1861

The Civil War Awakening

By Adam Goodheart

Alfred A. Knopf. 481 pp. $28.95

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Reviewed by Edward Colimore


The decision to leave didn't come easily.

Maj. Robert Anderson had been ordered to command the federal garrison at Fort Moultrie, one of three forts protecting Charleston Harbor in South Carolina in 1860. More than 80 years earlier, the fort had been the scene of an American victory over the British just days before the Declaration of Independence. Anderson's father helped defend it.

But as the nation edged closer to civil war, Moultrie was clearly vulnerable - not so much from foreign fleets, but from the secessionists on land. So, under cover of darkness one night in December, Anderson and his soldiers journeyed a mile across the harbor from Moultrie to Fort Sumter.

"He lowered his flag on an old fortress, hallowed by the past, yet half ruined - and then raised it upon a new one, still unfinished, yet stronger, bedded in New England granite," writes Adam Goodheart in his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening. "That folded banner's crossing of Charleston Harbor foreshadowed another defiant journey ahead, far longer and more perilous: from the old America to a new one."

Most histories focus on the Confederates' opening shots on Sumter on April 12, 1861, as the beginning of the Civil War. Goodheart sees its starting point as the Union flag-raising at the fort. It touched off a series of events that led not simply to Southern rebellion but to America's second Revolution.

A historian and journalist, Goodheart tells that story through people and events, often missed or glossed over in most accounts that concentrate on major battles and colorful blue and gray leaders. Those little-known parts of the war are sometimes symbolic - like Anderson and his trip to Sumter - of the sweeping changes taking place across the country.

Goodheart's narrative looks beyond the dual dramas in Charleston and Washington to "much farther afield: to the slums of Manhattan and drawing rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave cabins, and even to the shores of the Pacific."

His Civil War was not decided, as he says, on battlefields and in cabinet meetings alone. It was decided in individual hearts and minds.

"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," Goodheart writes. "Eighteen sixty-one, like 1776, was - and still is - not just a year, but an idea."

In the first year of the war, Washington was still a city of gentlemen - and slaves, who shaved the whiskers of the elite in barbershops, tended to fireplaces, waited tables, and emptied chamber pots and spittoons.

It was completely legal for a city resident to put his slave up for auction. Goodheart tells the story of Willis. The 33-year-old black house servant had belonged to the "late Hon. Judge George M. Bibb deceased," according to an ad in the Daily National Intelligencer in January 1861. Below Willis' mention on the auction list was a line, "Also, one Gold Watch."

Abraham Lincoln himself had pointed out in an 1858 speech that the millions of slaves across the South were valued at no less than $2 billion.

As 1861 started, the slavery question was finally coming to a head. By the middle of January, the slave states were tilting toward secession, and soon began withdrawing one by one.

Goodheart's history is filled with many scenes and tiny details that transport readers through time. Take the feckless President James Buchanan. He assured a delegation of South Carolina congressmen that Maj. Anderson would remain in Fort Moultrie in exchange for their promise that the fort would not be attacked.

When he learned that Anderson had moved to Sumter, he slumped against a mantelpiece, Goodheart said, and crumpled a cigar between his fingers. An apt symbol of the fraying union.

Events accelerated. Lincoln's inauguration came, with an address appealing to "the better angels of our nature."

But war was inevitable. The first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, which surrendered the following day. It was the worst strategic blunder of the war, making the South the aggressor and denying it more time to organize, Goodheart writes. What would the South have lost if it had allowed the tiny fort to remain?

"They attacked Sumter - it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could," Lincoln told a confidant.

By Independence Day 1861, as North and South prepared for the clash to come, the editors of The Philadelphia Inquirer, "in their office just down Chestnut Street from Independence Hall, exulted: 'This day inaugurates a second war for Independence. ... We shall look forward to the United States of the Future as a still closer approximation than the United States of the Past to that bright ideal of Government, the vision of which has ever haunted the Seers and Thinkers of mankind.' "

The fighting got under way in earnest with the Battle of Bull Run that month - an inauspicious beginning for the North.

One hundred and fifty years after the start of the war, Goodheart's 1861 is a well-crafted account of a pivotal point in the nation's past, told with passion and remarkable scholarship that puts flesh on the dry bones of familiar historical fact. It's a compelling, captivating read for anyone the least bit interested in the Civil War.

Inquirer staff writer Edward Colimore is the author of "Eyewitness Reports: The Inquirer's Live Coverage of the American Civil War" and "The Philadelphia Inquirer's Walking Tours of Historic Philadelphia. " Contact him at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.