Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year

Written By: David von Drehle

Published By: Henry Holt and Company

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

            A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to read Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle. I found the author’s writing style to be mesmerizing as he took me through the tale before, during and after the fire at the Triangle Waist Company, a fire that changed everything about the labor laws and safety measures regarding factory workers. It was that writing style and thoroughness about his work that made me want to read his new book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.

            Rise to Greatness discusses the events during 1862, a pivotal year in the Civil War.  Prior to 1862, very few people had faith in Lincoln's presidency and even fewer still had faith in the survival of the Union.  In fact, many believed that a dictatorship, not a democracy, would be the only way the Union would survive.  Lincoln ignored these thoughts and sought a way to end the war as quickly as possible. 

            Readers learn of the struggles in Lincoln's path, of McClellan's desire to become despot and his fear of pushing attacks on the enemy, of how the death of Lincoln's son nearly crippled him and his wife's eccentricities involving his son's death nearly pushed him over the edge.  We learn of the fight to keep Europe, especially France and England, neutral in this war - they didn't support slavery, but both countries knew what would happen to their economies if cotton production didn't continue.  Drehle takes us behind the scenes of the Cabinet to show us the backstabbing and undermining nature of its members, despite their loyalty to the cause.

            We learn of the origins of the Emancipation Proclamation and why it took so long to enact.  The reasons against making the proclamation a reality often outweighed the reasons for it, delaying it for quite some time.  In the end, it would be the most important moment in Lincoln's presidency. 

            I was most impressed to learn that Lincoln, frustrated with being treated as an outsider by the military due to his lack of experience, took it upon himself to teach himself the art of military strategy, absorbing all information he could get his hands on regarding the subject.  He was, in fact, so knowledgeable by the time he was done that he was often successful in strategies he put into action.  I was also impressed with his accessibility.  I know it was a different time, but how many Presidents will find themselves visiting battlefronts.  Usually, they will visit military bases, but not the battlefronts themselves.  Lincoln was not only interested in seeing how the war was going firsthand, he also wanted to be included in all new weapons testing and privy to all new military inventions.

            As in Triangle, David von Drehle strives to be thorough in the telling of this important moment in history.  To that end, von Drehle paints a picture of the moments in Lincoln's presidency before 1862, takes us through the year from the 1st of January through to the end of December (with each chapter representing a new month in the year) and then finalizes things by telling us what happened in January 1863.

            I am a history buff and have read quite a bit on the Civil War, but I still learned quite a bit reading Rise to Greatness.  For instance, I never realized that this war saw the origin of Federal Taxes, used to finance the war.  Thanks to Lincoln, in the year 1862, education was placed in the forefront, with the Federal Government funding grants for the creation of colleges.  Then there are the military things I learned - I always knew that McClellan thought himself to be God's gift to the military, but I never knew all of the issues that man had.  I had a low opinion of the man before reading this book, now that opinion is on the floor.  I also loved learning more about General Grant and his rise to fame.

            Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year makes a great addition to any history buff's book shelf.  Anyone who enjoys learning about the Civil War cannot afford to miss this informative study of the war's most pivotal year.  Once again, I was mesmerized by the writing style of David von Drehle and highly appreciative of his thorough nature.  Another job well done!


For feedback, visit our message board or e-mail the author at