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1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See Hardcover – April 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
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From Booklist

In Chadwick’s view, 1858 was a critical year that pushed the U.S. inexororably down the path to the Civil War. To illustrate his argument, Chadwick eschews a chronological narrative; instead, he has utilized separate historical portraits of several key individuals and chronicles their roles in some of the important events of that year. His examinations of the character and careers of these men are consistently interesting, and some are likely to stir controversy. James Buchanan, for example, is seen here as not merely ineffectual but a cold and even malignant figure who abused his subordinates and probably interfered in the Dred Scott case before the Supreme Court. On the other hand, he views Jefferson Davis as an admirable, principled man, despite his primitive views on race and slavery. One of the more interesting tidbits provided concerns the unlikely friendship between Davis and William Seward. Although Chadwick’s portraits and conclusions are not always convincing, this well-written work will be a good addition to Civil War collections. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks; 1St Edition edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140220941X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402209413
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,941,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I was eager to read this book, but I was disappointed by the writing from the very first page.
Kindle Customer
Mr. Chadwick does a marvelous job of recreating the scene surrounding this most important and still not well understood part of American history.
R. Auger
Moreover, it is apparent that the manuscript was not thoroughly edited because it contains inconsistencies in facts and even grammatical errors.
Jack Hermann

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Brett R. Schulte on May 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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:

1. Jefferson Davis
2. Robert E. Lee
3. William T. Sherman
4. The Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue
5. William H. Seward
6. John Brown
7. 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?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mark D. Curran on December 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The author tries to make it seem like 1858 was something very special, and the title acts as if Lincoln "failed to see".

Nonsense. The massive force exerted by the South for decades was to spread slavery -- by violence, corruption, threats. By means fair and foul -- but mostly foul. The "compromises" of 1850 and 1820 were about as much "Compromise" as a 7-11 armed robbery. The South again and again demanded the spread of slavery, again and again came back and demanded more. Sometimes they tried under the excuse of "states rights" or "popular sovereignty" which was a cruel distortion. As soon as Kansas rejected slavery, those in the South called popular sovereignty a "trick of the devil" and set their violent eyes on Kansas, Cuba, South America. They even started to demand California, admitted as a free state. See Southern newspapers.

Lincoln saw very well that the spread of slavery was the real goal of the Southern leaders -- if you don't believe that, read his House Divided speech. Everyone yaps on about house divided can not stand -- but if you boil the speech down, he was screaming his head off that Southern leaders were doing everything possible to spread slavery by foul means. He predicted US would be all one thing or another, all slave or all free. People today think Lincoln was being melodramatic - that no way would anyone try to turn the North and all of USA into a slave nation. Wrong. They sure did have that in mind, as Davis himself would say in response to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Plus, once the Southern leaders had Taney do the whole Dred Scott thing -- that said black were "so inferior" no what man could possibly believe they had any rights from God -- the line was drawn.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Clark B. Timmins on August 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"The year 1858 could not have started in a grander fashion than it did...in Washington, D.C." (p. 1), but subsequent events would prove the year's political events decisive as the nation moved toward civil war. The text considers these events primarily by presenting a series of vignettes focusing on the administration of President James Buchanan interspersed with extended biographical studies of individuals shortly to become famous, as well as in-depth studies of critical events transpiring during the year. Of necessity, events occurring outside of 1858 are reviewed to set the context as well as to place studied situations within their greater historical significance--but the text successfully balances the presentation of material to maintain a focus on 1858. The text presents Buchanan as an ineffectual and vindictive president out of touch with political reality and incapable of dealing with the polarized politics of the era. Buchanan, derisively known as "Old Public Functionary" (p. 4), was pro-slavery and erroneously believed the best way to lead the nation was by decree, not compromise. The general and widespread failure of his administration, more than anything else, is proposed in the text as the root cause of the Civil War.

Biographical chapters include studies on Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, William Tecumseh Sherman, and John Brown. Each man is presented in a method befitting his legacy, and each is matched to the impending conflict. However, while the biographies on Lee and Sherman are instructive and fascinating, in 1858 they were essentially insignificant as national figures and this is felt in the text, as their biographies to 1858 are largely disconnected from other events. Davis, suffering from "herpes...
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