1861: The Civil War Awakening
by Adam Goodheart
Vintage Books/Random House (2011), hardcover, 481 pages
This is a wonderful book that paints a vivid picture of America during the Secession Crisis and the early days of the Civil War. But beyond mere narrative, 1861’s main focus is on chronicling the psychological shift among Northerners that made the Civil War possible. Until the mid-1800s, the North had seen compromise on the issue of slavery as the greatest virtue, with the goal of keeping the South in the Union trumping all other concerns. Even though most Northerners reviled slavery and slaveholders, they hated abolitionists even more because they saw them as dangerous radicals who were hell-bent on tearing the nation apart, all for the sake of the slaves.
Goodheart chronicles how and why Northerners came to reject compromise in favor of quashing secessionism at all costs, including war. He does this by focusing not so much on well-known or politically important individuals like Abraham Lincoln but on lesser-known people like future president James Garfield (whose extensive diaries reveal the evolution of his thoughts) and now-forgotten people like Elmer Ellsworth (the founder of the New York Fire Zouaves regiment that would be blamed for the disaster at Bull Run). He also chronicles popular movements of the day like the Wide Awakes, a Republican paramilitary group that sprang up overnight and became a national craze. Training in secret, the St. Louis Wide Awakes (composed mostly of immigrant Germans) became so formidable that a wily Missouri politician and a maverick (and possibly psychotic) Union Army officer were able to turn them into a fighting force that scored the first significant Union victory of the war (and probably saved Missouri for the Union).
Fascinating chronicles of many more little-known events from early in the war and a very entertaining (though sometimes a bit too florid and digressive) writing style make 1861 a fine addition to any Civil War library.