Sunday, January 06, 2013

1861: CIVIL WAR AWAKENING by Adam Goodheart (history)

Last year I heard a fascinating interview with Adam Goodheart about this book. He and the interviewer discussed an incident very early in the war when three slaves building fortifications for the army of Virginia fled to the nearby Union fort, Fortress Monroe, arriving Thursday May 23. The commander at Monroe was Major General Benjamin Butler, a lawyer with little military experience. When a representative of the owner came on Saturday to claim the slaves, he had to make a tough decision. Under Union law, he was obliged to return them. This went against his grain for a number of reasons, and with the help of a little military law he found a middle course. Since the slaves were being used to construct Confederate fortifications, they were lawfully seizable as military supplies. He declared the escaped slaves contraband of war and declined their return. Thus he avoided returning the slaves, damaged the Confederate war effort, and stayed on the correct side of all Union laws and most Virginia law. The owner did not press his claim further, Butler informed Washington of his actions, and it all seemed to be over. On the next day, a Sunday, more slaves fled to Fortress Monroe. By Wednesday, one soldier wrote home "Slaves are brought in here hourly." By the end of May, it was happening all across the Union/Confederate border. The South was in a serious conundrum - lose your slaves on the front, or take more men from home and leave homes undefended against the slaves. The impact on the war was profound.

This anecdote, with far more detail and breadth than I've provided here, is Chapter 8 of 1861. Each chapter follows the same general mode. It focuses on a few people, some well-known, some not, and how their actions during the first half of that year shaped the war and the politics of the time. The reader comes away with an understanding of how everyone's thinking and actions affected the national sentiment for and against the war, for and against slavery, for and against equality. In particular, it made me understand how the Great Compromise that preserved the Union for so long led both sides into a trap of double-think about slavery and equality. The thought of breaking up the Union was anathema to many, and many subverted their own thinking rather than consider the long-term result of either action or inaction. After reading it, I have a much better understanding of how the issues could simmer for so long in the face of what seem obvious final outcomes.

This book is about people. The events are important, but they are both the result of the actions of people and the framework that impels people to the next events. With this presentation, it shows how people thought during that time and how that thinking changed. Each event narrowed the path and made the war more likely. But when choices were removed, things that could not have been considered before became thinkable, then possible and then real. Butler's decision above is a fine example, but the book is full of them. There are nine chapters covering nine groups; Butler and the Fortress Monroe contraband are only one. All were interesting, most were moving, all were an education about the time, the events, and the country of 1961. Recommended.


Misha Miko Owl said...

I'm reminded of my attempt to read Shelby Foote's, "Civil War", got to pg 103 in the first book and had to put it down because his detailed description of U.S. Grant's personality was eye-opening & a little exhausting. But more importantly your description of "1861" reminds me very strongly of the book, "Guns of August" (also known as August 1941) by Barbara Tuchman. In it she describes in detail what brought on WWI and the first month or two of the war. She only covered about 4-5 months of the period but it was truly overwhelming (I was a teenager at the time) and I learned more about the individuals who were the key players in Europe at that time than I have ever learned in a history class in school. It was very sobering to realize that Europeans had 'backed themselves' into the war and just couldn't bring themselves to say that it was a mistake and that they should stop before it got any further. Thanks for the review of "1861".

Steve Simmons said...

Guns of August is a good comparison. Goodheart takes a somewhat different approach, but the end result is the same - a better understanding of the times, the politics, and the people.