A.J. Howard's Reviews > 1861: The Civil War Awakening

1861 by Adam Goodheart
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Apr 16, 11

bookshelves: finished-in-2011, political-history, military-history
Read from April 08 to 16, 2011

150 years ago this month, Secessionist forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. After 34 hours hours of bombardment, Major Robert Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. The day's fighting resulted in no casualties on either side, except a donkey caught in the cross fire. Within a few years, maybe months, of the firing on Fort Sumter, the proceeding conflict has taken on an air of inevitability. "A house divided can not stand," as Lincoln said; the fundamental issue at stake would eventually have to be settled by violence. I aree that the war became inevitable at a certain point, whether it was with the election of a Republican president, the disintegration of the Whig Party in 1854, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the compromises made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, or as far back as the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619. By December 1860, when South Carolina seceded, Southern secession had been a Damocles' sword hanging over the young republic for over 40 years.

Yet, at the same time, most Americans weren't expecting an imminent conflict in April 1860. There may have been problems, but these things had a history of working themselves out. Lost in many accounts of the origins of the Civil War is how quickly things escalated. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 may seem inevitable on a macro level, but not necessarily on a micro level. The propulsive momentum of events left most Americans, from Lincoln and Davis to ordinary citizens, struggling to accomodate with new realities.

Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the story of the country's realization that this is happening. The book is a portrait of how Americans came to terms with and preparing themselves for the coming conflict.

Before I go further, allow me to quickly justify this book's existence. You would be justified see this book was published this year and ask yourself if we really need another general chronology of the Civil War. How much more is out there that hasn't been amply covered many times before? I'll answer by saying that this is not a traditional or 'been-there' Civil War book. 1861 is a somewhat misleading title, Goodheart does not aim to write a broad historical survey of a particular year. The book's chapters are each an in-depth portrait of how Americans reacted to the onset of the war on the micro-level. In fact, the subtitle, The Civil War Awakeninggives a far-better sense of what the book is. This format allows Goodheart to give a unique and refreshing perspective on familiar events.

The book opens conventionally in Charleston Harbor, but somewhat ironically in the last days of 1860. Although the importance of the actual 'battle' at Fort Sumter has been exaggerated, the effect of these events were extremely influential. Non-Civil War buffs may not be aware that Charleston Harbor had been at the center of national attention for months before the first shot was fired. In fact the first aggressive action of the Civil War occurred as early as December, when Anderson ordered the quiet evacuation of the impossible to defend Fort Moultrie and the consolidation of his garrison at the recently (kinda) completed Fort Sumter. This action did not come lightly. Anderson, a Kentucky native and Southern sympathizer, justified this by an artful interpretation of an order. Anderson himself probably knew his interpretation was not only erroneous, but directly contrary to the intention of his superior, the Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian who was not so discreetly using his position to secure arms for the soon-to-be Confederate states. Anderson's dilemma is an appropriate one to open the book with. 1861 was a year of conflicted or ambiguous loyalties and the difficult choices that ensued.

Following this introduction, Goodheart leaves Charleston for several chapters. If the national mood wasn't hell-bent on war in the early months of 1861, it wasn't exactly the epitome of brotherhood. By electing Abraham Lincoln president in November, forty percent of the country had to know they were casting votes for a man whom the vast majority of Southerners would find utterly unacceptable. Goodheart relates how there was a good deal of belligerence behind the 1860 election and the effect of a younger generation on the American politic. Republican voters went beyond exercising their democratic rights, and in many ways courted conflict with the slaveholding states. Meanwhile, Washington still a very Southern town where the consensus was on some sort of compromise, and Goodheart provides an intriguing portrait of the final, mostly pathetic, months of the Buchanan administration.

Everything changed after Sumter. The material is familiar, but Goodheart does an admirable job retelling how Lincoln exploited an impossible situation in a way that let the new president craft the narrative of the conflict. The surrender of Fort Sumter electrified and unified much of the remaining country. For the Confederacy, the handling of the Sumter crisis resulted in a mostly meaningless victory, but was certainly a tremendous strategic misstep. The argument could be made that the Confederacy would have won the war if they had let Sumter be. Goodheart then relates how loyalty to the Union was ensured in California and Missouri; albeit two different kinds of loyalty achieved in two different manners. Also, Goodheart portrays how the public began to come to initial terms with the sacrifices the war would demand, with the account of the life and death of Elmer Ellsworth.

Probably the high point of the book is the chapter devoted to General Benjamin Butler's decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband. Goodheart makes the case that Butler's decision, made at the location where the first African slaves arrived over two hundred years earlier, was the first real harbinger of the extinction of slavery in America. An abridged version of this chapter appeared in The New York Times a few weeks back, and is worth seeking out if you're not interested in the entire book. Goodheart expertly shows how Butler's decision not only changed the situation in Virginia, but irretrievably changed the national consensus. Finally, the book closes with Lincoln crafting his message to the special session of Congress which opened on July 4, the first time the body met since April. No matter how much some people focus on the societal aspect of the history, certain individual presences play a irreplaceable part. The fact remains that Lincoln knew that the direct cause of the Civil War was his election. Contrary to his address at Gettysburg two years later, Lincoln spent months on this message to Congress. Because he did the hard work two years earlier, Lincoln was able to repeat himself in a much shorter and much more poetic manner. Lincoln was able to distill his solution of the 'why are we fighting' question in the general population. It wasn't so much that he was able to move the population to him, as he was able to understand the irrepressible moment of events. Lincoln's understanding of the meaning behind the impersonal force of history was the rock on which eventual victory was built. Because of this, Lincoln's July 4th message to Congress is the perfect place for Goodheart's book to end.

1861 isn't concerned with generals, battles, etc. In fact, the last chapter takes place in July, a month before the first major conflict of the War. Actually, the books isn't really concerned with the Confederate side of the issue. That's not an issue because what the book is concerned about is the shaping of the Union resolve, and it would be this resolve that would be the main dynamic force behind the war. For all the talk of revolution, the Confederate Rebellion was a retrograde and traditional. The dynamism that influenced the country at large almost totally emerged from the Union side. Goodheart's book gives the reader some understanding of the initial sparks that fueled this dynamism that we are still coming to terms with 150 years later.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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A.J. Howard I don't know if anyone else is following the Disunion blog on the NYT website, but I really reccommend it. There's at least one entry every day, many written by this author, about the events that happened around this time 150 years ago. Today there was an article that detailed newly rediscovered documents that detail Lee's decision to resign from the US Army.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/...

Contrary to most sources, the new documents written by Lee's daughter suggest that Lee anguished over the decision. At the same time, it appears that Lee wasn't the foe of secession historians write him as. He was for secession as an eventual option, but he wanted to give time to see if compromise could be reached. What I think is most interesting is that Lee wasn't pressured into his resignation. In fact, most of his family, including his wife and brother, were still loyal to the Union in April 1861 and by resigning he was going against their advice. Lee didn't even tell his family once he decided, he apologized once they heard the news from outside sources.

Fascinating stuff.. The full article and the blog are worth checking out.


message 2: by Eric (new)

Eric But what is most striking about this description is the loneliness of Lee’s decision. For the stunning message of Mary Custis Lee’s account is that that there was no pressure from kin or colleagues for Lee to give up the allegiances of a lifetime. Some would later become dedicated Confederates, but in April 1861 their feelings were with the Union. If even his wife, and most of his children, did not support his stand, Robert E. Lee must personally have wanted very much to take this path. This was not an answer he was compelled by home and heritage to make. It was a choice — and it was his alone.

I had no idea there were so many Unionists in his family circle.


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