1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

In brief, this is one of the most amazing Civil War books I’ve ever read. I picked it up almost at random–it has a blurb by James McPherson–and read it slowly over the course of a couple of weeks.

Here’s what happens: There are, in most Civil War histories, certain events dealt with in a single sentence, or maybe a short paragraph.  For example, Colonel Anderson moved his command from Fort Moltrie to Fort Sumter.  Or, Elmer Ellsworth was killed while taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia, and there was mourning throughout the North.  General Butler created the concept of “contraband” so he wouldn’t have to return slaves to their Confederate masters.  But:  Why was Anderson’s move such a big deal for the country? Who was this Ellsworth, and why did people care about him so much?  And exactly who were those slaves, how is it they came into Union lines,  how did Butler make that decision, and what were the effects of it?

In 1861, we learn of why and how these events–and several others–were significant. We learn how they contributed to the mood and feel of the time; to the attitude of the Northern civilian and soldier. We learn how they flow from history, and how they effect that history.

“By the end of May, Northerners were starting to accept the idea of Southerners not just as opponents–let alone the wayward brethren they’d been just a few months earlier–but as enemies.”  How that change took place is what this book is about, and it isn’t what you’d thought.

That old, tired cliche about a book being good as an introduction and for those who’ve done a lot of reading, well, it’s actually true this time.  If you’re familiar with the American Civil War, this will more than fill in gaps, it will cause you to reevaluate a number of things you knew. And if you’re not, it would be a place to start that gives you a solid platform from which to understand everything that follows.

I can’t recommend it strongly enough.


Published by

Avatar photo


I play the drum.

11 thoughts on “1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart”

  1. Sounds worthwhile. Does it give any special insight into the present attempts to resurrect a confederacy?

  2. It talked about the ’48ers. That was one of the things that had me over the moon with joy about this book: I had started to mumble about immigrant ’48ers having to have *some* effect on American politics, and then! I read this book! And I was right! And now I have some more books on my wishlist! Bibliographies are our friends! (So are exclamation points!)

  3. I will search it out. And in turn, let me recommend something that was accomplishing the same task for me: the New York Times blog Disunion (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/disunion/), which is “liveblogging” the Civil War 150 years delayed. Every day(-ish), they publish a new column by a historian on some detailed piece of history anchored by the events of that day 150 years prior. I’ve learned so much from it… and each of the items you cited from the book got a column of their own on the appropriate day.

    I think their archive goes back to 2010, and it’s worth reading the pre-election state of the Union to see just how we got from there to war. It’s eerie to see many of the same thought processes active today.

  4. This will definitely make my list of books to read. Thanks! Heck, one day I might even actually read it.

  5. Mris: I know. The whole ’48 thing is huge. Here’s one aspect of the phenomenon–only tangentially related–that delights me: Many Texans today will tell you, “It is in the Texas constitution that we can secede.” No, it isn’t. But what it IS in the Texas constitution is the right to divide into up to five states.

    Why is it there? So the slave-owners could make 10 pro-slave senators instead of just 2.

    Why didn’t they do it? The ’48ers moved into Texas around that time, and by the time they’d settled in, there was just no way to divide Texas in a such a way as to get more pro-slave senators.

    That just makes me smile.

  6. Thanks. I think I’ve read reviews (and maybe an excerpt) of this book when it came out but hadn’t noted the title and so hadn’t bought it. I also checked the NY Times review.

    I’ve now ordered it, along with three other books (THOSE ANGRY DAYS, AS A DRIVEN LEAF, and ESSENTIAL DOS AND TABOOS) and am looking forward to reading (and rereading) them.

    –Lee Gold

  7. Just by chance I saw this book on special the day after I’d read this post.

    I knew very little about the American Civil War other than that it was bloody.

    I’m about a third of the way through the book now.

    The stories about individual slaves and slave owners astonished me. To know about an institution in the abstract always carries little emotional impact when compared with details.

    That some Americans want to fly the Confederate flag today just boggles the mind.

  8. I know. I have the same reaction. I mean, on the one hand I understand: a symbol means different things to different people, and to some it means a vague, generalized rebellion, and yada yada. But my emotional reaction is the same as yours. Ewwww.

  9. “That some Americans want to fly the Confederate flag today just boggles the mind.”

    I’ve spent some time with people like that. The central thought is that they feel that everything honorable or noble about Americans comes from their culture, and they want to keep that.

    It’s kind of like people who like medieval knighthood. Honor, oaths, nobility, fighting because you promised you would. Doing the right thing. They don’t particularly think about 50 times the number of downtrodden serfs.

    There are some good things in it to go along with the awful parts.

  10. “But what it IS in the Texas constitution is the right to divide into up to five states.”

    The US resolution to admit Texas as a US state included that.

    Any other state can split up provided the state legislature agrees and the US Congress agree. This one could be considered a pre-agreement by the US Congress for up to 5 states.

    I’m not sure that Congress would have gone along if it came down to the crunch. At first sight it looks like they would have no choice, that they had already agreed. But they can and do discard their agreements sometimes, and you can’t be sure they will keep their word until the time comes that they actually do.

Leave a Reply