Normally, this is a book that I would pass up on the history shelf; me, an avid non-fiction reader and Civil War history buff. Why? Usually, books on the "years" of the Civil War are merely recountings of the events, maybe with an unique fact thrown in here and there, but nothing really new. How many times do I have to read about Lincoln's agony of whether or not to defend Ft. Sumter? However, after reading an insightful review in the "New York Times Book Review", this book found itself in my hands, and after reading it, it's become one of my new favorites. "1861: The Civil War Awakening" by Adam Goodheart is destined to become an often read introduction to this terrible, turbulent time.
What drew me in was the prologue. How often had I read about Maj. Robert Anderson's brave defense of the fort from Confederate shelling, and how he gave in honorably. What I didn't know what that Anderson originally was chosen to defend in Fort Moultrie. When South Carolina voted to secede, his small but valiant group of men (including a brass band!) constantly pressured him to move to Sumter, which was more easily defended from attack than the "park-like" Moultrie. Anderson wanted to go, but felt compelled to follow his orders. It wasn't until a telegram arrived that asked him to defend the "forts" (note the plural S) that he felt finally like he had permission to move. So he did, sneaking over to Sumter, all because of the letter S. The rest is history.
In fact, that is what Adam Goodheart truly understands; that history is all about story; the story of a person or of people. Much gets lost in the endless recitation of battle facts and ennui, which is important to remember, but there is so much more. It's the stories that drive the war. By focusing on different people through the book, from Ralph Farnham, who fought in the Revolution and lived long enough to cast a vote for "The Rail-Splitter", to the Wide Awakes, to the Abolitionists, to San Francisco, the book paints a great picture of the country at the time of war. To understand the conflict, attests Goodheart, you must understand the country and the people who lived in it, to understand the vast array of reactions to the onset of Civil War. It reminds me a bit of NPR American Chronicles: The Civil War, which also tells many, many stories.
This is a treasured book. In what will be a vast avalanche of Civil War books coming out over the next four years, this is a great opening salvo, filled with insights to people we all know too well and to people we don't know at all.
With the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War I wanted to add a series of books to my reading list to compliment this fact. To be honest with you, I was only somewhat excited about this literary endeavor, having already read a multitude of books on the Civil War over the years - including the Shelby Foote trilogy, Shaara's "The Killer Angels", and too many more to list here. I really didn't want to simply rehash the many famous battles that took place during this great conflict unless some new and intriguing data could be added. With that in mind, I struck out on Adam Goodheart's "1861". While I plan on reading a few books over the sesquicentennial, I am very glad I started with this book.
Bottom line: this book offered me a take on the Civil War that was entirely new and interesting to me. Goodheart started with a research question: How does a nation of real people go from a relatively peaceful state to a willingness to engage in bloody civil war in just a short matter of time? What changed within the minds of individuals, never mind the political and military figures, that allowed for this to happen? It is a question worth asking when you consider the price that was paid and the sacrifice required to bring the war to an end over the course of four years. The answer to this question offers guidance for us to this day.
To answer the research question, Goodheart chose to look at the lives of several individuals, who, at least in my case, were relatively new case studies to the American Civil War. The timeframe essentially takes place from the Presidential election of 1860 through First Manassas. He looked closely at the lives of figures associated with key milestones, such as Major Anderson at the Siege of Fort Sumter and Nathaniel Lyons securing the federal armory in St. Louis. But, I think more importantly, he looked at the lives of some lesser know but still key figures in drawing the nation into a willingness to enter civil war. A sampling of this includes James A. Garfield, the final living participant in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Franklin Butler, and many more. The one character he uses to carry the book through from start to finish is that of Elmer Ellsworth - a showman, friend of Lincoln, and former of the first Zouave union army unit to see combat. In that final role, Ellsworth was also killed removing a confederate flag from a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Goodheart tells this story, as he successfully does with many others, to progress the understanding of how the nation moved so quickly into civil war. Goodheart noted that while Fort Sumter was a rallying cry to war for the north, the death of the famed Ellsworth is what pushed many over the edge in their desire to engage with the confederacy.
Perhaps the best part of 1861 though is its case for war against slavery. Goodheart does an amazing job of tearing down the myths of the Civil War as it relates to slavery. He accurately portrays the feeling of many in the north and south at the time regarding their views of slavery, pro or con, or somewhere in between - which is in fact where many stood, including in the north. The true abolitionists of the day were viewed as radical, and were few in number. That said, most had serious doubts about slavery as an institution, which Goodheart went to great lengths to describe. While the Civil War for many was about state's rights versus federal, for many others, slavery was from the beginning the only issue worth discussing. In studying the history of the Civil War we seem to fluctuate greatly between the causes of the conflict, at times downplaying the role of slavery, at times increasing it. Goodheart, I believe, strikes a true path of understanding, by studying the lives of many, and their varying beliefs on the subject. With this line of understanding, it becomes obvious why emancipation was soon to follow, despite what many originally stated as their willingness to go to war.
On the whole, this was a refreshing, novel, and highly informing read for me on the topic of the Civil War. For others who wish to read about the subject, and are already very familiar with various battles, I highly recommend this book. It will offer new insight.
on April 5, 2011
For any followers of the NYTimes' "DISUNION" blog [...] we've been looking forward to this book's release for a long time.
150 years later and the Civil War is as relevant and interesting as ever, and Goodheart focuses this book around that first year, 1861, and how the Civil War REALLY came about.
In this beautifully packaged (deckled/uneven pages!) book, Goodheart spins a well crafted and accurate non-fiction narrative of the story of the start of our country's divide and brings our troubled political past alive in a story that reads unlike any other history book I've read.
It's the rare entry point to the Civil War that can delight any Civil War buff who thinks he knows everything already as well as captivate and interest the vaguely curious and cautious non-historian.
on May 9, 2011
The author uses personal histories of famous and peripheral historical figures to create a slice of life account of the nation in 1861. He creates a broader context for the main historical events of that year by explaining the spiritual, political and philosophical movements of the time. He also describes incidents in which one person's choices or actions had broad consequences concerning the outcome of the war. He weaves all of these elements together seamlessly into an very readable account.
on April 18, 2011
Goodheart's portrait of key Americans at the opening of the Civil War has all the electric energy of Augustus Saint-Gauden's memorial to Robert Shaw and the famous Massachusetts African-American regiment. Like the sculptor, Goodheart breaths life into a remarkable number of finely drawn portraits, all in order to convey a collective movement, the stakes of which are evident on every face.
I grew up in the 1960s in what had been a border state, and 1861 sheds plenty of light beyond its one year to illuminate my own experience -- explaining, for instance, why my nonagenarian friend across the street still cherished a daguerreotype of Elmer Ellsworth and how that same Ellsworth was connected to Mose, the mythic fireman on my grandfather's slightly racy theater poster. It also casts a contemporary light on attitudes toward the Civil War that were still, in my childhood, remarkably entrenched.
Goodheart propels his narrative with speed and wit. This is a lively and enlightening read.
As a retired PhD in history, I can assure prospective readers that this is a superbly written, well-researched and thoroughly documented book. The author assumes that the reader has at least the basic knowledge of American History that we all should have; and concentrates on the private motives and inter-personal relationships that lay behind the scenes. While reading the book, you feel as if you are there; dodging the chestnut colored tobacco juice as it makes its way towards the floor. As you might guess, this book is atmospheric; without the true feel for the period you really cannot understand the beliefs, values and motives of the actors. I am looking forward to more works from the author.
My only complaint is that I feel the author is too kind to "Grandma Buchanan". Being inept may not ordinarily be a crime for the average person, but when you are the leader of a country during a crisis it surely is.
on May 29, 2011
According to an afternote in this splendid history by Adam Goodheart "the total number of books published on the Civil War since 1861 roughly equals the total number of soldiers - both Union and Confederate - who fought the First Battle of Bull Run." Goodheart goes on to suggest that if you are only going to read one of the many, that it be James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." It is, he writes, "the best one-volume history of the conflict ever written." If you are new to the Civil War, start with McPherson, then read Goodheart. If you have already read McPherson go directly to Goodheart. You won't be sorry.
Page after page, Goodheart explores the stance of ordinary Americans, north and south, toward the war as the storm gathered. Then he follows them into the conflict through Lincoln's 1861 Independence Day speech, the event that marked the President's ascendancy to full command of the battle to preserve the Union. Listen as the Reverend Thomas Starr King, a previously little known, but important, player in the effort to keep California in the Union, exclaim "What a year to live in! Worth all the other times ever known in our history or in any other." That was because, as Goodheart demonstrates, the revolutionary fervor that stoked the American Revolution and first brought the country to nationhood, reasserted itself in breathtaking fashion in 1861. That came about because the Confederate forces fired the first shot, an ill-considered strategic blunder which united the north against the insurrection and heralded its ultimate victory.
The reaction to the attack on Fort Sumter released the pent up northern hostility to the slave-based southern economy and that region's insistence on making it virtually universal, a result that was anathema to the north. The American flag which, until then, rarely appeared on public buildings and private homes, suddenly was flying wherever there were people to raise it, children to wave it. It was this reaction that so moved Rev. King. He understood that his was a nation coming to terms with its future, its promise to the world, and he became part and parcel of what made it happen.
Goodheart's contribution to the history of the great American war is to locate it in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. He documents the enormous moral energy and capacity for sacrifice that characterized the people of the north. Insight follows insight. Missouri remained in the union because of the strongly held views of the substantial German population in St. Louis which wanted nothing to do with slavery. Southern blacks, with emancipation in the air, defected to the north in growing numbers, a migration that weakened the south as it strengthened the north.
Goodheart's work is thoroughly documented (there are 59 pages of notes listing his sources) with keynote illustrations along the way. Written in clear, concise prose, it marks a welcome turn away from the war on the battlefield to the war on the home front.
End note. The most read critical Amazon review of "1861"was posted by a reader who allows that he only read the first 200 pages of the book, enough, apparently to justify his conclusion that the book is nothing special. My guess is that he is a battlefield history buff and so found Goodheart's approach lacking. I hope he will give it another chance. The outcome of the war turned, ultimately, on the enduring support Lincoln received for seeing the war through to the Confederacy's unconditional surrender. That basis for that support is what Goodheart's book contributes to our understanding of the Civil War. It is exemplary if not unique in that respect and every bit as worthy of high regard as any Civil War history with the possible exception of "The Battle Cry of Freedom."
on May 1, 2011
Adam Goodheart writes a column on the American Civil War for "The New York Times" and is associated with Washington University. His "1861" is a detailed panoramic view of America on the brink of Civil War. The book will fascinate both Civil War buffs as well as general readers. If you read one book on the Civil War in this 150th anniversary of its beginning then this is the one I recommend you choose!
The story begins at Fort Sumter where Major Robert Anderson is forced to surrender to Confederate forces in April, 1861. This triggers the war's beginning. Goodheart spends many pages telling the thrilling story of the fall of Sumter. We sit in meetings with Lincoln and his Cabinet as they wrestle with what to do with the Sumter fort. Lincoln's decision to strike back against the Confederates help to unite the frayed north and lead to a war in which over 6000,000 soldiers died.
The book travels to California where we meet Jessie Fremont and her friend Henry Starr King fighting to keep the Golden State loyal to the Union. In St. Louis we see how General Nathaniel Lyons and politician Frank Blair worked to keep Missouri in the Federal fold. In Ohio we meet the young James A. Garfield who is a preacher, professor, politician and eventually a soldier in the war. Both abolitionists and firebrand secessionists in Congress get their pages and quotations in this tome. We spend many pages learning about the plight of slaves who yearn to be free. An exciting section deals with Benjamin Butler the commander at Fortress Monroe who receives the slaves as "contrabands. Many of these slaves later took up arms for the Union cause. We see Lincoln calling the US Congress into emergency session on July 4, 1861 as he moved closer to a belief in freeing the slaves later enunciated in the Emancipation Proclamation.
Goodhart's book is eloquently written, illustrated and extremely well researched. The book is filled with quotes from actors in the drama of 1861. He also provides a fine biblography and extensive footnotes. This book is a monumental achievement of Clio's art. It is a book anyone interested in the long struggle for racial justice and the cause of human liberty should add to their reading list. Excellent and highly recommended. Bravo!
on April 27, 2011
My opinion of the book grew more favorable as it went along. I should note I have read a lot of books about this period but the first 100 pages were dull and seemed to be simply re-tellings of material I had read elsewhere. About the only thing I found interesting in those first 100 pages was the brief exposition of the significance of notions of "honor" and "manhood" in determining the actions and political positions on the question of secession of leaders, not just in the South, as has been well developed, but also in the North, including Presdient Lincoln. However, as the book went along, the stories had more impact and a theme to them emerged more clearly.
The title of the book, a simple reference to a calendar year, is not merely descriptive of the contents of the book and is in some ways not even fully accurate. The book does not track the calendar, beginning in January 1 and ending on December 31 and telling you what happened in between. The title "1861" is meant to be analogous to "1776", another transformative year in American history and in the meaning of America to its citizens and to posterity, and the title of books (David McCullough's) and musicals etc. That theme slowly emerges and is one of the best things about the book.
The book really only covers the first seven or eight months of the year and as others have noted, dwells principally on the North and West, focusing little on the South per se (as opposed to the South in relation to the North). Nor does it purport to be comprehensive, but rather is a series of several vignettes, sketches, episodes, personages etc., the selection of which is designed to convey the themes of the book, namely, that (1) at the start of the year, there was a considerable consensus, including the new President himself, in favor of accommodating slavery to preserve the union, to the point that a Constitutional amendment putting it forever off limits passed both houses of Congress by the requisite 2/3 margin and Lincoln affirmed that consensus in his inaugural address; (2) the South considerably overplayed its hand, particularly at Sumter, offended the elite of the North and West in so doing, and provoked a visceral counter-reaction that (3) bound the theretofore accommodative citizenry of the North and West more tightly to the ideals of America, and against the South; (4) searching for additional moral justification for the feeling of outrage, the Union's elite naturally landed on the topic of slavery and thus (5) in the course of the year, the moral nature of being a citizen in the Union shifted fundamentally and irrevocably. For that reason 1861 is as transformative as 1776, the author convinces, but subtly and not in a didactic manner.
The last 100 pages, dealing with the death of Colonel Ellsworth, the decision of Colonel Butler to accept escaping slaves as "contraband" and President Lincoln's July 4 speech to the nation, are exceedingly well written and quite memorable.
on September 14, 2011
Not like other Civil War history books which mainly tell how the war unfolded and the major events of it, Goodheart focuses on lesser known heroes and events of the Civil War, such as how a band of German immigrants contributed in ensuring that the border state of Missouri stayed part of the Union. This book tries to show through various stories of extraordinary people and events woven together the changing social and political atmosphere in the North as the war drew closer and closer. This book isn't a substitute for a more general history of the Civil War, but it's a great addition for people who are interested in reading about events and people that most Civil War history books overlooked.