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.


Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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.

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.