Every now and then I’m asked to review a new book and I do my best to oblige. It’s genuinely flattering that my opinion is so desired. I stress however that I take the word “review” literally and that it’s not meant as a synonym for “hype.” Which brings me to the recently-released 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, a much-promoted new work by author Bruce Chadwick that by its title, suggests 1858 was a crucial and defining year in the run up to the Civil War.
Admittedly, I expected the work would be a traditional narrative that presents the author’s case. In an initial Author to Reader section though, Chadwick explains how he has set aside that common format and instead presents seven standalone narratives that discuss the history, 1858 whereabouts and actions pertaining to the book’s seven key characters. In addition to three of the men mentioned in the book’s subtitle, Chadwick also presents essays pertaining to William Seward, John Brown, William T. Sherman and the residents of Oberlin, Ohio. Their 1858 trial pertaining to the freeing of a runaway slave set off a controversy around the country. Interspersed between each tale are vignettes of 1858 events that marked James Buchanan’s fractured presidency in that year. According to the author, Buchanan “ignored slavery, engaged in questionable imperialist schemes, divided his own party during the elections, started feuds with dozens of important people, and exhibited a distinct lack of leadership at a time when the nation desperately needed some.” It is these accounts of Buchanan’s “meanness and ineptitude” that Chadwick hopes will act as the glue that brings the seven main stories together, so as “to offer a comprehensive account of a nation of angry people, North and South, drifting toward one of the tragic conflicts of history.”
While I applaud the author’s format experimentation, I was ultimately disappointed for there seemed to be little connectivity between the standalone essays other than the obvious fact that none of the protagonists realized war was on the horizon.
In the case of William Sherman for example, Chadwick takes twenty pages to give the reader a biographical essay of Sherman’s life up to and including 1858, highlighting how in that year, Sherman was reduced to selling corn at a roadside stand in Kansas. Such is the design for each character. In the book’s ten-page Epilogue, Chadwick then delivers a concise explanation of what happened to each subject from 1858 up to the start of the Civil War.
For my tastes, there was simply little analysis that connects the dots from the circumstances of the book’s protagonists to the fateful start of the Civil War. There is plenty of who, what, when, where, but very little why. On further thought, perhaps there is no connection and that these seven subjects simply serve to illustrate to the reader just how blind the country was to what lay ahead. I closed the book feeling that what I had just read was more of a multi-character biography (and well-travelled biography at that) than a scholarly assessment of how the events of 1858 specifically contributed to the start of the Civil War. Adding to my frustration is the book’s attractive though deceptive dust jacket, which bends over backwards to emphasize the desired, and from a marketing standpoint, all-important Civil War connection. The artwork highlights in its subtitle four of the war’s main players, features a painting of the Fort Sumter bombardment, as well as an inset portrait of Lincoln. As part of the sleight of hand, it is noted that even though Ulysses S. Grant appears prominently in the subtitle, he is mentioned in the text on no more than five pages, three of which are part of Sherman's essay. In reality, there is very little in the book that relates directly to the Civil War.
Technically, I found the book very well-written and easy to read. A solid bibliography and almost 750 endnotes show that the author did his homework. In addition, numerous portraits of the work’s key players are found in the mid-section. I recommend 1858 as a good introduction for the general reader on the antebellum lives of some of the Civil War’s more prominent names. If that was the author’s intent and target market, then in my opinion he has succeeded quite well. Unfortunately, for the more advanced student of the Civil War or antebellum America, there is little new here.