An idiosyncratic study of the Civil War’s first year presents a fresh take on an old conflict
Here comes the sesquicentennial surge of Civil War commemoratives, tons of retrospectives, piles of histories. This month PBS rebroadcasted Ken Burn’s magisterial “Civil War’’ film. The strains of “Ashokan Farewell,’’ the haunting tune that served as the theme for the series, will issue forth from so many ensembles and high school orchestras that the very sound of the first few notes will be enough to make you beg on your knees for mercy.
So why, amid all this, should a reader pick out Adam Goodheart’s “1861: The Civil War Awakening’’ from the pile of new offerings, open its pages, and devote more than six hours to its contents?
It’s not, after all, a chronology of the first terrible year of fighting; for that you should repair to the reliable pages of Bruce Catton. (Goodheart’s has to be the only Civil War book on the market that hardly mentions Bull Run.) It’s not an account of the political battles of the Lincoln administration; pick up your Doris Kearns Goodwin for that. Nor a look at the war from the ground up and through the lens of the surviving documents of the conflict; the Library of America’s splendid new entry “The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It’’ is the indispensable source for that.
Instead, Goodheart has produced an idiosyncratic volume that tells us everything about that first year but frames events in a distinctly new way. It’s as if Picasso and Braque put together an account of the War Between the States. Goodheart is, for want of a better term, a cubist; he takes what is known, breaks it down to its elemental parts and rearranges it, giving us a different view entirely of something we thought we understood entirely.
His account of the conflict at Fort Sumter stands that episode on its head; for him what preceded the effort to resupply the post in Charleston Harbor is far more important than what followed. He is perhaps the only historian to put James A. Garfield, who became a general but would not emerge prominently on the American scene for another decade, at the center of his account. The stirring drama involving Elmer Ellsworth, who became the first officer to die in the war, is recounted elsewhere but seldom with the importance it is afforded here.
Hardly a page of this book lacks an insight of importance or a fact that beguiles the reader. Here we learn that enslaved humans had a monetary value greater than all the nation’s factories and railways combined, a sobering reminder why the South clung so long to its immoral holdings. And that 40 percent of the Union combatants came from the Midwest. And that only 29 of the 16,000 privates in the US Army defected to the Confederates, while more than 300 of the approximately 1,000 officers did so. And that beards proliferated among soldiers not because there wasn’t enough time to shave (everybody’s old theory) but because, Goodheart reports, “beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity,’’ adding: “Such was the cultural soil in which the new Republican Party took root and then grew with astonishing speed: a world in which the values of individualism, manliness, and forthrightness were quickly supplanting the old ways of compromise and politesse.’’
Throughout this volume is a remarkable assortment of anecdotes, none more astonishing than this one, occurring at the very moment of the transfer of power from James Buchanan to Abraham Lincoln: At that fraught interlude, right outside the Capitol, Buchanan bid his successor to accompany him into a corner, presumably for his final words of advice and wishes of good luck. “I waited with boyish wonder and credulity to see what momentous counsels were to come from that gray and weatherbeaten head,’’ said John Hay, who witnessed the exchange. The 15th president of the United States then whispered to the 16th president: “I think you will find the water of the right hand well at the White House better than that of the left.’’
Goodheart argues that the war came at a period of increasing American militancy. This phenomenon was particularly strong among reformers and abolitionists, who once saw war as barbaric but who later came to see battle as a test of character and conscience. Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist, no longer thought of war as “an utter violation of Christianity’’ but instead came to believe that “all the great charters of humanity have been writ in blood.’’
Toward the end of this volume, Goodheart turns his attention to three enslaved field hands who crossed the James River and entered federally held Fortress Monroe in the very dawn of the war. He devotes more than three dozen pages to this episode, captivating in its own way, and we are carried along because eventually many more blacks joined them and, as he says in passing, “there were new voices, and new stories, to be heard every day at the fort.’’
Goodheart shows us that even at 150 years’ distance there are new voices, and new stories, to be heard about the Civil War, and that together they can have real meaning. “One person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 — as their grandparents had in 1776 — that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country,’’ he writes. “Not just its present reality, either, not on something so solid; but on a vision of what its future could be and what its past had meant.’’
We now live in that future, still wondering what our past had meant. Goodheart’s new history makes a huge contribution to changing how that past looked and, by doing so, explaining it.
David M. Shribman, former Washington bureau chief of the Globe and currently executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.