Bruce Chadwick. 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and the War They Failed to See. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc. (April 1, 2008). 355 pages., notes, index. ISBN: 978-1402209413 $24.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).
Why 1858? I found myself asking that question repeatedly the entire time I was reading this book. What made 1858 THE year to look at in regards to the coming of the Civil War. Author Bruce Chadwick tries (largely unsuccessfully, in my opinion) to argue that 1858 was the year slavery became THE main issue facing the United States and events which occurred in 1858 played a large role in bringing about the war. In his Foreword, Chadwick tells the reader he will attempt to accomplish this by weaving together seven stories of people and events, linking these disparate stories together with looks into James Buchanan’s “spectacular failure” as President.
1858 weaves together seven stories all (loosely) tied together by Buchanan’s Presidency. These stories are, in no particular order:
- Jefferson Davis
- Robert E. Lee
- William T. Sherman
- The Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue
- William H. Seward
- John Brown
- The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
At first, I was intrigued by the author’s decision to abandon a traditional narrative and use what I thought would be an interesting change of pace. The idea works better in theory than in the pages of 1858, however. Stories are broken up into different chapters with little regard for continuity or chronological order. For readers new to the subject, this may very well be misleading as far as a time line of these events goes.
As I stated in my introduction, my main and overriding question while reading the entire book was “Why 1858? What makes this year so special?” Unfortunately, although the author does claim he chose 1858 because it was THE year slavery became the overriding issue facing the United States, he doesn’t give nearly enough reason WHY, and thus doesn’t really answer my question. In essence, he argues FOR 1858, but he really gives no arguments AGAINST other years. To me, slavery had been THE issue for quite some time. A post concerning the Compromise of 1850 at Elektratig shows that slavery was very much at the forefront of the country’s concerns as the 1850s opened, and that the Civil War may well have started a decade earlier had the Compromise of 1850 not happened. I can agree with the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Oberlin-Wellington Slave rescue as two MAJOR events involving slavery and an acceleration towards war. However, other events outside of this year, especially John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859 and obviously the Presidential Election of 1860 were major events which did much to hasten the Civil War. Chadwick does argue that the seeds were sewn for these events in 1858. He stresses that John Brown’s raid into Missouri and successful escape with slaves into Canada in 1858 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates led to these other events. That may be true, but the MAIN events happened in years other than 1858. Without belaboring the point too much, I believe you simply cannot make a strong case that 1858 was any more important than many other years in causing the Civil War or having slavery become THE issue facing the country. Chadwick’s failure too largely explain WHY or argue against other years only drives home the point for me.
To me, deciding to include William T. Sherman was an odd choice other than to allow the author/publisher to get Ulysses S. Grant’s name into the subtitle of the book. Grant is barely mentioned, and Sherman had hardly anything to do with the author’s assertion that 1858 was the year slavery became the most important issue in the country. The only reason I can see to include Sherman is to show an example of a Northerner who had no strong feelings towards slavery, much like Robert E. Lee was personally opposed to slavery as a Southerner. In reading the chapters covering Sherman, I was puzzled as to what purpose his antebellum life story served to the narrative as a whole.
The subtitle of the book is especially puzzling to me. U.S. Grant is listed and he is barely mentioned in the book, pretty much only in relation to the Sherman portion of the story. Putting a famous figure into your title or subtitle only to barely mention them isn’t going to win points with this reviewer. Another issue I have with the subtitle is “The War They Failed to See.” Huh? Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech is mentioned. So is Jefferson Davis’ ascension in late 1858 as the leader of the Secession Movement. John Brown not only saw war coming, he was determined to start it himself! And lastly, Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech is also stressed. It seems to me these men at least had an inkling that war was at the very least very possible if not imminent if some drastic steps were not taken with regards to slavery. I don’t want to pin this on the author at all. Marketing sells books, and the subtitle screams MARKETING from a tall building. Blame the publisher here folks.
If you have lasted this long, you might believe I hated 1858. This is definitely not so. My policy is to get the bad out of the way first and move on to the good. Let’s start with the author’s style. Bruce Chadwick is definitely a good storyteller. Despite some continuity issues in his narrative choice as mentioned earlier, I read this 300 page book in only two sittings. I could not put it down.
Chadwick’s chapters on the gross ineptitude of James Buchanan’s Presidency were my favorite portions of the book. Rather than focus on the slavery issue and try to resolve it in some way, Buchanan instead completely ignored slavery when possible and blinded himself to the enormity of the problem the rest of the time. His “Don Quixote-ish schemes”, as Chadwick calls them, to annex portions of Central and South America by any means possible while ignoring slavery was just one issue. In addition, Buchanan chose to fight petty feuds with two powerful men, Senator Stephen Douglas and newspaper editor John Forney, and these feuds were disastrous for the Democratic party in the elections of 1858 and the Presidential election of 1860. More than any other man, Buchanan had the power to slow or even prevent radical developments with regards to the slavery situation. Instead, says Chadwick, he did nothing while radicals on both sides led the nation to the brink of war.
I was also pleasantly surprised with the bibliography and notes. Chadwick uses a nice number of endnotes, including 747 in exactly 300 pages of text. He did use quite a few secondary sources, but for what was obviously to me a “pop history” book aimed more at the masses than to deep readers, Chadwick also looked at the papers of many of those involved in the events of the year 1858 and around 90 newspapers published at the time. A serviceable index rounds out the book.
Bruce Chadwick’s 1858 sets out to prove that year was the year slavery became THE issue in the United States, but was rather unsuccessful in this regard. His arguments for 1858 as the year were sparse and his arguments against other years were non-existent. The story’s continuity suffered somewhat as a result of some conscious choices on the author’s part. Despite these flaws, 1858 is an enjoyable read aimed at the masses which I would be happy to recommend to readers new to the subject. Deep readers will find this material covered elsewhere in much greater detail.
Thanks goes to Danielle Jackson at Sourcebooks, Inc.
NOTE 1: Paul Taylor also reviewed 1858 at his blog With Sword and Pen.
NOTE 2: I asked Elektratig, a deep reader of books covering the antebellum period, for some of his recommendations for reading on this subject and he gave me the following two books to start with:
David M. Potter. The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861. Harper Perennial (March 15, 1977). 672 pages., notes, index. ISBN: 978-0061319297 $17.00 (Paperback).
Elektratig calls The Impending Crisis “[t]he single best book on the pre-War period. It is both a great introduction and overview and a book you return to over and over again for its careful analysis.”
Kenneth M. Stampp. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Oxford University Press, USA (April 30, 1992). 416 pages., notes, index. ISBN: 978-0195074819 $42.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).
According to Elektratig, this book is a good one to compare to Chadwick’s 1858 in terms of its similar look at just one year prior to the Civil War. He goes on to say Stampp’s book “is excellent, really driving home how disastrous the Lecompton Crisis was (and how badly Buchanan handled it). Although the book focuses on 1857, it looks both backward and forward.”
Elektratig ends his recommendation by saying “Potter and Stampp were the preeminent antebellum scholars of their generation. You can’t go wrong reading or recommending them.” I’ve purchased both books and plan to read them soon. Interested readers should do likewise.
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