CONGRESS AT WAR by Fergus M. Bordewich
Kirkus Star


How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America
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Abraham Lincoln led the nation, but Congress actually directed the Civil War; this fine history describes how.

Veteran historian Bordewich (The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, 2016, etc.) writes that it was our elected legislators that raised an immense army, enacted the first draft, and pushed a reluctant Lincoln for “more aggressive generals, a harsher strategy against the South, and the recruitment of African Americans.” Congress financed the war and in the process created a national currency. Furthermore, “long before Lincoln became willing to contemplate the emancipation of slaves, members of Congress demanded it, enacting an incremental series of laws that turned abolitionism from a fringe belief into public policy.” Looking to the future, it passed the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act to build the transcontinental railroad, and the Land-Grant College Act, which created the state university system. A skilled storyteller, Bordewich builds his narrative around four congressmen. Perhaps his hero is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, who, almost unique for his time, considered blacks the equal of whites. The others are Sen. Ben Wade of Ohio; William Fessenden of Maine, a conservative who gradually became militant; and Rep. Clement Vallandigham, a Northern Democrat sympathetic to the South with offensive racial views but considerable public support. Despite the absence of Southern members, Congress was not a like-minded body, and Bordewich delivers a steady stream of colorful, bitter, sometimes-humorous stories of the abuse that lawmakers exchanged, much of which—unlike more recent debates—led to useful legislation. Lincoln biographers portray him as a shrewd statesman in touch with public opinion but harassed by radical lawmakers. Bordewich’s Congress is on the side of the angels. Unlike the cautious president, Congress began in 1861 to foreshadow emancipation and showed less tolerance for phlegmatic generals who feared its Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War far more than their commander in chief.

A riveting history of the Civil War that argues convincingly that Congress got it right.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-451-49444-3
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2019


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