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.


Adam Goodheart's new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, has been widely reviewed as a kind of quirky history, a focused look at "the more obscure corners of antebellum America," as the New York Times puts it. 1861 tells the story of a handful of little-known figures during the 10 months from October 1860 to the summer of 1861. These figures -- including Maj. Robert Anderson, commanding officer at Fort Sumter; Elmer Ellsworth, one of the first casualties of the Civil War; and Jessie Benton Frémont, a wealthy California society hostess and anti-secessionist -- played crucial roles in the seemingly inevitable conflict, according to Goodheart's history.

But although Goodheart includes African Americans in his narrative and offers, at the back of his book, a chapter about three slaves who escaped to a Union fort, 1861 is very much a history for white people. It's about the anguish and inner conflict that many white Americans felt as the United States lurched toward civil war. It's the old "brother versus brother" story in which none of the brothers are black.

Goodheart signals his own (white) perspective early. In an otherwise thoughtful prologue about the soldiers at Fort Sumter and about the heroism of young men who signed up to fight, Goodheart adds, "Just as impressive ... was the heroism of black men and women ... who were ready not just to be free but also to become Americans." But weren't these blacks already Americans? Here and throughout the book, Goodheart cannot seem to imagine what 1861 felt like for anyone not recognized by law as an American citizen.

He seems unable to imagine that slaves or free blacks could, and did, envision an America that included them. David Walker wrote in his Appeal to Coloured Citizens (1829): "America is more our country, than it is the whites' -- we have enriched it with our blood and tears." Frederick Douglass had, for more than a decade, presented himself as an American citizen. In his speeches from 1845 onward, Douglass addressed his audiences, black and white, free and slave, as "fellow citizens." Without doubt, by 1861 there existed a long tradition of this recognition.

Consider the story that Goodheart tells about Lucy Bagby, a 24-year-old fugitive slave living as a servant in Cleveland, who was arrested and reclaimed under the Fugitive Slave Law. Goodheart suggests that the trial and the return of Bagby to slavery "seemed an allegory: not only of the doomed hopes of those last prewar months but of white Northerners' ambivalent loyalties." I doubt that slavery was allegorical to Bagby.  

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In the same chapter, Goodheart gives an account of fiery white abolitionist orator Abby Kelley, who "nearly lost her audience when she declared that black men and women were no different from whites under the skin." In the course of the narrative, we learn about Kelley's marriage and future, but we must turn to the back of the book, to a postscript, to find out what happened to Bagby (who returned north in 1863, married a Union soldier and lived happily until 1906). It's a small but telling detail.

Following a well-researched and lively chapter about the siege of Fort Sumter, Goodheart tells the tale of Elmer Ellsworth, a soldier, law clerk and close friend of Lincoln's, who led a group of Union soldiers made up mostly of New York firemen in a regiment called the Zouaves, modeled after a French elite fighting force that was itself modeled after some fierce baggy-pants- and fez-wearing Algerian tribesmen.

"A short man even by the standards of his time, Ellsworth seems almost dwarfed by his own elaborate uniforms, blooming profusions of plumed hats, sashes, epaulettes, and medals. Add his hippie-length hair and droopy mustache, and he might almost be a member of a 1970s rock band." Goodheart does not note the irony of Union soldiers wearing African garb.

Perhaps to meet modern demands for diversity, Goodheart offers one chapter on a woman and another on a trio of fugitive slaves. He relates the story of Jessie Benton Frémont, the daughter of Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of the explorer and senator Col. John C. Frémont.