Monday, May 23, 2011

What We're Reading: 1861 The Civil War Awakening

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart.


Most history is written in a chronological and linear narrative, but Adam Goodheart has written a book that is a collage of period snapshots intended to give us some sense of the diverse and passionate currents running through the country during the first year of the Civil War. These portraits are joined together thematically by a shared ambition, an attempt to answer exactly what it was in Southern secession and the institution of slavery that helped form for the large Northern and growing Western population of the United States a perception that a cause was at issue worth fighting for, one that carried great importance for their personal future and that of their country. This is not an easy question to answer. It is not one that has a single answer. But it is an important one to try to answer if we are to develop any understanding of the period or learn anything about the dynamic of how citizens in a democracy come together and mobilize at an important historical crossroads.


In 1861, Abolitionists were a small but strident minority, often blamed for the sectional divisions and conflicts that had grown in the country. The overwhelming majority of Americans would not have identified themselves as abolitionists. They were not especially concerned about the institution of slavery in the states where it currently existed. In fact, politicians often played on widespread trepidation among voters about what the country would be like if there were four million freed slaves in the population. Social and political equality for African Americans was unimaginable. Probably a majority of people in the country were racists, and the license of mid-19th century American discourse on race, both private and public, seems shocking to us today.


In 1861, Lincoln was careful to frame the issue of Southern secession and the preservation of the Union as a crisis of democratic government. Could a minority be free to decide that it would not abide by the electoral decision of the country’s citizens and simply suborn the democratic process by a threat to leave the Union or by actual secession? In his message to Congress as it reconvened in July of 1861, Lincoln made a logical and compelling case that this would represent simply the defeat of democracy as a viable form of government. He had worked long and hard to compose this message through the late spring. In 1861, democracy was still a relatively rare form of government in the world, an uncertain experiment, but that experiment was intimately bound up with Americans’ sense of identity, with their ideas about what made their country unique. His argument would have had a measure of patriotic resonance. And yet there was a large political faction in the North that simply felt the nation ought to let the South go in peace.


Goodheart visits a variety of topics that will be new to readers of Civil War history. He explores the nature of romantic paramilitary militias in the 1850s, and the role of one such organization, the Wide Awakes, in the campaign of 1860. Although the U.S. army was small in 1861, the existence of these militia, both North and South, represented soldiers waiting in the wings. When war came, largely naïve young men were eager to answer the call and turn theatrical exercises into actual military action. The author examines the fight to keep California in the Union and the importance of Jessie Benton Freemont in that struggle, paying particular attention to her confederate in the pro-Union campaign, David Starr King, as he follows King’s transformation to political activism and radicalism from his life as a sedate cleric. We learn of the importance of the new German immigrant population in St. Louis in saving Missouri for the Union. In another chapter, Goodheart looks at the early political career of James Garfield and the connections of his pro-Union stance to movements of religious reawakening in Ohio and to American transcendental thought. He tells us the story of the controversial actions of General Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Butler’s refusal to return runaway slaves and his classification of them as war “contraband” presaged the Emancipation Proclamation of a few years later and began the transformation of the war into a fight for the abolition of slavery.


1861, The Civil War Awakening is a fine and timely primer on the state of the nation in 1861, full of unique material that will engage both those familiar with Civil War history and those less versed. Each story is told in an accomplished and literate style. The book addresses what we most need to know and understand about this defining event in American history, and helps to explain what forces transformed what had begun as a rebellion against the Federal Government into a second American Revolution, into what Lincoln recognized at Gettysburg as “a new birth of freedom.”

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