Book Review of “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See,” by Bruce Chadwick


Chadwick argues that at the start of the Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman “were in place because of events that occurred three years earlier, in 1858…” Well, you’ve gotta have a gimmick, to borrow a line from the musical Gypsy, in order to write a new book on the Civil War. It’s not a bad book, nor is it a great book, but it does provide a different twist on the war’s causation by discussing the positions of these five men in 1858, as well as those of three others: President James Buchanan, Senator Stephen Douglas, and activist abolitionist John Brown. (You may ask, what about Ulysses S. Grant? Well yes, his name is in the title, but he really doesn’t put in much of an appearance. And these actors failing to see the war coming? Not. Someone should have reworked the title.)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Some of Chadwick’s mini-portraits contain surprising observations. Jefferson Davis, for example, was so [comparatively] kind to his slaves that he bought them “designer” clothes, had them tutored, and even ate with them. And yet, he was the most vociferous defender of slavery in the Senate. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the thought that his slaves might actually take breaks or be distracted in any way from constant labor, all the while professing to be *against* the institution of slavery.

President Buchanan was “a spectacular failure” who ignored the slavery controversy, and spent most of his political capital trying to defeat a fellow-party member, Stephen Douglas, against whom he held a personal vendetta. In fact, claims Chadwick, if it weren’t for Buchanan’s efforts against Douglas (which involved manipulating patronage, favors, making threats, and outright campaigning), Lincoln might never have been able to win the election.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

William Seward, a brilliant man who added much-needed experience to Lincoln’s administration, thought that *he* would win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He was so sure of it, he left for Europe for an eight-month tour! Lincoln’s supporters, meanwhile, averred that Lincoln was the most electable candidate, since Seward’s stand against slavery was more radical than Lincoln’s. Seward had spoken out provocatively in October of 1858 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, declaiming:

“The slave system is not only intolerable, unjust, and inhuman towards the laborer, whom, only because he is a laborer, it loads down with chains and converts into merchandise, but is scarcely less severe upon the freedman, to whom, only because he is a laborer from necessity, it denies facilities for employment, and whom it expels from the community because it cannot enslave and convert him into merchandise also.”

And then, to the rage of Southerners, Seward added, “It [slavery] is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”

William H. Seward

William H. Seward

The framework in which these biographies are presented is made up of several seminal occurrences in 1858 that ramped up the conflict between pro- and anti- slavery forces. One was the fight over the adoption of a constitution for the newly proposed state of Kansas: was it to be a slave state or a free state? A second was the election battle for senator from the state of Illinois, which resulted in seven spectacular debates between Lincoln and Douglas. And a third was a series of “rescues” of slaves by abolitionists, including a group of men in Oberlin, and a foray by John Brown and his followers.

These events and the men that played so large a role in them certainly helped precipitate the disastrous collision that left over 630,000 dead by 1865. If, like me, you enjoy reading all you can on that remarkable era in our history, this book provides an interesting set of lenses from which to view its chief protagonists.

Published by Sourcebooks, 2008

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