1861: The Civil War Awakening

  • By Adam Goodheart
  • Knopf
  • 496 pp.

A riveting and sweeping account of the War Between the State’s first crucial months.

Book reviewers are understandably wary of book blurbs. Their purpose is to entice readers into buying the book by offering a preview of coming attractions. Like movie trailers, book blurbs are meant to dazzle, so they tend to use “wow” words such as “original,” “gripping” and “epic.” Fortunate, indeed, is the reviewer who encounters a book deserving of such lavish praise. Adam Goodheart’s 1861 happens to be such a book.

Goodheart has chosen his main epigraph well. Walt Whitman’s eponymous poem “1861” sets the right tone for what follows: “Arm’d year! year of the struggle! / No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you, terrible / year!” The Whitman poem also suggests the continental sweep of Goodheart’s 1861, as well as its Northern viewpoint.

The prologue opens with the transfer of the U.S. Army garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor, an act that appears innocuous enough 150 years after the fact but at the time was hailed as courageous by Northerners and condemned as treacherous by Southerners, who knew that the federal garrison would have to be dislodged by force once it was safely ensconced at Sumter. The garrison commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, was widely thought to be a Southern sympathizer, yet his sense of duty and honor compelled him to move his command to Sumter, even though the Southern-leaning secretary of war, John B. Floyd, had authorized him to surrender without a fight.

On April 12, the Confederate force at Charleston under Anderson’s former West Point pupil, Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, opened fire on Sumter, and the fort fell the following day. The Civil War had begun.

Anderson was welcomed as a war hero in the North. Goodheart notes that he was only one of many such heroes to emerge in the weeks following the Battle of Fort Sumter. In Missouri, Frank Blair and Nathaniel Lyon assumed command of Union forces there — consisting largely of German immigrants — and prevented pro-Confederate forces under Governor Claiborne Jackson from taking the state out of the Union. The youthful and ambitious Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a favorite of President Lincoln and the commander of the First New York Fire Zouaves, became an early martyr to the Union cause when he was shot after striking the Confederate colors atop an Alexandria, Virginia, boarding house.

Perhaps the most unlikely heroes of the Civil War’s early days were three runaway slaves who appeared at Union-held Fort Monroe, Virginia, and appealed to the commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, for sanctuary. Their action forced the Lincoln government into classifying runaway slaves as contraband of war, or “contrabands,” as they were soon called. The war had scarcely begun, but dozens of slaves seized the opportunity of escaping to Fort Monroe and freedom.

Lurking throughout the pages of 1861 is the towering figure of Abraham Lincoln. Goodheart breathes new life into the familiar story of Lincoln’s transformation from uncertain president-elect to decisive war president. Goodheart recounts Lincoln’s “nonsensical” off-the-cuff speech at Columbus, Ohio, which occurred during his long journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington. In that speech Lincoln stated, “There is nothing going wrong,” even as the Union itself was collapsing. Later, Goodheart contrasts the Columbus speech with Lincoln’s July 4 message to Congress, which appears in the book’s final chapter. Determined not to repeat the public relations fiasco at Columbus, Lincoln devoted the better part of two months to writing and revising the message. The result, in Goodheart’s words, was “a subtle and brilliant work of political science” that “stands as a milestone not just in the development of [Lincoln’s] thought but also in the evolution of his reputation. . . . Henceforth he might be — would be — reviled, but he would never be underestimated.”

Goodheart argues that Lincoln seizes the moral high ground in this message, branding secession as a crime against the citizens of the United States and as “an act of vandalism — terrorism even — against the very foundation of democratic government: the concept of obedience to majority rule.” Lincoln defines the war as “essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining … that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” In an earlier draft, Goodheart observes, Lincoln had used the phrase “an early start,” but to make pointed reference to slavery he substituted “unfettered” for “early” and sacrificed the precision of the race metaphor to express a higher truth.

Slated for release in conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Fort Sumter, 1861 is essential reading for those who wish to learn more about the Civil War’s crucial first months.

Mark L. Bradley is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, DC.

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