Monday, June 16, 2008

CWL---1858: The Year The Civil War Became Inevitable?

1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and The War They Failed to See, Bruce Chadwick , Sourcebooks Inc., 355 pp., notes, bibliography, index, 2008, $24.95

1858 offers clear and concise descriptions of key political and social events that shoved the states into rebellion and resistance. Adventurous and even compelling at times, 1858 moves the reader through twelve months of political and social turmoil. Chadwick explores not the mundane but the exceptional.

Not familiar to most Civil War readers is Jefferson Davis' 1858 visit to Maine in order to recuperate from herpes and build a coalition of Northern Democrats in a bid to establish a presidential candidacy in 1860. The Southern press pilloried him to the point that when he returned he retracted his statements. Ironically, these retractions put him into a position where he would be offered a presidency in 1861, that of the Confederate States of America.

In one six page chapter, Chadwick offers a cogent and balanced description of the Dred Scott Decision, one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court event in U.S. history. His ability to put into place the origins, personalities, issues, and outcomes of this event is exceptional. As a Advance Placement U.S. History test reader, CWL reflected that this chapter would be a fine contribution to student resources.

Though CWL is quite familiar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Oberlin Ohio Rescue and John Brown's escape with slaves from Missouri to Canada, Chadwick offers the essentials in a manner that captures the excitement and underscores their place in bringing the states to the brink of rebellion in 1860. After reading 1858, Civil War buffs may have a new appreciation for the events leading to the Secession Winter of 1860-1861. Some readers may need to keep in mind that all soldiers in the ranks had lived through and had argued over the events of 1858.

Though a Pennsylvanian, CWL has not be able to work up any enthusiasm for James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States. Chadwick's 1858 covers the Buchanan presidency in nine chapters that fall between chapters on Davis, Lee, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Oberlin Rescue, Seward's Irrepressible Conflict speech, and John Brown's rescue of slaves from Missouri. Read consecutively the Buchanan White House chapters make the case for this Northern Democrat holding Southern Democrats' interest higher than his own section and possibly allowing the conflict to become truly irrepressible.

Some quibbles: The subtitle is unclear; nine of 17 chapters deal with the Buchanan White House, two deal with Lincoln and Douglas, and single chapters deal with Lee, Davis, Seward, Sherman, The Dred Scott Decision, John Brown's Raid on Missouri and the Slaveholder's raid on Nicaragua. Mysteriously, U.S. Grant is mentioned only on four pages in the book but is in the subtitle. Buchanan has nine chapters but has no mention in the title at all.

CWL suggests that the subtitle be changed for the paperback edition: 1858--The Year the Civil War Became Inevitable for Davis, Lee, Douglas, Lincoln, Seward, Sherman and John Brown. Or 1858--Blood Before The Civil War's Dawn: The Men Who Pulled the Trigger on the War.

Chadwick assumes the reader has no detailed understanding of the period; 1858 is written for the general audience. For the paperback edition, a chronology for the year should be added as well as a brief chronology of the 1846-1860 era. A list of characters would also be helpful for the general audience. Also, the index needs some attention. The entry--Forney, John--lists 6 pages with three subtopics. John Forney has a whole chapter, Number Nine, pages 135-140 but these pages are not listed under the entry--Forney, John--in the index. Some proofreading needs to be done. Notes 159, 160 and 161 are the same font size as the text font; these note number should be the superscript font size, just like the other 744 notes.

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