The 37th and 38th Congresses, who served from 1861 until 1865, were among the most important in American history. They passed legislation that kept the nation together during the Civil War, but they also broke ground on other extraordinary measures—such as Western homesteading, land-grant colleges and the Transcontinental Railroad, which transformed the U.S. socially and economically. In his compelling and vivid Congress at War, Fergus M. Bordewich delves deep into the difficult day-to-day politics that drove these achievements.
In focus are four key members of Congress. Three were Republicans: Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Ben Wade of Ohio, both called Radicals, and Senator William Fessenden of Maine, who was more cautious. The fourth was Clement Vallandigham, a Democrat from Ohio with Southern sympathies.
Stevens, as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, dealt with the daily expenses of the military, as well as critical war measures. Fessenden’s greatest contribution to the Union victory was his leadership of the Senate Finance Committee, where he raised the money to sustain the war through crisis after crisis. What’s more, his vote to acquit Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial may have decisively changed the course of history. Vallandigham was one of the great dissenters in our history, while Wade ably and effectively chaired the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Many congressmen insisted that they had the power to shape the course of the war. Some were even ahead of President Lincoln in such matters as the emancipation of slaves, enacting an incremental series of laws that helped abolitionism become public policy. One of their boldest and most controversial actions was the establishment of the aforementioned Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which, over four years, investigated almost every aspect of the war and pressured the president to move more decisively against slavery and to take more aggressive military action.
This recounting of a pivotal time in our history is superb and deserves a wide readership.