Book Review: 1858 – Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See by Bruce Chadwick

The review at Blogcritics is here.

1858 was a critical year in American history, though most people don’t realize it.  At least that’s what Bruce Chadwick thinks, and he’s written this book to show why.  It’s pretty convincing, actually, though it’s not hard to imagine that something as far-reaching as the American Civil War had roots farther back in American history than the election of Abe Lincoln or the firing on Fort Sumpter.  Chadwick’s choice of the year 1858 is interesting, though.  It seems he’s picked that year to highlight what he sees as the inefficiencies (and sometimes self-serving attitudes) of the Buchanan administration.  I was surprised that Buchanan wasn’t mentioned in the subtitle; a lot of the individual biographies that Chadwick writes are simply histories of someone’s interaction with Buchanan.

I mention some inaccuracies in the article at Blogcritics, so I won’t rehash that here.  The biggest problem I have with the book is that it tries to be two things at once — a popular history and a multiple-subject biography — and fails to do a good job at either.  Too much backstory is missing, or glossed over, in the biographies.  Too much is happening “behind the curtain” – away from the spotlight that Chadwick shines on specific events.  People who don’t know a lot about this era are going to finish the book missing some details, and people who do know the era well are going to be puzzled by what Chadwick doesn’t talk about.


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