for the president and his staff lay decades into the future. For now, the combination of Lincoln's young family and his rapidly expanding duties meant that space inside the Executive Mansion was taxed as never before. He and Mary shared quarters with their sons Willie and Tad; welcomed their older son, Robert, when he was home from college; made room for various visiting relatives from Mary's side of the family; and hosted their youngest sons' best friends, Bud and Holly Taft, for frequent sleepovers, all while giving over about a third of their square footage for Lincoln's office and cabinet room, plus work space for three clerks (two of whom shared a bedroom in the White House), plus a waiting room for the constant stream of visitors who demanded Lincoln's time. Often, the low grumbling of impatient favor seekers mixed with the stomps and shouts of rambunctious boys: Lincoln's sons were known to burst into their father's office at all hours. The boys didn't even leave for school; Mary had created a makeshift classroom for them and their friends at one end of the State Dining Room.
Fortunately, Lincoln was accustomed to bustle. As a boy, he once shared a one-room cabin with at least seven other people. Faced with the constant distractions of the wartime White House, he made good use of the powers of concentration he had developed in his youth, though to outsiders he often appeared to be lost in a daydream or deep in a trance. Lincoln also took advantage of his insomnia: "While others are asleep, I think," he explained. "Night is the only time I have to think." He often sought refuge beyond the White House walls. Lincoln had a way of suddenly turning up in offices and parlors around the capital, having walked or ridden over without fanfare. His tendency to drop in without warning was an irritant to stuffy characters like McClellan, an endearing quality to many others, and a source of worry among friends who feared for Lincoln's safety as he strolled the streets or rode around on horseback and in open carriages
Excerpted from Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle. Copyright © 2012 David Von Drehle. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: "So Much Was All Compressed" 1
1 New Year's Day 9
2 January 37
3 February 62
4 March 87
5 April 118
6 May 147
7 June 179
8 July 207
9 August 237
10 September 266
11 October 297
12 November 319
13 December 341
Epilogue: "A New Birth of Freedom" 368