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Book Review: 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

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You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to start reading Adam Goodheart’s account of the year that war began1861:The Civil War Awakening, but you might will become one by the time you finish. This is history as it should be written — authoritative, witty and filled with human interest.

Beginning with the events leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter, Goodheart goes back in time to describe the state of the country and the political machinations leading to the election of Lincoln and the secession of the Southern states. He picks up the chronological account with Lincoln’s inauguration, the South Carolina siege of the fort, and its eventual surrender, and takes the story up to Lincoln’s Independence Day message to Congress. Perhaps he should have called the book “1861: The First Half Plus One.” He ends with an analysis of Lincoln’s message showing how it was essentially a foreshadowing of where he wanted to take the country and a demonstration to those who considered him little more than a country bumpkin that he was an intellect to be reckoned with.

For the general reader, the book is less interesting for its chronicle of the events of the period than for its vivid portraits of many of the involved key figures — some with well known names, some less well known — and his focus on many of the fascinating sidelights. Goodheart is less interested in the “team of rivals” and the noted abolitionists than he is in people like the young Ohio legislator and supporter of the Republican cause, James Garfield; the ugly Massachusetts lawyer given command of Fortress Monroe, Bejamin Franklin Butler; the flamboyant little leader of the New York Fire Zouaves, Elmer Ellsworth. Certainly the author talks about the likes of William Seward and Charles Sumner, John Fremont and Frederick Douglass, but the delight he takes in characters like Robert Anderson, Abner Doubleday, Thomas Starr King, Nathaniel Lyon, and Sheppard Mallory is what really makes this book a joy to read.

Goodheart doesn’t neglect the South and its dramatis personae, but he doesn’t give it quite the same emphasis as he does the North. More often than not his characterizations of Southern secessionists as well as their Northern supporters cast them in a comparatively negative light. The Congressman Louis Wigfall — rowing out to Fort Sumter to try to steal for himself the glory of getting the surrender — is a comic figure. Missouri governor Claiborne Fox Jackson comes across as a duplicitous racist. Head of President Buchanan’s War Department John B. Floyd is pictured as working against the union even before secession. He spends little time talking about the great Southern generals, and has little good to say about any of the major political figures. One of the few names that comes away fairly unscathed is that of the diarist Mary Chesnut.

1861 is filled with compelling anecdotes, human interest stories that breathe life into the people and the broader issues. An example or two: here is Buchanan’s parting advice to the incoming President, “I think you will find the water of the right-hand well at the White House better than that of the left.” Then there is the lengthy circuitous journey — to visit his mother — embarked upon by Lincoln opponent Stephen Douglas. At a time when candidates didn’t engage in electioneering, he just happened to stop the train at towns and cities along the way to say a few words to anyone who happened to be there to greet him. There is also the story of Benjamin Butler’s inept horsemanship as he rides off with the Confederate Major John Cary to discuss the return of the first three runaway slaves seeking freedom at Fort Monroe. Goodheart knows a good story when he sees it.

Much has been written about the Civil War, much has been written about Abe Lincoln: some might well ask: why do we need another book? Read 1861 and you will see why. Goodheart not only gives a cogent explanation of the schisms that made compromise impossible and led to the conflict, but he does so in style. 1861: The Civil War Awakening is a damned good read.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • http://ccmalandrinos.com Cheryl Malandrinos

    I want this book. I am a Civil War buff and I love reading anything about the confict.

  • Liam Pluck

    I’d thought that Philip Sheridan was a native of County Cavan, Ireland, and not Ohio.I may be biased, however.
    Excellent book by Adam Goodheart; maybe a few maps in future reissues for non-USA readers?