GOODHEART: 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011)

Posted: 9/28/2011
Reviewed By: A. Wilson Greene

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 1400040155. $28.85.

Adam Goodheart’s much heralded 1861: The Civil War Awakening is an eloquent, innovative, and deeply researched collection of chapter-length vignettes that surveys a variety of events at the outset of our national bloodletting. Goodheart links his episodic narrative with a sharp perspective and an explicit agenda that follow the tradition of those scholars, acknowledged in the introduction to his bibliography, who have “correct[ed] past imbalances” (445). Ironically in so doing, Goodheart gives us a starkly imbalanced snapshot of his subject that will enthrall some readers and leave others frustrated.

No one can emerge from Goodheart’s work with anything less than admiration for his writing. Here, indeed, is history as literature. His descriptions of people and places are transformative. Whether it be likening John J. Crittenden’s visage to “a death’s-head on a slate gravestone” (67) or balancing the universally lamented face of Benjamin F. Butler—“of almost animal like stupidity”—with the admission that his eyes “glittered shrewdly, almost hidden amid crinkled folds of flesh, like dark little jewels in a nest of tissue paper” (299), Goodheart adds a third dimension to his dramatis personae like the pop-up cutouts in a children’s book. (Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the publisher opted to omit illustrations beyond generic images that introduce each chapter.)

Similarly, the author’s ability to place us in the locations where his stories unfold lends rare immediacy to his writing. Tidewater Virginia, for example, “a place freighted with the heavy past as anywhere in the still young country” was, in Goodheart’s prose “a place of Indian bones and deep-cellared manor houses and the armor of King James’s men rusting beneath the dark soil” (295). When chapters begin like this, readers draw closer to the fire, grip the bindings a bit more firmly, and settle in for a delicious journey into the past.

Goodheart almost proudly proclaims that his book “is not a Civil War saga of hallowed battlefields drenched in blood, much less of which general’s cavalry came charging over which hill” (22), the kind of history that treats the war like “a great military Super Bowl contest between Blue and Gray heroes” (16).  Rather, 1861 spans the calendar’s spectrum from the Wide-Awake movement of the presidential election, to the firing on Fort Sumter, to the composition of Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress in July. There is much to commend this approach, not the least being the introduction of new material that even seasoned students will find enlightening. Sprinkled among the more familiar events—such as Elmer Ellsworth’s fatal venture into Alexandria or the capture of Camp Jackson by Nathaniel Lyon—are numerous tidbits styled “fun facts” by one of my better high school instructors. How many of us knew that John C. Fremont was the first bearded candidate for president (113), or that sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding authored the myth of Abner Doubleday’s association with the invention of baseball (406-7), or that the expedition that resulted in the Gadsden Purchase also provided science with a new species of hedgehog cactus named after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (223)?

Of course, there is much more in Goodheart’s portfolio than a game of trivial pursuit. 1861 is serious history written with purpose and conviction. The hawser (it cannot be called a thread) that binds these disparate events is Goodheart’s contention that from its very outset, the conflict centered on abolition and that “men and women at the time, on both sides of the conflict [understood] it as a war against slavery, even before it began” (18-19). Here is where Goodheart’s approach may prove unsettling. 1861 posits its argument primarily from the viewpoint of those in the North for whom Emancipation provided the rationale for war. Goodheart makes little effort to understand the conflict from the southern perspective. In fact, southerners and Confederates rarely appear except as foils, evil slaveholders, or buffoons. This, to be sure, is not to suggest that Goodheart or anyone else has an obligation to defend the immorality of slavery, but he should be accountable to the people of the past on their own terms.

Goodheart’s contempt for white southerners of the era is unmistakable, as if these ancients were expressing their viewpoints and exercising their prerogatives not in their time but in ours. Such an orientation leads Goodheart to be less than entirely honest. His accounting of the Brooks-Sumner affair, for instance, ascribes the South Carolinian’s beating of Charles Sumner to the Massachusetts senator’s opposition to slavery. Goodheart neglects to mention Sumner’s vitriolic aspersions against one of Brooks’s kinsman, which properly places the episode as an exemplar of the cult of southern honor as much as a brutish response to abolitionism (37, 46).
 
Goodheart is not above going for the cheap laugh at a southerner’s expense as when he describes fire-eater Louis T. Wigfall as a drunk, whoremonger, and murderer who “took the next logical step and went into Texas politics” (71). The author attempts to link the injustices of the nineteenth-century to our own times when he reveals that California replaced the likeness of anti-slavery minister Thomas Starr King with (gasp) Ronald Reagan in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall (380) or that Fort Monroe sports a Jefferson Davis Memorial Park but no commemoration of Benjamin Butler or the three runaway slaves who became the war’s first “contrabands” (382). (Apparently he didn’t see the prominent historical markers interpreting that event near the entrance to the fort’s museum.)

Students of the Civil War remain divided about the war’s causes, the motivation of the men who fought (two distinct topics, too often conflated by polemicists on all sides of these issues), and its ultimate meaning. Goodheart is hardly alone in concluding that “the most strange and wonderful thing to come out of the war” was the participation of African Americans who became “partners, and sometimes leaders, in the project to reinvent their country” (19-20). But it should be noted that much evidence suggests that while acrimony over the future of slavery in may explain the origin of the war, it is less satisfying as the stimulus for the willingness of nearly 3,000,000 men to fight it. Gary W. Gallagher’s recent study, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) argues quite persuasively otherwise. Writers such as William Marvel propose that, the nobility of the abolition cause notwithstanding, had the cost of the war been correctly estimated, it might never have been fought.

None of this is to suggest that 1861: The Civil War Awakening is not an important work of history. Goodheart shines a light on corners of the Civil War that have languished too long in the gloom. Historiographers fifty years in the future may consider it an illuminating glimpse into the early twenty-first century as well.
 

A. Wilson Greene is the Executive Director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia.
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