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Adam Goodheart on the Hearts and Minds That Made the Civil War

04/21/2011 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2011

In his marvelous book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart presents a rich and vivid portrait of what Americans of the time were all about at the start of the Civil War; he explores what ordinary people and extraordinary people, from east to west, north to south, from shopkeepers to housewives, pioneer farmers to plantation owners, firemen to telegraph pole layers, Lincoln to Grant, Laura Keene to Walt Whitman, were reading about, singing about, gossiping about and praying about.

Change was in the air in 1861 America. Under the sway of new technologies, the world in 1861 was spinning at a faster and faster speed (sound familiar?); the purpose of the Constitution was under debate (sound familiar?); and the destiny of the country was up for grabs (ditto all over again): was the United States to be a role model of freedom, tolerance, and independence; a power driven by manifest destiny (and based on slave-based economies); or a short-lived union followed by disunified independent countries of north, south, and far west?

Goodheart goes deep into social and political culture to understand the ambiguities of the times, such as how a proudly free nation tolerated the realities of slave trading (largely due to the fact that slavery was a multi-million-dollar industry); how eager volunteerism thrived alongside abiding fear of standing armies and war; how the acceleration of pop fads, political showmanship, and all kinds of news (there was a proliferation of newspapers) coincided with traditions of hard work and moral rectitude; and how self-determination extended to the personal: young men were leaving towns and valleys and fields their families had worked for generations to find new opportunities and even brand-new identities.

I was struck by Goodheart's declaration that "the rock 'n roll" of 1861 America were the words of poets and authors. As he explains in the book, these "verses stirred millions of young Americans who heard in them the language of their own souls, and a kind of prophetic authority." In the final chapter of the book, he presents the the most stirring words of all: Lincoln's speech to Congress and to the nation, on July 4th, 1861. Lincoln laid down the propelling reasons for defending and preserving the Union: to uphold the freedom of the people of the United States to pursue their own destiny:

"This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men -- to lift artificial weights from all shoulders -- to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all -- to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."

I am a firm believer in the stirring power of the written word but Goodheart underscores the sobering aspect of such stirring: yes, there was romance in the dream of "gallant young knights riding off to sacrifice their lives" for whom and what they believed in. Unfortunately, what they rode off to fight for became, for too many, what they rode off to die for.

But Goodheart's focus is not on the fighting of the war, or how over 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, or how an entire nation was left scarred and shaken. Instead he offers a comprehensive look at why Americans went to war with each other, what changes were being sought, not only politically but personally. The mid-century was a time of revolution all over again, but this time the revolutions were personal; yes, emancipation was sought, but not only for Black slaves but for all Americans who wanted more freedom -- freedom of identity, purpose, and destiny.

How do Americans today, in this year of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, view its causes and its effects? Goodheart's book shows us how limited our schoolbook teachings were -- broad brush portrayals of North versus South, slave state versus free -- by bringing the everyday world of the times back to the forefront of our understanding, its culture and spirit, not just its politics and economies. Goodheart brings us into the world of mid-nineteenth century America, as ambiguous and ambitious and fractured as the times we live in now, and he brings to pulsing life the hearts and minds of its American citizens. Those Americans were longing for freedom, with all its possible promises and in all its possible forms. That longing is both a cause and an effect of the Civil War-- and a principle of our United States -- that none of us should ever forget.

This review was cross-posted on readallday.org

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