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.
Once again, Goodheart sees the story from the white perspective. "Although no detailed account written by a black person of those early days at Fortress Monroe survives," he writes, "the reports of white soldiers and journalists ... allow us to imagine both the exhilaration and the disorientation of the fugitives. The world that they had known their entire lives had vanished almost literally overnight."
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.