1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love history but it is rare, even for me, to pick up a historical tome and not be able to put it down.
This is one such tome.
Goodheart takes nine seemingly trivial situations/happenings/ideas from the year 1861 and weaves them into a tapestry of such strength and conviction that the reader is rather gobstopped that the authors of the various and sundry other books she's read on the topic of the American Civil War did not expound or, even mention, these subjects.
Goodheart starts with Fort Sumter but presents it as a prologue; it's not the story. It's really going to be a culmination of one story and the impetus of another. And for a third it will only be a minor detail. And so on.
But on to the real story; the story of how the Union was willing to tolerate slavery to save the Union. How Lincoln would have happily continued to abide by that compromise had events allowed him to. How Garfield, who would become a president so reviled for his civil rights fervor that he would be shot because of it, started out as a professor and preacher who was ambivalent about freeing the slaves. This I'd heard about before. But Elmer Ellsworth? The Zouaves? Jesse Benton Fremont? The telegraph and how it affected the war? Thomas Starr King? The uprisings in St. Louis and the German heroes? Benjamin Franklin Butler setting the ball rolling towards emancipation by employing a legal loophole that most thought laughable? Fort Monroe and contraband? Lincoln's 1861 July 4th address to congress? If I'd heard of them, I'd forgotten them. And Goodheart makes them unforgettable. Indeed, he makes them sea changes in a year that determined how we'd wage war and how we'd wage peace.
Goodheart is a travel writer and writes a Civil War blog, so his prose is engaging. Certainly, there are probably some staid historians out there who would frown at his parenthetical references and his periodic exclamation points and his inside jokes. For this reader, however, the style made the subjects inherently interesting. Goodheart paints a picture. And he doesn't hit you over the head with footnotes (though the book is highly researched and referenced).
Goodheart makes the most remarkable connections throughout the book; take 1861 comet, for example. In riffing on the effect of the astronomical occurrence on the course of human history, Goodheart writes,
"So much had changed in the past few years - even the past few months. Fixed truths seemed to be casting themselves adrift; familiar stars departing from their orbits. Revolution, in the sense that astronomers at Washington's Naval Observatory used the term, meant something stately and predictable, an orbit tethered by the gravity of the sun. Elsewhere in the capital city, of course, the word meant something quite different; elsewhere in the nation, different things still. Until recently, America's own revolution had come to seem like a fact moored safely to the ever-more-distant year 1776. That was now no longer the case. It blazed again across the sky, a thing of wonder and terror, still uncertain in its import."
And Lincoln, who has the reputation of brilliance because he jotted the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope? Well, he took three months to draft a message to congress in 1861. He wrote. He rewrote. He pondered. He tested his message. And after those three months, he emerged, no longer a railsplitter on the rail but a man decided and firm about the steps he needed to take to assure the fate of the nation. Goodheart writes,
"Although he might not have scribbled his 1863 address on the back of an envelope, as legend would have it, it should be no surprise that he wrote it fairly quickly. Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861. The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry. When people like Emerson had criticized Lincoln for spending so long toiling over the Independence Day message, they did not understand that the president, in doing so, had in a very real sense been fighting the war. Through his lonely Emersonian struggle, all those torturous hours alone with his thoughts and his half-filled pages, he had been arming himself for the terrible conflict ahead. Again and again over the next four years, those who knew Lincoln would express their amazement at his lack of self-doubt, his tenacity in staying the course-so different from the early weeks of his presidency. But once he had written his address to Congress, Lincoln never again needed to ask himself whether he should be fighting or what he was fighting for. With these large questions settled, the smaller ones of how to fight often answered themselves. The proper resolution of the Sumter crisis, which had tortured Lincoln in March and early April, seemed almost obvious in retrospect. Reasoning backward from the principles he articulated on July Fourth, he could not possibly have behaved any differently. Reasoning forward, much of his course ahead was clear."
The whole book is full of a-ha moments arising from facts and situations forgotten by large scale tellings of history.
And reading it in an election year, when the country seems just as polarized as it was then, was an exercise in "the more things change, the more they stay the same." I wish the lesson of history - those who do not learn it are doomed to repeat it - held more sway with our current leaders and politicians. For them, I close with Goodheart's words about the sudden sense of purpose of the Union after Fort Sumter;
"The attack on Sumter forced Americans everywhere to pick sides; to stand either with the flag or against it ... Northerners chose to stand with it. And that expression of national unity, in turn, became the strongest possible argument for the Union itself: for the idea that the flag could shelter beneath its folds Americans of many opinions and temperaments, and that disagreement need not mean disunion. The pure wordless symbol of a piece of cloth could represent both the deepest traditions of American radicalism and those of American conservatism."
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