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1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See

by Bruce Chadwick, Sourcebooks, 2008, $24.95

Histories devoted to a  single year would fill a substantial bookcase, and 1858 offers plenty of gripping material. Popular historian Bruce Chadwick (The Reel Civil War, Traveling the Underground Railroad) is no revisionist. He writes a spirited but traditional account of the year’s events, concentrating on leading figures but giving equal time to several laboring in obscurity who would soon vault to national prominence and immortality.

All Civil War prequels give prominent a place to James Buchanan, a wrong-headed leader who consistently wins polls as America’s worst president. Chadwick paints the time-honored portrait of the hopeless bumbler who mishandled the slavery question and contributed to the breakup of the Democratic Party by conducting a catastrophic feud with the other leading Democrat, Stephen Douglas. No historian wants to rehabilitate Buchanan, but many question the weakling label. Jean Baker, for example, considers him the last Jacksonian, a strong president who favored the South and knew exactly what he wanted.

The heart of Chadwick’s book lies in a dozen characters, and readers will be as impressed as the author intends at how much difference two years make. In 1858, almost everyone assumed the presidential candidates for 1860 would be Stephen Douglas for the Democrats and William Seward for the Republicans. A depressed Colonel Robert E. Lee was one year into an extended leave, attempting to straighten out his father-in-law’s hopelessly confused estate. Chadwick delivers the traditionally worshipful portrait but ends with a sting as he points out that Lee had a low opinion of slavery but took for granted Negroes belonged to a subhuman race.

U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman were still civilians, laboring in near poverty. Jefferson Davis, senator from Mississippi, had been a national figure since leading troops in battle during the Mexican War, and like all Southern leaders, considered slavery a marvelous institution. In love with his role as an aristocratic spokesman for a superior culture, he enjoyed a modest popularity in the North not shared by Southern fire-breathers. 1858 was the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a media event whose major result was to give Lincoln national exposure.

Chadwick agrees with most historians that the debate probably ended in a draw and exerted only modest influence on the Illinois senatorial election. Everyone agrees that Lincoln maneuvered Douglas into expressing more opposition to the extension of slavery than he had in the past, thereby angering Southern supporters.

Rejecting Douglas would split the Democrats and guarantee a Republican victory in 1860, so this was a foolish decision, but foolish decisions by Southern leaders had become routine by 1858.

While this is a lively book full of remarkable men and dramatic events, it’s hard to identify its audience. Readers of biographies of any of the dozen central figures will learn nothing new in Chadwick’s shorter accounts. The strongest sections relate lesser events such as the rescue of John Price from slave hunters in central Ohio.

State authorities encouraged by the Buchanan administration arrested dozens of the crowd that participated and launched a series of trials that riveted the nation and ended with the rescuers set free. Yet 1858 provides a readable introduction to the run-up to the Civil War and will not disappoint a general audience.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.