By Daniel Bonder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
Author’s note: The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable encourages members to submit book reviews. This assists members and those from other roundtables in choosing worthwhile reading from the thousands of books available on the Civil War. A while back, an anonymous member of the Cincinnati Civil War Roundtable wrote an interesting and informative review of the book A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman. It caught my attention, and I recently completed an enjoyable reading of this book. I feel that the best way to thank that member and the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is to write a book review as well.
Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War by Maury Klein was published in 1997. Its heavily footnoted 430 pages trace the run-up to the Civil War. The vast majority of the book focuses on the time period from Lincoln’s election through the fall of Fort Sumter. There are flashbacks to several important historical events that helped to set the stage for secession. These included the election of James Buchanan, whose inaction and lack of leadership in the face of the gathering storm left little room for any other outcome but war.
Numerous individuals, both significant and lesser known, are followed through those fateful six months. The author provides substantial detail regarding the actors’ lives, relationships, thoughts, and actions. These asides relating to the subject person’s background tend to take away from the flow of the historical events. However, if one wants to learn about their personalities, motivations, and internal conflicts, the author provides much of that type of information.
Fort Sumter, of course, is a central topic. After completing the book, one will understand the difficult decisions relating to how this became a major thorn in the side of the South and was a critical factor in the increasing animosity between North and South. We see the struggle of conscience of some and the steadfastness of others, no matter what the possible consequences.
Another insightful thread is the inter-relationships of politicians. Many had known each other for years. There were also army officers who had attended West Point together, served in the army together, and fought together during the Mexican War. Whose side they would support was worrisome for leaders both North and South. The beginning of turning brother against brother becomes a little better understood. More exploration of this most painful aspect of the Civil War would have been helpful.
Overall, if one is interested in understanding these important few months and getting to better know the people involved, then this text generally fills that role. Just be prepared to learn about the details of their lives that may not be particularly noteworthy nor enlightening.
From the publisher: In November 1860, telegraph lines carried the news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. Over the next five months the United States drifted, stumbled, and finally plunged into the most destructive war this country has ever faced. With a masterful eye for telling detail, Maury Klein provides fascinating new insights into the period from the election of Abraham Lincoln to the shelling of Fort Sumter.
Klein brings the key players in the tragedy unforgettably to life: from the vacillating lame-duck President Buchanan to the taciturn, elusive, and relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln; from Secretary of State Seward carrying on his own private negotiations with the South to Major Robert Anderson sitting in his island fortress awaiting reinforcements. Never has this immensely significant moment in our national story been so intelligently or so spellbindingly related.
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