Whitewashing Civil War History

The Root Review: Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening fails to embrace the views of the African Americans at the heart of the conflict.

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Curiously, given the public careers of so many abolitionist women, black and white (such as Frances Harper, Angelina Grimké Weld, Lucretia Coffin Mott and Lydia Maria Child, none of whom appears in the index), Goodheart writes, "Mrs. Frémont was, naturally, forbidden from speaking before an audience or appearing in print under her own name." Really? Tell that to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Yet Goodheart gives Frémont, a woman who did not lecture publicly and wrote next to nothing under her own name, partial credit for saving "California for the Union."

Finally, Goodheart tells the story of three fugitive slaves -- Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend -- who slipped away while building gun platforms and entrenchments for Confederate soldiers in Virginia after hearing that they would be sent further south, to North Carolina. The three approached Union guards at Fortress Monroe and were famously claimed by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler as "contraband of war," and were not to be returned to their owners under the Fugitive Slave Act. Soon scores of fugitive slaves sought refuge in the fort.

 

 

It doesn't occur to Goodheart that these fugitive slaves may have imagined freedom before this, or that they regularly discussed the possibility of their chains "vanishing." Certainly they did. Without question they did. To assume otherwise is indeed to consider them merely unthinking "contraband."

Goodheart's 1861 is a patriotic book. He cares very much about the national and personal trauma leading up to the Civil War. He compares these feelings to the patriotism of post-Sept. 11 America or emotions after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Yet while Goodheart reports easily from inside Fort Sumter, amid white soldiers; or from the perspective of a reporter covering the Zouaves; or from inside the White House as President Lincoln mourns the death of Ellsworth; or from the position of white spectators outraged by the return of Lucy Bagby and Anthony Burns to slavery, he cannot imagine what it might have been like to be Bagby or Burns. He doesn't consider what it was like to be Dred Scott, who thought himself enough of an American citizen in 1846 to file suit in a St. Louis, Mo., court for his own freedom; or to be "Willis," an elderly Washington, D.C., slave relegated to the auction block after a lifetime of loyal service after his master died.

Ultimately, 1861 will disappoint readers who can easily imagine that these African Americans had complex and interesting views on the nature of their own citizenship, of their own belonging in and to America.

1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart (Knopf, 2011). 

Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and associate research scholar at the Center for Africana Studies, where she teaches African-American poetry and poetics.

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