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1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant…

de Bruce Chadwick

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1858 explores the events and personalities of the year that would send the America's North and South on a collision course culminating in the slaughter of 630,000 of the nation's young men, a greater number than died in any other American conflict.
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Mr. Chadwick is an excellent history writer, however the title is not accurate. Yes, it covered the political climate of 1858 rather well. U.S. Grant is hardly mentioned anywhere in the book, and I came away feeling that indeed many people anticipated and expected civil war to break out. The exception being James Buchanan and he didn't seem to have much of a clue about anything.

Good treatment of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the Dred Scott legal case, the Oberlin Rescuers and John Brown. My copy contained typographical errors and some sentences were repeated in consecutive paragraphs. ( )
  RChurch | Mar 26, 2012 |
1858 was a turning point leading up to the American Civil War. So many issues were beginning to come to a crisis point and the leaders that should have taken action were looking elsewhere. Jefferson Davis was fighting a health crisis, Robert E. Lee was dealing with family issues and trying to decide whether to leave the army, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant were trying to find a way to make a living. At the same time Abraham Lincoln was trying to get elected to the Senate but Stephen Douglas stood in his way.

President Buchanan didn't exercise the "proper" influence. He worked to prevent Stephen Douglas' re-election which helped to bring Lincoln to National recognition. He also was attempting to increase the presence of the USA as a global authority with offers to buy Cuba from the Spanish and efforts to annex portions of Mexico and other Central American and South American nations. Buchanan had eyes on expansion and refused to acknowledge the problems related to the slavery question.

Several events by other individuals and groups acted as a catalyst. John Brown got into action, William Seward, senator from NY, gave several volatile speeches against slavery (“It {slavery} is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”), and a group of individuals openly thwarted law enforcers of the Fugitive Slave Act.

All of these actions and issues put together propelled a divided nation toward a Civil War that killed hundreds of thousands. Could it have been averted? We will never know.

I thought it was very interesting the way that the author had each of the events/individuals sectionalized very much as the North and the South had issues by section. However, I had difficulties with the title for several reasons. First, Ulysses Grant was hardly in this book, second, nowhere that I saw or read was there anything to explain a "war they failed see", third William Seward played a large part in this book but wasn't in the title, and lastly Buchanan's shortcomings were identified throughout the book, but he also wasn't in the title. I think a better title would have been - 1858 and the Men and events that provoked a war. But I'm sure the title was chosen because those names would get your attention. ( )
1 vote cyderry | Jun 23, 2010 |
http://blogcritics.org/archives/2009/01/18/105821.php

An ambitious look at how the events of one year impacted the future of a nation. Falls short of it's goals, though ... ( )
  wkelly42 | Feb 15, 2009 |
This is one of those books that come along and inform you of events your standard history class in school forgot to tell you about. You start reading and don't want to put it down until the last page. ( )
  stoic | Dec 5, 2008 |
Chadwick argues that at the start of the Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman “were in place because of events that occurred three years earlier, in 1858…” Well, you’ve gotta have a gimmick, to borrow a line from the musical Gypsy, in order to write a new book on the Civil War. It’s not a bad book, nor is it a great book, but it does provide a different twist on the war’s causation by discussing the positions of these five men in 1858, as well as those of three others: President James Buchanan, Senator Stephen Douglas, and activist abolitionist John Brown. (You may ask, what about Ulysses S. Grant? Well yes, his name is in the title, but he really doesn't put in much of an appearance. And failing to see the war coming? Not. Someone should have reworked the title.)

Some of Chadwick’s mini-portraits contain surprising observations. Jefferson Davis, for example, was so [comparatively] kind to his slaves that he bought them “designer” clothes, had them tutored, and even ate with them. And yet, he was the most vociferous defender of slavery in the Senate. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the thought that his slaves might actually take breaks or be distracted in any way from constant labor, all the while professing to be *against* the institution of slavery.

President Buchanan was “a spectacular failure” who ignored the slavery controversy, and spent most of his political capital trying to defeat a fellow-party member, Stephen Douglas, against whom he held a personal vendetta. In fact, claims Chadwick, if it weren’t for Buchanan’s efforts against Douglas (which involved manipulating patronage, favors, making threats, and outright campaigning), Lincoln might never have been able to win an election.

William Seward, a brilliant man who added much-needed experience to Lincoln’s administration, thought that *he* would win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He was so sure of it, he left for Europe for an eight-month tour! Lincoln’s supporters, meanwhile, averred that Lincoln was the most electable candidate, since Seward’s stand against slavery was more radical than Lincoln’s. Seward had spoken out provocatively in October of 1858 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, declaiming, “The slave system is not only intolerable, unjust, and inhuman towards the laborer, whom, only because he is a laborer, it loads down with chains and converts into merchandise, but is scarcely less severe upon the freedman, to whom, only because he is a laborer from necessity, it denies facilities for employment, and whom it expels from the community because it cannot enslave and convert him into merchandise also.” And then, to the rage of Southerners, Seward added, “It [slavery] is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”

The framework in which these biographies are presented is made up of several seminal occurrences in 1858 that ramped up the conflict between pro- and anti- slavery forces. One was the fight over the adoption of a constitution for the newly proposed state of Kansas: was it to be a slave state or a free state? A second was the election battle for senator from the state of Illinois, which resulted in seven spectacular debates between Lincoln and Douglas. And a third was a series of “rescues” of slaves by abolitionists, including a group of men in Oberlin, and a foray by John Brown and his followers.

These events and the men that played so large a role in them certainly helped precipitate the disastrous collision that left over 630,000 dead by 1865. If, like me, you enjoy reading all you can on that remarkable era in our history, this book provides an interesting set of lenses from which to view its chief protagonists. ( )
3 vote nbmars | Sep 12, 2008 |
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1858 explores the events and personalities of the year that would send the America's North and South on a collision course culminating in the slaughter of 630,000 of the nation's young men, a greater number than died in any other American conflict.

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