A historian's insights into the Civil War

Civil War reenactors firing a salute Tuesday near Fort Sumter, S.C., to mark the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861.
Civil War reenactors firing a salute Tuesday near Fort Sumter, S.C., to mark the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861.
Posted: April 13, 2011

A century and a half ago today, Americans were at war with one another. Bitter words between North and South had given way to bitter deeds as the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., surrendered to besieging Confederate troops.

Out of America's response to the crisis, "a new and better nation" would emerge, historian and journalist Adam Goodheart writes in his book, "1861: The Civil War Awakening" (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95).

Goodheart, 40, a Philadelphia native who is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., will talk about his book Wednesday night at the National Constitution Center.

He spoke to Inquirer books editor Michael D. Schaffer.

 Question: April 13 is the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sumter. What was going on in America that day?

Adam Goodheart: On April 13, 1861, America was experiencing what might be called its first 9/11 moment. It was one of those days of national drama and of national trauma in which everything seemed to change at once. . . . This thing that had been long talked about but still, just a few hours earlier, had seemed like a remote abstraction, had actually happened: War had been opened between Americans, civil war had been opened between Americans.

Q: You write that the tensions leading to the Civil War grew out of a dichotomy between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the expediencies of the Constitution.

Goodheart: And it continues today.

Q: So it wasn't resolved, then, by the Civil War?

Goodheart: No, I don't think it was resolved by the Civil War, but I do think that Lincoln's great phrase "a new birth of freedom" is just brilliant in so many ways. It captures perfectly that there had been an old birth of freedom in 1776, except freedom was born again in that moment of 1861. It's interesting because when we talk about American history, 1776 is a year that just resounds. It's not just a year, but an idea. I think 1861, no less, was both a year and an idea.

Q: What was the idea of 1861?

Goodheart: I think the idea was that this was, indeed, going to be a nation that would be committed to freedom and committed to striving toward an ever more perfect realization of that idea of freedom.

Q: Who was the most fascinating character you encountered in your research?

Goodheart: It's hard to write a book about that period and not be just endlessly intrigued by the figure of Abraham Lincoln.

I found a very different Lincoln than the Civil War president who's come down to us. I found a president who at that moment, at the start of the war, was incredibly hesitant; was not always very confident, in fact quite the opposite; who's not always very decisive and who made a lot of significant mistakes, but who also at that moment, in the very first months of the war, grew in a remarkable way into the great president whom we remember now.

Those early challenges that he faced ended up testing him and, I think, pushing him to the point where he became a masterful political leader and a masterful wartime commander in chief, but he certainly didn't arrive that way, fully fledged, in Washington, D.C. In fact, he arrived as the man who in some ways was the least qualified to become president of the United States of any previous person to win that office.

Q: What was the country's attitude toward race in 1861?

Goodheart: The role of African Americans as heroes of the war is a story that really hasn't been fully told at all. If there was one great surprise and revelation that came to me out of writing the book, it would be the way African Americans were participants and were fighting for the Union cause and fighting for their own freedom, even while they were still slaves, long before the first black regiments were formed.

Most Americans think that Lincoln freed the slaves, but the slaves really freed themselves. Almost as soon as the war was opened, they began to resist their masters in very active ways; they began to escape from the plantations and into the Union lines, where they joined up with the Union forces. While in many cases they weren't allowed to actually fight, although a few were, they did begin supporting the Union cause as support staff for the Union army very quickly. There were literally tens, or even possibly hundreds, of thousands who escaped in that fashion, early in the war, and that's the one thing that weakened the Confederacy in all sorts of ways and also showed white Americans that these black Americans were ready not just to be free, but to really put their lives on the line for their freedom.

. . . Right after Fort Sumter was attacked, the African Americans of Philadelphia held a big rally near Independence Hall to support the Union cause and to volunteer to serve as troops. They wrote to the Lincoln administration offering their services, offering to lay their lives down for their country, and they didn't even get a reply.

To me, that's a very poignant story that captures so much of both the hopefulness of that moment in history and also just how far the country still had to go.

Contact books editor Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

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