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In The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them, author Chris DeRose has written 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. Van Buren and Fillmore supported the war effort, but were critical of many of Lincoln's decisions, while Buchanan was oblivious to how his dithering had inaction had accelerated the crisis. Throughout the war Lincoln faced opposition and criticism from all of these men to one degree or another, including of his restrictions on civil liberties, his Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately his re-election.

DeRose tells the story of how Lincoln adeptly maneuvered around all of the many formidable obstacles that he faced during the war and how he dealt with setbacks, reluctant commanders, and his critics, including his predecessors, to guide the nation through the bloody conflict. More importantly, he shows how the nation progressed from one which capitulated to the interests of the slave power into one whose consensus was for the abolition of slavery. He also shows how the former presidents were deaf to the message of the national will and relics of a past era that was no long relevant.

I had eagerly anticipated the release of this book and it did not disappoint. Great historians can take a subject like the civil war that has been written about countless times, and give the reader a wealth of new information and a fresh perspective. DeRose accomplishes this in spades. He has followed up his excellent previous books, Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe and the Election That Saved a Nation, and Congressman Lincoln with this, his best work yet, and in doing so he has earned a place in the top tier of history writers, in a class with H.W. Brands and Doris Kearns Goodwin. If U.S. history is what you enjoy, you will love this book. It is superb both in its detail and its analysis.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 6th, 2014 08:22 am (UTC)
This sounds so interesting. I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's 'Team of Rivals' a few months ago and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I've wanted to know more about the civil war since then....
Jul. 6th, 2014 10:27 pm (UTC)
You'd probably like this book. DeRose has a nice style, not too high-brow, not too simplistic, kind of like baby bear's porridge, just right. For example, he doesn't spend a lot of time over things like the details of Lincoln's assassination, he just assumes people know most of the circumstances.
Jul. 6th, 2014 12:16 pm (UTC)
That's wild. After all I've read about Carter and Clinton's post-presidency careers, I shouldn't be surprised that ex-presidents would still be active. But it is interesting how modern ex-presidents avoid undercutting new presidents. Makes me wonder how the tradition changed.
Jul. 6th, 2014 10:31 pm (UTC)
I think the tradition's always been there since Washington, it's just that some respect it more than others. For example, of these presidents, probably Fillmore kept his criticism private the best, while Pierce was probably the most vocal. It reminded me of when Bush43, Clinton and Jimmy Carter spoke at Coretta King's funeral. Clinton was respectful and just spoke about what a wonderful woman Mrs. King was, while Jimmy Carter used the occasion to criticize Bush for the Iraq War. I think it's just a lot harder for some to respect the tradition.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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