Rise to Greatness
January 28, 2013

Editor’s Note: At our next free Tenement Talk, January 29 at 6:30pm at 103 Orchard Street, David Von Drehle will set his sights on 1862, the crucial year that transformed our sixteenth President into a singular leader. Sally Jenkins will lead the author in conversation about what we can learn from the man who led us through it.

With all the buzz about this year’s Academy Awards, many of you have probably seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, follows him through a bitter battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which (spoiler alert!) passes two months before the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination.

A new book takes a few steps further back in Lincoln’s presidency by focusing on 1862, the “most perilous year in our nation’s history.” In Rise to Greatness, the focus of tomorrow’s Tenement Talk here at the Museum, author David Von Drehle details the events that turned the tide of the war toward a Union victory and transformed the President into an effective leader and Commander in Chief.

David Von Drehle and his book, Rise to Greatness, the focus of tomorrow's free Tenement Talk

Here at the Tenement Museum, 1863 always seems like one of the most important years in United States history. Not only was that the year the Union won decisive victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg; it was also the year a German tailor named Lucas Glockner built a five-story tenement and opened 97 Orchard Street for residents. Our own bias aside, historians usually see the 1863 victories as crucial to the war, and to the Union victory. Without Lincoln’s evolution the year before, none of the later victories would have been possible.

The year 1862 dawned on a country deeply divided, and not just between North and South. Unionists knew that if the South split off, more divisions were likely to follow: Texas and California could each become separate states; the largely untouched West had few connections east of Ohio; and prominent New Yorkers even thought their own city could be an independent port city. Unionists believed that if they allowed the country to fracture, the great experiment of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would fail. Many thought a dictator was needed to keep the country together, and Lincoln certainly lacked the military experience to be that person. Congress tried to control the war and the major generals didn’t recognize the President as a true Commander in Chief. Confederate President Jefferson Davis saw official European recognition of the Confederacy as imminent, which would make it almost impossible for the Union to bring the country back together.

Over the course of a year, however, Lincoln and his diplomats wiped out the threat of European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, and he established himself as the clear leader of the party, government, and most importantly, military, without taking dictatorial control. He removed problem generals from their command and eliminated the open hostility of the Supreme Court. Perhaps Lincoln’s biggest accomplishment took place on New Year’s Day 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebel states, giving the war a moral cause, and strengthening European support of the Union. There were still losses ahead for the Union, but the changes of 1862 brought the country monumental steps closer to peace.

The Emancipation Proclamation, as printed in newspapers across the country

For me, growing up in Maryland, field trips and family excursions to battlefields and Civil War sites were a regular occurrence. Beyond Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas, and Harper’s Ferry, we learned about the first deaths of the war that took place in the streets of Baltimore and how terrified Lincoln was that the state of Maryland would also secede, isolating Washington, D.C., from the North. Civil War history followed me to college, at Georgetown, where buildings had been transformed into hospitals, students fought on both sides, and the school adopted blue and grey as its official colors after the war, to recognize the Union’s reunification. David Von Drehle casts new light on these familiar stories, and especially on the bloody battle of Antietam, which shocked England out of Confederate support and helped Lincoln remove his most troublesome general.

Battle of Antietam, Artist Unknown, showing the Union advance on the Dunker Church

So before you watch the Academy Awards next month,  join us at tomorrow’s free Tenement Talk at 6:30pm to hear Von Drehle discuss Lincoln’s first steps toward the Thirteenth Amendment during the darkest days of the war. Sally Jenkins will lead the author in conversation about what we can learn from Lincoln. Details are on our website here: http://bit.ly/TenementTalks

—Posted by Emily Mitzner