1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See
by Bruce Chadwick
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2008.
355 pp, $24.95
The perpetual question on the minds of historians of the antebellum and Civil War United States is this: when was the inevitability of the Civil War – if, indeed, it was inevitable at all – certain, and what events sealed the deal? In 1858, Bruce Chadwick, the former journalist and author of Brother Against Brother and Two American Presidents,contends that the answer is, obviously, the events and people of 1858. According to Chadwick, “…what happened in those twelve months…would set the nation, North and South, on a collision course that culminated in the war that ripped the country apart…” (ix). In the book, the author develops a strong case for his contention, as well as giving a rousing account of those events and people.
The title, however, misleads the reader. If one wanted a large dose of Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant, one would not want to turn to this book. Instead, presenting President James Buchanan through his year in the White House as the binding thread of the overarching story, Chadwick narrates the stories of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stephen A. Douglas, John Brown, William Seward, and the Rescuers of Oberlin, Ohio. Abraham Lincoln makes a strong appearance, of course, in the chapters on Stephen Douglas, where the Lincoln-Douglas debates are followed in the fall of 1858. Grant makes no more than a few “cameo” appearances in the chapter on Sherman and the book’s epilogue.
Nevertheless, to make up for the disappointment of the misleading title, Chadwick does his utmost to weave a dramatic account of this defining year, combining biography with historical narration in an intriguing and, in this reviewer’s opinion, successful fashion. He relates each individual’s background in an interesting and relevant manner, bringing the reader into a sound understanding of what brought each person to their circumstances of 1858, paralleling his endeavors to tell the background of the nation brought to Civil War three years later. For example, William Tecumseh Sherman’s low position in 1858 came about through an incredible combination of his wife’s wanting him to quit the army (which he did, very reluctantly), his failure as a banker because of the drying up of California’s seemingly endless natural wealth a decade after the Gold Rush and the panic of 1857, his reluctance to depend upon his wife’s father for work, and his being ill-suited for most other jobs available at the time. As Chadwick describes Sherman’s personal plight, he relates the economic, social, and political atmosphere of the nation.
So how did 1858 guarantee a civil war for the nation? Chadwick asserts that the slavery question hit a national nerve in that year and that political decisions and events paved the way for the chips to fall as they did in 1860. Lincoln’s election was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The year beginning with the debates over the Lecompton Constitution witnessed not only the deep fissure developing in the Democratic party, but also the new Republican party – including a bright star dawning on the horizon in the form of Illinois’ own Abraham Lincoln – starting to come into its own. The slavery issue continuously reared its ugly head, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in the Capitol, in speeches by politicians and ministers North and South, and in the press, which kept on top of stories like those of the Oberlin Rescuers and John Brown’s raiders in Kansas, adding to the sectional conflict in the nation. All the while, President Buchanan denied the problem of slavery, set his political hounds on Stephen Douglas, and tried earnestly to buy Cuba – again. Sounds like a recipe for a war to me.
One of the greatest strengths of the book lies in its tendency to focus on the events of the year 1858 without a strict adherence to those events alone. One of the worst things an historian can do is deny the history leading up to a certain point. Some authors might have written about William Seward and his “Irrepressible Conflict” speech without commenting on the demise of the Whig party and subsequent rise of the Republicans, which led to Seward’s giving the speech. Chadwick makes no such mistake. When he tells the reader that President Buchanan has a personal vendetta against Stephen Douglas, he also tells us why and what led up to that. In giving broad background information about people and events, the author does a thorough job in linking past events in the country with those of 1858 and then into the Civil War itself.
Surprisingly the author’s rich description, physical and otherwise, of each individual (which could easily become cumbersome) adds a great deal to the story, giving a clearer mental image of each person. Sometimes that picture comes up very differently from what one would expect. Helpful in this endeavor is Chadwick’s skill with imagery. He describes President Buchanan thus: “…his unusual physical appearance invariably drew stares. With his neck craned to one side, continual eye squinting, excessively high shirt collars flowing up to his ears, and his tangle of white hair, he looked like an oversized white carrot that had been pulled sideways out of the ground” (8). He does an equally fine job in describing the others.
Chadwick’s sense of irony supplies some humorous illustrations, since the people involved in the story have no clue what will happen, but the reader does. In an excellent example, Chadwick writes, “In some quarters, his [Jeff Davis’] newfound Northern admirers said that the …Mississippi senator would make a fine president of the United States in 1860” (43), the humor lying in the fact that Jefferson Davis would indeed become a president, if not of the United States.
The only thing which stands in the way of the book being a truly smooth read is some of the grammatical constructions and typographical errors. For instance, Chadwick, in an extremely awkward and disjointed two sentences, writes, “Buchanan was alternately criticized and lampooned for his failed efforts at international diplomacy, whether it was sending the navy, with the Harriet Lane, threatening to get tough with Paraguay, annex states in Mexico, or buy Cuba. The editor of Washington’s National Intelligencer was one of them” (251). One of what, exactly? Although the reader understands what he tries to get across, the construction trips him up in the process.
Adding to the pleasure of the reader – as if Chadwick’s amusing and thorough descriptions of the individuals are not enough! – the book contains twelve pages of photographs. These include images of homes, families, and even some of General Sherman’s sketches. Nonetheless, since a few of the captions are not strictly correct, this dampens the effect somewhat.
Chadwick’s research consists of the generous use of primary sources, such as letters, diaries, and newspapers, as well as relevant secondary sources. He sprinkles the book liberally with significant quotes. In the chapters on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, he not only describes the scene with his own words, but quotes extensively from the press, from the speeches, and from personal accounts. Where possible, he lets the individuals speak for themselves, whether it is Robert E. Lee’s writings about his home in Virginia, “…where my affection and attachment are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world…” (58); Varina Davis’ opinions of William Seward, a daily visitor of Jefferson Davis when the latter was ill early in 1858: “There was an earnest, tender interest in his manner which was unnaturally genuine. He was thoroughly sympathetic with human suffering and would do most unexpected kindnesses to those who would…anticipate the opposite only” (35); or James Buchanan’s assessment of how he had handled the events during his presidency: “Had I to pass through the same state of things again I do not see, before God, how I could act otherwise than as I did” (288).
Chadwick, with an appealing and original approach, formulates a strong argument in defense of his thesis that 1858 was a defining year for a United States on the brink of war. Despite the slightly annoying grammatical and typographical errors, the book makes for an absorbing read. The author takes the reader on a fascinating ride through 1858, viewing the events through the eyes of those who contributed to them substantially, feeling the tension rising in the nation, and anticipating the inevitable – a war which would rock the United States to its very core.
Angela M. Alexander