Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

1861:The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

Originally, I had intended on doing something different to mark America’s national holiday, but the 4th of July was mentioned so much in this book, that I figured it was kismet.
The author, with the old-fashioned name which shouts of Americana, has written a splendid book that centers on the beginning of the American Civil War, hence the title. All of the familiar characters are here, but the focus is on the personalities and incidents that are less known and gives a wider background to those that are famous.
Beginning in the midst of the 1860 presidential campaign that ultimately saw Lincoln elected as a “Black Republican”, as the anti-slavery faction of the then more liberal party was called(today, Democrats are the liberal party). Goodheart traces the rising abolitionist feeling and how it affected national policies, such as the 20 year delay on expanding the railroad westward, because Congress could not decide whether to run it through free northern states or pro-slavery southern states.
The discussion of slavery included attitudes that boggle the modern mind. Such as James Chestnut, whose family owned over 500 slaves “declared on the Senate floor that “…commerce, civilization and Christianity” all went hand-in-hand to sanctify negro servitude.” And calling escaped slaves ‘contraband’, so that they were considered property seized in war and not required to be sent back.
When discussing the actual war, Goodheart doesn’t rattle off a list of battles and troop numbers, but tells stories of the actual people involved. This makes it more relatable, as well as having a stronger emotional impact. Most of us know about the Union troops in blue uniforms and the Confederates in grey, but we don’t know about the Zouves cadets. Modeled on the French Zouves, Elmer Ellsworth formed this acrobatic and disciplined group of soldiers to encourage military enlistment, but they were also among the earliest troops to fight in the war.
I was surprised at the many Cleveland connections in the book, some of them upsetting, such as the one involving Lucy Bagby. She was a fugitive slave who had made it to Ohio, just a short way from Canada and freedom, when she was arrested in Cleveland and despite public outcry, returned to her owner, a minister from Virginia.I was pleased to learn later in the book that she was eventually freed, and lived out the rest of her life in Cleveland.
Another connection to my hometown is through James Garfield, whose pioneer parents settled in the Western Reserve(northeastern Ohio). He became a university professor, then a general in the Union forces and eventually president in 1880. Before he was assassinated in late 1881, he worked tirelessly for civil rights, some of which didn’t come into being until almost a century later. This is a man I want to learn more about.
Throughout the book, written in a lively, engaging style, the author throws in little fun facts, such as the cost of a half ounce letter delivered by the famed Pony Express(a five dollar gold piece. Yikes!). Each section is marked by a black and white photo and a quote from poet Walt Whitman, who was a nurse during the war. It adds to the atmosphere. There’s also an epilogue, which tells the reader what happened to many of the people mentioned in the book, something I wish more authors would feature.
I was sorry when I reached the end of this intriguing, well written book. In this 150th anniversary of the start of the war between the states, Goodheart explains the complex issues with clarity and enthusiasm, leavened with empathy and a bit of humor. I will definitely be looking forward to anything else he cares to write, no matter the subject.

Borzoi Books 2011 481 pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-4015-5

There is a Facebook page on this book, which features photos and documents from that period. If interested, please go here . You can even ‘Like’ it.

Jackie recalls singing rousing Civil War songs in elementary school and quite enjoying them.

7 comments on “1861:The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

  1. ChrisCross53
    July 4, 2011

    This sounds really interesting – my view of the American Civil War is largely based on ‘Gone With the Wind’, and the fact that the South (to coin a phrase from Sellar and Yeatman) was romantic but wrong, so I would love to know more about the period.

    By the way, since it is the Fourth of July, try reading Esther Forbes ‘Johnny Tremain’. It’s a children’s book, set in Boston, in the run-up to the War of Independence, and is really well written, giving the most tremendous sense of time and place. The eponymous hero is an apprentice silversmith who injures his hand and becomes politicised when he takes a new post at a Whig newspaper. Key events like the Boston tea party and the first battles at Lexington and Concord are featured alongside the everyday lives of the characters, who include revolutionaries like Paul Revere and John Hancock, as well as British soldiers, apprentices, merchants, socialites, servants and tradesmen.

  2. Jackie
    July 4, 2011

    I read Johnny Tremain a long time ago & agree that it’s well done in giving the reader a great sense of time & place. As for “Gone With the Wind” I’ve never been able to watch the movie, though I’ve tried a number of times, the characters are just too unlikable & over the top for me. Maybe I’d fare better with the book?

  3. ChrisCross53
    July 4, 2011


    I love the book – which may well count as a ‘guilty pleasure’ on my part, given that it is not the world’s greatest literature (but it’s not the worst either) and it’s not really politically correct. But it’s well researched and is a great story – and Scarlett is a such wonderful heroine, even if she isn’t a nice person! She’s a survivor, feisty, unethical, an opportunist, living for the moment, running a business at a time when women didn’t do things like that, loving the wrong man, not knowing what she’s got until it’s gone. She’s a bit like Lizzie Eustace, always on the make, attracted to rackety people and showy possessions, unable to appreciate the worth of truly ‘good’ people and things, and with no self-knowledge whatsoever… I suppose Becky Sharp is similar in some ways, but Becky is a more astute judge of people, and is aware of her own character and failings, and the consequences of her actions.

  4. Jackie
    July 4, 2011

    Your enthusiasm is impressive. It’s made me seriously consider reading the book. Maybe I could do a “reluctant review” of it afterwards? lol

  5. kirstyjane
    July 5, 2011

    I had to read Johnny Tremain at school in the US and loved it, but was probably still too young really to get it — I must re-read.

    Thanks for this review, Jackie — the book sounds really interesting. Military history is always more enjoyable (at least to me) with a human element.

  6. Pingback: 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart « The Sleepless Reader

  7. Pingback: History Trifecta | Vulpes Libris

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