A Radical Reappraisal: Fergus Bordewich’s Congress at War

Bordewich, Fergus M. Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

It is a rare thing these days for me to see a book on the American Civil War that offers a truly unique historical angle. The Civil War is by far the most explored era of American history, and books abound on the war’s innumerable theaters, players, and consequences. When Heather got me Congress at War for my birthday in March 2020, I was intrigued, but not overly so. As I began reading, however, my interest deepened like it seldom has when cracking open a book on any era of history in the last few years. Bordewich’s work was a re-centering of the Civil War narrative everyone knows; instead of battlefields, generals, or the master political operator in the White House, Congress at War focused on the heroes of Congress, both Senate and House, and the actions and legislation they pursued to fight that most bloody of American conflicts. My view of the American Civil War will never be the same again.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Congress at War is Bordewich’s contextualization of the American Civil War in the society and mores of its own time. Due to its extreme popularity among Americans—academic or otherwise—and its tempting proximity to the twentieth century, some of the unique problems of the mid-nineteenth century are often elided when talking about the war. It is taken for granted by modern audiences that President Lincoln would lead the war effort (in fact, Congress was seen as the seat of legitimate government authority) and that waging the war was a matter of will, patriotism, and generating support for abolition. Bordewich instead discusses the state of the nation’s finances at length, demonstrating how difficult it was to stabilize the country’s economy while raising money in a country that had heretofore only collected revenue through tariffs. This task, and many others, lay within the purview of legislative, not executive, power, and the new Republican leaders of Congress rose to their challenge in a way no less remarkable than that of their contemporary chief executive.

Indeed, perhaps the only weakness (though I rather think it a strength) of Congress at War is that it really only tells the story of one side, namely, its titular legislative body. Those who admire Abraham Lincoln as a consummate statesman and champion of human rights are in for a rude shock within Bordewich’s pages. From the standpoint of such Radical Republicans as Ben Wade of Ohio and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and even some moderates like William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, Lincoln appeared a hesitant, conciliatory man, unable to make any of his now-famous political moves without Congress first attempting to make them multiple times over his objections. I’m rather of the opinion that Lincoln’s side of this whole story has been told quite enough, but even still, there are moments when more deference should be paid to Lincoln’s sense of timing than to Wade or Stevens’ sense of moral outrage.

Congress at War ends with the nearly-successful impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, and while some may wish for this narrative to extend into the Reconstruction Congress, it seems fitting that Bordewich closes his narrative with the deaths of so many of the War Congress’s main figures at the close of the decade. While even casual students of the American Civil War may not find much new information within its pages, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is past time the superhuman efforts of those visionary legislators who steered the nation through its worst time of trial receive their due place beside the generals and presidents of American history, and any book that brings more exposure to them gains my whole-hearted recommendation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.