Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War

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Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War * Douglas R. Egerton * New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010 * x, 402 pp. * $29.00

Walt Whitman inspired the title for this skillful survey of the tumultuous year that led inexorably to the Civil War, but to author Douglas Egerton fell the sole responsibility of injecting nuance and drama into a story most readers have heard before - and with increasing frequency during the recent run-up to the sesquicentennial. Facing this daunting task, Egerton manages to fill a gap where no gap had been unearthed, providing enough dramatic tension and narrative skill to propel what otherwise would have been a rehash into a gripping read.

As noted, other books have explored the intractable political schism of 1860 that left the Democratic Party hopelessly divided between southern and northern presidential candidates and the little-known nominee of the relatively new Republican Party in a position to seize the nation's highest office even with no support in the future Confederate states. Abraham Lincoln's trajectory to the White House has been amply parsed indeed; what Egerton provides is a rousing page-turner that unfolds like a good novel, even if the ending is never in doubt.

The book is especially strong on what has come to be known as political culture - recapturing the mood and energy of political gatherings from Charleston to Chicago and shedding new light on the people, famous and obscure alike, who made politics their highest priority amid social upheaval that threatened the life of the nation itself. The reader will come close to hearing, seeing, even smelling the conventions, meetings, parades, bonfires, and rallies that drew so many thousands of participants in the days when election campaigns combined fierce partisanship, the fervor of revival meetings, and a community-embracing excitement that approached entertainment and organized sports combined.

Egerton amplifies his own fine prose with well-selected source material throughout. …