1861: The Civil War Awakening
by Adam Goodheart, Knopf, 2011, $28.95
AMONG THE SCORES of new and forthcoming books on the Civil War, it is hard to imagine that any will be superior to 1861: The Civil War Awakening. In 1861, Adam Goodheart eloquently uses the experiences of national leaders, emerging figures and common citizens to evoke the tension, fear and patriotism that gripped the North in the early months of the conflict. Goodheart appropriately opens the story in the weeks preceding the fateful election of Abraham Lincoln, reminding readers that from November 1860 until the firing on Fort Sumter the following April, most Americans hoped for some sort of compromise that would restore the Union. Goodheart also dispels through the persuasive use of contemporaneous accounts the persistent misconception that the cause of the war was something other than slavery.
Through characters such as the youthful James Garfield, an Ohio schoolteacher when the war began; the Illinois militia colonel Elmer Ellsworth; and the fiery Jesse Benton Frémont, Goodheart reveals the war to have been a political changing of the guard, from the timid elderly statesmen who blundered toward war to the ardent and idealistic young men who turned it into a second American Revolution.
Particularly effective is Goodheart’s portrayal of Lincoln, whom we get to see as he was—a tentative leader struggling to make sense of events; a president whose doubts mirrored the mixed feeling of Northerners toward war, even after Fort Sumter. Goodheart also gives us a compelling account of the siege of Sumter. He presents the characters of the fort’s commander Major Robert Anderson and his contentious subordinates with rare insight.
As befits the title, The Civil War Awakening concludes on Independence Day as the Great Comet of 1861 streaked across the night sky, a “luminous messenger,” as the editor of the New York Herald termed the phenomenon, of a “new and important epoch in the history of the world.”
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.