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The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents And The Civil War That Divided Them Hardcover – June 17, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


At the time of Abraham Lincoln's election to president, five former presidents were still alive-an unprecedented and never-again achieved number. DeRose provides a fresh look at the politics of the Civil War by focusing on the interactions between the eloquent and passionate Illinoisan and predecessors John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore. He reveals the former presidents' opposition to Lincoln's presidency and many of his now-historic positions, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, and their constant fight against Lincoln's administration. Derose sets this thorough and fascinating history in a well-developed and rich foundation of the presidencies and politics leading up to Lincoln's two terms, and he concludes by pointing out the way Lincoln changed the presidency as his predecessors had feared: into a 'dynamic' and 'powerful force for principle,' which was for Lincoln the principle of freedom for all men. . . .[T]his book is a well-written, thorough, and engaging look into a unique political situation in American history. (Publishers Weekly)

It is a masterful analysis. . . .The Presidents' War is well written and well researched. It addressed an interesting component of the Civil War that is sure to enlighten and entertain anyone interested in the war, politics or the presidency. (Civil War News)

“A history of the Civil War as told through the six American presidents that experienced it firsthand…. While discussing Jackson and Lincoln, DeRose smartly focuses his attention on a few of the lesser-known, but not less valuable presidents. The author’s narrative . . .  reveals eye-opening facts that are otherwise overlooked—e.g., John Tyler was the only president to die an enemy of his country…. [A]n informative compendium of the political struggles leading to the Civil War.”
          Kirkus Reviews

“When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, five former presidents were still alive—a fact unique in American history. In this discerning book, Chris DeRose shows that all of them had opposed Lincoln’s election, none supported his determination to resupply Fort Sumter, John Tyler became a Confederate and Franklin Pierce a Copperhead, Martin Van Buren’s and James Buchanan’s support for the Union war effort was lukewarm, and the three men still alive in 1864 (including Millard Fillmore) opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s re-election. In effect, Lincoln presided over the preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery without the support of his predecessors in the presidency.”
          —James M. McPherson, Civil War historian, multi-volume author, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“No American president ever came to office facing a graver crisis--or a larger group of unpredictable predecessors--than Abraham Lincoln. There have been thousands of books about Lincoln and the Civil War, but this is the first to explore these subjects through the ongoing stories of the ex-presidents who remained active, influential, and occasionally treacherous as the Union sought to save itself. Chris DeRose is to be congratulated for finding an entirely new way to revisit the Civil War.”
          —Harold Holzer, chairman, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

“When Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House in March 1861, he had five former occupants looking over his shoulder. No president ever had more. And what a motley crew they were…. While the Civil War is familiar ground to most readers, the story of how the living former presidents met the challenge — or didn’t — is a fresh and fascinating take.”
          —Roll Call

The Presidents’ War sheds new light on a forgotten aspect of America’s national tragedy, chronicling a neglected but highly significant array of chief executives.”
          —David Pietrusza, historian and award-wining author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents
“As Abraham Lincoln struggled to save the union during his presidency, his predecessors looked on with a skeptical and sometimes critical eye. They, too, had addressed the issues of slavery, sectional stresses, and national unity. Their solutions had not stood the test of time, yet they had little empathy for their successor. In a gripping, lively narrative informed by current scholarship, Chris DeRose tells the story of how former presidents Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Milliard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan judged Lincoln and the war they had failed to prevent.”
          —Brooks D. Simpson, Professor of History at Arizona State University and award-winning author of Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865
“If you think there is nothing new to say about the American Civil War, Chris DeRose, one of the most imaginative scholars of the period, will surprise you with this fresh look through the eyes, deeds, and words of the six American presidents living at the time shots were fired upon Fort Sumter. Exhaustively researched, elegantly written, DeRose’s book offers discerning insights into the contributions and foibles of presidents you may have thought were familiar, but who in DeRose’s skilled hands you discover you hardly knew. Superb history and a must-have addition to anyone’s Civil War library!”
          —Scott Farris, author of Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation and Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure

About the Author

Chris DeRose is the author of the highly acclaimed Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President and Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election that Saved a Nation. DeRose is an assistant professor of law at Arizona Summit Law School and political strategist who for the past seventeen years has served in nearly every capacity on campaigns up and down the ballot in five different states. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Visit him at or @chrisderose on Twitter.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Lyons Press; 1 edition (June 17, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0762796642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0762796649
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Chris DeRose is a New York Times bestselling and award-winning author and American historian.

His works include "The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them" (Rowman & Littlefield/Lyons Press 2014), "Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America's Greatest President" (Simon & Schuster/Threshold 2013) and "Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election That Saved a Nation" (Regnery History 2011). DeRose is also the author of "Clash of Titans," the cover story for the official magazine of "The History Channel," in support of their "Men Who Built America Series," as well as "Lincoln's Other War," a Sunday Washington Post lead op-ed.

DeRose's writing on American political history is firmly grounded in his 20 years of electoral experience across five different states. He has always been struck by how politics-and people-have remained the same over time.

DeRose currently serves as a Special Assistant Attorney General, litigating complex and Constitutional cases, prosecuting serious crimes on appeal, and enforcing public corruption laws. He was formerly a law professor, teaching Constitutional Law, Election Law, and International Law, among other classes. He was named "Professor of the Year" by students for the 2014-2015 school year.

DeRose has been highlighted in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, Christian Science Monitor, Human Events, and four installments of C-SPAN "BookTV."

DeRose is a featured speaker at venues throughout the United States, having recently addressed members of Congress at the U.S. Capitol and spoken to a capacity crowd in New York's Bryant Park. He serves as Chairman of the Board of Scholarly Advisors for President Lincoln's Cottage, the first presidential retreat. A native of Chicago, DeRose lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Disclosure: I am the author of the Expatriation of Franklin Pierce, which is referenced in this book several times.

Chris DeRose has taken on a project that might have proved daunting in less skilled hands: the response of five ex-U.S. presidents to the Civil War, and their complicated relationships with one another as well as the sixth president who was in charge of that war, Abraham Lincoln.

This means that DeRose essentially has six separate stories to tell as well as a seventh: the events that led up to the war and the war itself. And somehow he manages this feat well, moving the narrative along in a way that never gets bogged down, providing crisp and clear portraits of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, of course, Lincoln.

Readers who have become accustomed to the idea that the presidents between Jackson and Lincoln encompass one endless series of boring failures, be warned: DeRose documents that the presidents from this era who were still alive by the time of Lincoln's inaugural were intelligent, strong-willed men with decided points of view, policy goals and political skills. Whether any of them could have handled the complexities of secession and the Civil War as well as Lincoln did is highly debatable, yet it can't be denied that four of the five ex-presidents (Tyler, a Virginian, threw in with the secessionists after exhausting all other options), wanted to see the Union preserved, and three (Van Buren, Fillmore and Pierce) found slavery morally repugnant.

To some degree this book reminds me of Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy's highly popular 2013 book, the President's Club, which documents the special relationship enjoyed between current and ex-presidents.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Rob Peck on June 19, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This is easily the best work of history I have read in some time. "The Presidents' War" tells the story of the five former Presidents of the United States that lived to see America plunged into civil war. Often maligned or ignored, these men were intimately involved in efforts to avert the War at its start. In the years following, some rallied their countrymen and one - John Tyler - became a traitor to the country he once led. What most accounts of the antebellum presidents miss is that these men were actually fascinating, if disappointing in different ways. Rather than an analysis of policies or appointments or a dry recitation of the less interesting facts of their lives, DeRose writes with a storyteller's eye, sharing anecdotes which would interest anyone.

The narrative is excellent; the pacing is perfect; the selection of vignettes and command of facts is unmatched. It amply deserves five stars.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Rule 62 Ken on July 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Author Chris DeRose provides an exceptional history and analysis of the Civil War and of the transition that the United States experienced from it. He has done so from a unique perspective, that of President Abraham Lincoln and the five former occupants of the oval office who were still living when the war began. DeRose tackles a subject that has been written about numerous times before, and succeeds in providing a refreshing, insightful and brilliant post mortem of the most grave conflict in the nation's history and in the process produces what will likely be the best work of history in 2014.

DeRose begins his narrative by taking the reader back to the presidency of Andrew Jackson and his confrontation with the "nullifiers", southerners who believed that individual states could nullify federal laws within their borders. Through subsequent presidencies from Martin Van Buren to James Buchanan, he traces the roots of the coming conflict between northern and southern interests, especially in regard to the issue of slavery, culminating in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the attack on Fort Sumpter by South Carolinian secessionists.

When Lincoln becomes president, there are five living ex-presidents: Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Buchanan. All were opposed to Lincoln's election, and all advocated for compromise with southerners. Tyler, a Virginian, tried to convene a peace conference, and when it failed to reach a consensus on the issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories, he joined the Confederacy. Pierce was a "copperhead", a northerner opposed the war.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Thomas on September 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was really excited to read this book because of my fascination with the period leading up the Civil War as well as my interest in the relationships between the sitting President and prior Presidents. I hoped that this book would provide insight into a dynamic that is often not discussed in other treatments of the Civil War. The greatest strength of this book is found in presenting information that is to my knowledge not found in any other single source. It is that reason and that reason alone that I give this book 3 stars. As a lover or history I can typically work my way through any work, but I found this book to be particularly difficult to read. The shortness of the chapters made the entire flow of the book quite disjointed. I had a difficult time discerning a single thesis from the author about how the activities of the prior presidents impacted Lincoln's performance during the war. I was also disappointed that there were few dates and contextual references to provide adequate referencing in my own mind as I read. Their were also several mistakes within the book (such as referring to Van Buren's home as Lindenhurst in one place and Lindenwold in another).
If you are looking for a book that will provide specific information about the period leading up the Civil War and during the Civil War as it relates to presidential leadership, this book will prove adequate, but I would definitely recommend that a reader supplement their reading with additional sources for verification of material presented in this book.
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