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

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

4.2 13
by Bruce Chadwick

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"Highly recommended-a gripping narrative of the critical year of 1858 and the nation's slide toward disunion and war...Readers seeking to understand how individuals are agents of historical change will find Chadwick's account of the failed leadership of President James Buchanan especially compelling."
-G. Kurt Piehler, author of



"Highly recommended-a gripping narrative of the critical year of 1858 and the nation's slide toward disunion and war...Readers seeking to understand how individuals are agents of historical change will find Chadwick's account of the failed leadership of President James Buchanan especially compelling."
-G. Kurt Piehler, author of Remembering War the American Way

"Chadwick's excellent history shows how the issue of slavery came crashing into the professional, public, and private lives of many Americans...Chadwick offers a fascinating premise: that James Buchanan, far from being a passive spectator, played a major role in the drama of his time. 1858 is a welcome addition to scholarship of the most volatile period of American history."
-Frank Cucurullo, Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

As 1858 dawned, the men who would become the iconic figures of the Civil War had no idea it was about to occur: Jefferson Davis was dying, Robert E. Lee was on the verge of resigning from the military, and William Tecumseh Sherman had been reduced to running a roadside food stand. By the end of 1858, the lives of these men would be forever changed, and the North and South were set on a collision course that would end with the deaths of 630,000 young men.

This is the story of seven men on the brink of a war that would transform them into American legends, and the events of the year that set our union on fire.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Former journalist Chadwick (The General and Mrs. Washington) deals with much more than the previously underappreciated year of 1858 in this engagingly written book. By focusing on the men who drove crucial historical events, Chadwick provides plenty of pre-1858 background to make his case that the events of that year "changed the lives of dozens of important people" and "within a few short years, the history of the nation." Chadwick examines the lives of six who would become the biggest players in the Civil War: Lincoln, Davis, Sherman, Lee, Grant and William Seward, and two others-John Brown and Stephen Douglas-whose actions helped precipitate the conflict. He also offers an insightful look at the enigmatic, eccentric man who was in the White House in 1858, Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Chadwick shows clearly how Buchanan dithered-on the slavery issue and in foolish foreign adventures in Paraguay, Mexico and Cuba, among other things-while Rome was about to burn. Buchanan, Chadwick correctly notes, "was certainly not the sole cause of the Civil War," just "one of many, but his ineffectiveness as chief executive dealt a crippling blow to the nation." (Apr.)

Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Library Journal

"The Civil War began in April 1861," begins Chadwick (The General and Martha Washington), who then goes on to say that "this book explores the events and personalities of that single year." Huh? His remark to the contrary, this work is about the year in the title. Chadwick has a penchant for anachronisms, e.g., referring to Douglas and Lincoln in 1858 as "The Prince and the Pauper" 23 years before Twain coined the title, referring to Buchanan's "White House" when it was still commonly called (on its own stationery no less) the "Executive Mansion," and calling Buchanan "paranoid." The book aims to bring the sectional turmoils of 1858 to light for general readers, but be forewarned. An optional purchase.

—Margaret Heilbrun
Kirkus Reviews
An idiosyncratic survey of the American political scene as the clouds gathered for Civil War. The 1856 election of President James Buchanan, the 1857 Dred Scott decision and the proposed pro-slavery, Lecompton Constitution for the new state of Kansas threatened to settle the slavery issue in America, perpetuating forever the peculiar institution that had made the Founders squirm. In 1858, the direction of the political debate changed. Against the backdrop of Buchanan's fecklessness, Chadwick (The General and Mrs. Washington, 2006, etc.) focuses mostly on personalities and incidents headlining the antislavery movement's pushback. The already notorious John Brown's Christmas raid into Missouri and the story of the Oberlin Rescuers both received national press attention, inspiring abolitionists and enraging the South. New York Senator William Seward, in speeches appealing to a "higher law" than the Constitution and warning of an "irrepressible conflict" ahead, positioned himself as the most prominent antislavery elected official and the likely presidential nominee for the Republicans in 1860. Meanwhile, Seward's good friend, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, solidified his position as the South's foremost defender and spokesman. In a series of debates during the Illinois senate race-memorably detailed in Allen Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, 2007-Abraham Lincoln made a national reputation for himself and destroyed the hope of the formidable and fence-straddling Stephen A. Douglas for higher office. Throughout the tumultuous year, Buchanan remained in deep denial, preoccupied with foreign policy and visions of territorial expansion, and more concerned withsettling intra-party scores, especially with the fiery Douglas, than with effectively governing the nation. In other chapters seemingly less harmonious with his larger thesis-but forgivable for a writer incapable of dull storytelling-Chadwick looks at the pre-war careers of Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman, two unknowns in 1858 destined for later fame. For the general reader, an account of a president who fiddled while the ingredients for a major conflagration assembled before his eyes. Agents: Elizabeth Winick and Jonathon Lyons/McIntosh and Otis

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 1: The White House, New Year's Day, 1858

The year 1858 could not have started in a grander fashion than it did on January 1 in Washington, DC. The New Year arrived on a cold but sunny day. It was welcomed with parties and receptions all over the nation's capital. The Republicans and Democrats who had fought so bitterly throughout 1857 over the slavery issue put aside their differences and mingled with each other at the homes of the country's political leaders. One of the most well-attended receptions took place at the home of Vice President John Breckinridge, a thirty-seven-year-old former Kentucky slaveholder and rising political star. Another party was hosted by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, James Orr. Several cabinet members flung open the doors of their homes for guests invited to similar receptions. Senators and congressmen, such as Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, John Slidell of Louisiana, William Bigler of Pennsylvania, and George Pugh of Ohio, held lavish soirées. The most important public figures in public life attended these parties, wearing their best suits and hats. They were accompanied by their wives, dressed in fashionable gowns and adorned in expensive jewelry.

Continuing a tradition, President James Buchanan, in office just under a year, hosted a three-hour reception at the White House for members of the diplomatic corps, Democratic members of the Senate and House, and political friends on the morning of New Year's Day. Guests arrived at the White House just before eleven o'clock in the morning and remained until the middle of the afternoon. There were several hundred of them and they came in a continuous parade of elegant carriages. At noon, the front doors of the White House were opened to the public to meet the president. Thousands of ordinary people walked into the executive mansion, many for the very first time, all impressed with its size. After a lengthy wait in a receiving line, they met President Buchanan, who wished them all a Happy New Year.

The atmosphere at the president's New Year's reception was jovial and most of the conversation between the fifteenth president and his guests did not involve the issue of slavery that seemed about to overwhelm America. Everyone was grateful for that. The year 1857 had been difficult. A recession that sent financial markets reeling in the past year still crippled the dollar, weakened the banks, and hurt the import/export trade. Unemployment was up, factories shut their doors, the federal government ran a deficit, the public staged runs on banks, and financially pressed banks could not meet their specie payments.2 Hinton Helper's book, The Impending Crisis of the South, highly critical of Southerners and slavery that was published during the previous year, was still the central topic of many conversations. At the end of the year, politicians in the Kansas Territory, eager to bring it into the Union as a state, had sent Congress not one, but two state constitutions, one recognizing slavery and one not, for a decision. Three congressmen were forced to resign during the year following a corruption scandal connected to the 1856 campaign.

In addition, Buchanan sent an army of twenty-five hundred men on an ill-advised expedition to Utah to put down what he described as an uprising of Mormons; the result was a debacle that included an attack by Indians on the troopers, the burning of army supply wagon trains, destruction of crops and homes to deny the army food, and lengthy journeys through snowbound mountain passes by the army across what one trooper described as "the most desolate country I have ever beheld."3 The expedition was a humiliation of the army and the administration.

An illegal slave ship jammed with six hundred captives, possibly headed for America, was intercepted off the coast of Africa in a well-publicized seizure at the end of November, and its capture was followed by reports of other slave vessels that had secretly made it to the United States.

An American adventurer, William Walker, led a coup against the government of Nicaragua and seized control of the country, only to be deposed by the forces of neighboring nations.

And all across the nation, controversy still raged over the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, handed down in March of 1857, in which the high court upheld the Fugitive Slave Act, reappealed the Missouri Compromise of 1850, decided that Congress could not declare any territory free, and ruled that slaves were not people, but property. And, on top of all that, the population of America continued to explode, increasing by nearly 25 percent over the last decade.

No one was happier to move forward and put 1857 behind him than President James Buchanan. The president was an odd-looking man. He was tall and heavy-set, with a mop of curly white hair. He had had throat and nasal growths surgically removed, but the operations, primitive in the era, left large and ugly scars on his neck. He also suffered from myopic vision that forced him to bend his head severely to the left and forward in order to read, further exposing the huge scars he tried to hide with very high shirt collars. His vision caused him to squint severely whenever he read something or tried to look out over a crowded room, further adding to his unusual appearance. One of his eyes was brown and the other hazel. His forward-leaning head also misled many into thinking he agreed with what they said. He was a big man, but oddly had tiny feet that he bragged about to everyone he met.

Buchanan had arrived in Washington as the victor in a close presidential race in 1856 in which he was the nominee of a disorganized and overly confident Democratic Party that found itself fighting for its life at the polls against the fiery new Republicans, who had replaced the defunct Whigs, and the zealots of the American Party, who mounted a strong third-party challenge. Buchanan had carried nineteen of the forty-one states and won the election with 59 percent of the electoral vote, but the Republicans surprised everyone. Their presidential nominee, explorer John C. Fremont, won eleven states. Fremont had earned the nickname "the Pathfinder" following his five well-publicized expeditions through the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains over the previous decade. A third-party candidate, former president Millard Fillmore, a sectional candidate running on the ticket of the American Party (an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group formerly called the "Know-Nothings"), captured one state.
Buchanan earned 45 percent of the popular vote, giving up 30 percent to Fremont and 25 percent to Fillmore. If Fillmore had carried several Southern states and denied Buchanan the election, or forced it into the House of Representatives, Fremont would have come close to winning the election outright. Buchanan won his home state, Pennsylvania, by just 577 votes out of nearly 500,000 cast, and Indiana by less than 2,000 out of 235,000. He only earned 105,528 votes in Illinois, 44.1 percent, against 130,306 cast against him, but was awarded the state's eleven electoral votes because his two opponents split that larger ballot. Even Buchanan was forced to admit that the loss of just two states would have given Fremont the White House.

Meet the Author

Bruce Chadwick is a former journalist and author of eight works of history including The First American Army, George Washington's War, The General and Mrs. Washington, Brother Against Brother, Two American Presidents, Traveling the Underground Railroad, The Reel Civil War, and Lincoln for President. He lectures in American history at Rutgers University and also teaches writing at New Jersey City University.

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1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War they Failed to See 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent and very informative. It was well written and very interesting.
MikeMcGNY More than 1 year ago
I have 1857 in my library and now 1858 is just as good. I could not put it down for fear that I would forget something and have to go back and catch up. It does well covering the year 1858.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good breackdown of events in 1858 leading to civil war. Recommending reading.
CheliD More than 1 year ago
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. 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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed this book. Although I have taken in much of what the author presents, it was still very fresh to read the tale from the viewpoint of what these major figures where doing in 1858 and how they where interacting. Davis and Seward were extremely close friends - despite their deep divisions over policy, as where Lincoln and Douglas. Grant and Sherman knew each other and each knew that it appeared that they would live their lives as total failures. Lee was well known inside professional military circles, but not to the general public. Much has been written about how the Civil War took place because the north and the south both misunderstood the other - and both miscalculated how far the other side would go when pushed. So reading what all these folks were up to before the cataclysm that made them all famous was very interesting. If I was to add to the author's list of current and future who's who in 1858 I would add Thomas Jackson who was living his dream life of domestic tranquility in the small college of Lexington, VA where he was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. Jackson purchased a house in Lexington that year, and at the time he wanted nothing more than to live out his life as a devoted husband, gentleman farmer and devote Christian.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ricme More than 1 year ago
If you've read a few history bio's you know they can become a standard mold of many other bio's of the same vintage. Chadwick breaks the mold by melding the bio's of characters that changed the course of history in the years leading to the Civil War. Understanding their motives, their speeches and their beliefs is better understood when juxtaposed with others who shared the same time in American history but had vastly different beliefs. While slavery is the main issue of the day, Chadwick tells how different public figures like, Lincoln, Seward, Buchanon, John Brown, and Davis, truly felt about the issue, then how they used the issue to either promote themselves politically, defame their political foes, or in John Brown's case, go on the warpath to right a humanitarian wrong. Great history made readable by Bruce Chadwick.
MJS98 More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SpyderRyder More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting book about the 4 main characters and all of the political manuvering leading up to the Civil War. There are lots of little known facts about the 4 and if you are at all interested in this great conflict in our country, this book is worth reading. There are several facts untaught in our history classes. The book is at times though a tedious read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
xD I just saw this.