I suppose I am not being fair to this book from the start. One of my favorite books on the years coming up to the Civil War is titled 1857 by Kenneth Stampp. In it he marks out a year where the tide turned from slavery as a periodic crisis to a continual slide to war. The lines were hardened, the Democratic Party shattered, and secession was only a matter of time.
This book succeeds in giving you a view into the period very well by following several men of the time – some like Lee, Sherman were just men getting by, others like Lincoln, Douglas, and Seward were politicians. And some, like the Oberlin Rescuers who were tried for freeing slaves in Ohio arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, would not be prominent later at all. It is weakest at forming a coherent narrative of the year, which is the part I missed. Partly that is the way the book was designed, but the weakness of the ‘plot line’ makes some of the chapters seem out-of-place. The military fellows seem surplus in a world paced by politics, and they have little to act on unlike, say, Lincoln or even Seward. Lee is home trying to settle his father-in-law’s will.
Another odd choice was the lack of pretty much any Southern views. The only Southerners are Lee and Davis and they are finished by chapter 2. Buchanan is a northerner, and he is the only Democrat left. Pairing a Southern ‘citizen mood’ incident against the Oberlin raid. The mood of the Southern politicians is hardly touched on – even the Davis chapter is about how he was attacked for being too attached to the North, due to a vacation in Maine.
The strongest arc is probably the Buchanan – Douglas – Lincoln – Seward group, including the famous debates. It is a large part of the book, perhaps half of the total. That, and the chapter on Oberlin make this a pretty good book. To me, the addition of the soldiers misfires, and a more exploration of the Southern view is missed.