Civil War Senator: William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic
by Robert J. Cook, LSU Press, 2011, $48
FESSENDEN STREET, SHELTERED among trees in an exclusive section of Washington, D.C., is the only memorial in the capital to the Republican senator from Maine whose efforts as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee helped the Union win the war. Less well known than his radical colleagues, Fessenden was a coalition-builder whose political philosophy and social vision evolved similarly to Abraham Lincoln’s.
Robert J. Cook has written a sturdy, thoroughly researched biography chronicling Fessenden’s rise to political prominence as a Whig, his metamorphosis into a Republican during the turbulent 1850s and the role he played in crafting financial policy critical to the successful prosecution of the war. Later, as co-chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Fessenden sought to protect the rights of newly freed people while minimizing attempts by Radical Republicans to revolutionize post-emancipation society in the South. He finally broke with his party and cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
Historians have given Fessenden mixed reviews regarding his Reconstruction policies. “Although he did not share the Radicals’ vision of the postwar South as an interracial democracy,” Cook generously observes, “he played a decisive role in fashioning his party’s response to President Andrew Johnson’s white supremacist Reconstruction policy.” In Civil War Senator, Fessenden comes across as a complex, independent-minded Republican who worked tirelessly to guarantee the future greatness of the American republic.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.