1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War they Failed to See by Bruce Chadwick.
Horrible title. Grant barely makes an appearance in this book, Sherman has more of a presence. But I liked the book. The book is separated into 7 stories highlighting important characters of 1858, with the happenings at the White House interspersed. Those other seven stories cover Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, William H. Seward, John Brown, the Oberlin Slave Rescue and the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
I think most books should strive to educate and to make you think. This book fits both of these criteria. There was some stuff I knew but in particular for me this book illuminated the role of Buchanan in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign.
Some of the reviews I've read online have been less than complimentary, often nitpicking on how terrible the title was and focusing more on the cover than on the substance. I do not think this book is the definitive tome on the prelude to the war, that honor belongs to William W. Freehling's The Road to Disunion (its actually two volumes for the whole history). But this book is a good book on 1858 and is an easier read than Freehling. I love Freehling's books but they seem to be so in depth that it isn't until the second or third reading that I really get a firm grasp of the subject matter. Chadwick has provided a much easier read to explain the important events of 1858, a year when a lot of the stage was set for the Civil War that was coming three years later.
I also agree with Chadwick that 1858 became the year that slavery was the principal political issue. All other questions and issues were shaped by the slavery debate. Sure slavery had been a big issue for many years prior but by 1858 there is no turning the tide, slavery has become the principal issue.