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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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