Grateful American® Foundation

Civil War Historian Adam Goodheart Reminds Us of What Life Was Like in “1861”

April 2, 2015




April 14, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

To commemorate the event, we interviewed Civil War expert Adam Goodheart, the author of “1861” and the upcoming “1865” — two books that capture the essence of the battles and the time.

A historian, essayist, and journalist, Goodheart’s articles have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine.

Goodheart is also the director of Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He splits his time living there and in Washington, DC.

David Bruce Smith and Hope Katz Gibbs, co-hosts of the Grateful American™ Series, caught up with the popular author to talk about 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a gripping and original account of how the Civil War began. Scroll down to read our Q&A, and click here to listen to the entire interview as a podcast on the Grateful American™ Radio Show.

And, be sure to watch Goodheart and Smith’s recent appearance on News Channel 8’s “Let’s Talk Live,” which is posted on the Grateful American TV Show. — David Bruce Smith, founder, the Grateful American™ Foundation

Goodheart_1861Adam Goodheart Unearths a Hidden History in “1861”

By David Bruce Smith, Founder, and Hope Katz GibbsExecutive Director

The Grateful American™ Foundation

Hope Katz Gibbs: Your book introduces us to a heretofore little-known cast of Civil War heroes. Among them, an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, an idealistic band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, and a young college professor who would one day become president. So tell us, what inspired you to write “1861”?

Adam Goodheart: It actually started with the discovery of buried treasure.

It was related to my work as a college teacher out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. If you’ve been to the Eastern Shore, you know that in many ways it feels like the land that time forgot. The area is filed with lots of old, crumbling plantation houses and little colonial villages tucked away along the tidal rivers. So when I’m teaching American history out there, I love to take my students out to explore the environment, where you can feel history come alive.

About eight years ago, I took a class to one of the old plantation houses, a place that had been in the same family since the 1600s. And as we roamed through this old brick house, we found old steamer trunks in the attic that were stuffed with family papers.

The papers ranged from land records from the 1660s, up to somebody’s credit card statement from the 1980s, all jumbled together. And mixed up in this treasure trove, we found a bundle of letters from the spring of 1861 — letters written by a man who had lived on this plantation. The letters were tied in a bundle with silk ribbon that clearly hadn’t been undone since the 19th century, and hadn’t been read in 150 years.

As we read them, we found that he was trying to figure out what it all meant as the country fell apart, as the South seceded, as the leaders of Maryland were deciding to be a Union state or a Confederate state. It was clear to me right then that I wanted to write a book about it.

David Bruce Smith: In the book, you bring so many great characters to life — including James Garfield and Jessie Freemont. It’s a very eclectic group.

Adam Goodheart: When I started out, I didn’t expect to write about James Garfield at all. But I came across excerpts from his letters and diaries that made it clear that 20 years before he was president, he was just an ordinary young American man in his 20s trying to figure out what it all meant, similar to the man whose writings I discovered in the plantation house. Garfield’s personality and his words just pulled me in and he became an exciting character in my book.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us more about the women of the time, such as Jessie Freemont.

Adam Goodheart: Jessie Freemont worked behind the scenes to try to keep California in the United States. She’s a little-known hero of this era, who not only worked to save the Union but stretched the limits of what a woman could achieve in the very restricted political environment of the time.

She was most famous, perhaps, for the famous men she was associated with. Her father was Thomas Hart Benton, a US senator who gained fame by challenging a man to fight a duel with pistols only five feet apart.

She married another tough frontier character, John Freemont, who was a great explorer of the American West and ran for president. Jessie herself tried to step into the political spotlight even though upper-class women were banned from the political arena.

David Bruce Smith: Having spent so much time with James Garfield and Jessie Freemont and Abner Doubleday, that whole clique, do you feel like you got to know them?

Adam Goodheart: Absolutely. One of the things I love about writing history is that you feel like in some ways you can get to know these people almost better than they knew themselves, or at least you can get to know the circumstances that they were working in better than they could know them. For example, you can read about President Lincoln and what he was thinking as the Civil War began, and you can also read what Jefferson Davis was thinking as he figured out his strategy for the war. Putting it all together gives you a perspective that somebody at the time couldn’t have gotten. That’s very powerful.

David Bruce Smith: Would you say that the Civil War was the beginning of civil rights?

Adam Goodheart: I think the Civil War marked the moment when the struggle against slavery became the struggle over the definition of citizenship in our country. It’s amazing to think that many people who believed in American slaves being freed didn’t think that African-Americans should be or could be citizens.

For African-Americans, the Civil War wasn’t just about gaining freedom, it was also about gaining citizenship. The hundred years following the war is the story of making sure that the full promise of what was given in the Civil War would be realized.

Hope Katz Gibbs: The Civil War era seems to have been a very romantic time. People spoke in flowery language. They were thinking about big changes, and how they wanted society to be structured. Is that accurate?

Adam Goodheart: Absolutely. People wrote amazing letters — and I’m not just talking about Abraham Lincoln, but ordinary folks. The soldiers wrote absolutely beautifully. This was a time when people were just steeped in great literature. They were reading Shakespeare. They were reading the Bible. They were reading the great 19th century poets Byron and Tennyson. And they were absorbing the rich language and writing that way themselves.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us why you believe the Civil War period is important for everyone to understand today — especially kids?

Adam Goodheart: For one thing, it is just an amazing story. History is all about storytelling. And the Civil War really has it all — it’s somewhat like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” It’s a modern-day Greek myth that we keep telling and retelling through the generations because it speaks to us so much as human beings.

The Civil War is also important because it helped us define our identity as Americans. While we don’t all share the same ethnic background, religion, or political ideas, we do share the same history.

David Bruce Smith: How do you transmit that feeling to kids and adults so that they want to know people like Garfield or Freemont?

Adam Goodheart: You have to try to put people today in the shoes of people at that time. Some historians write as if people in the past are robots whose actions are determined by certain economic and social and political forces. But people then had all the same passions, all the same doubts, all the same wants we have now.

So I think it’s most important to create fully rounded characters who aren’t perfect. Lincoln in my book is really blundering and stumbling a lot of the time before he finds his footing as a leader. So we historians have to avoid making people into gods and also try not to make them into repositories for our pet academic theories. We have to bring them out on the page as actual human beings.

David Bruce Smith: The US Marines talk about getting your “boots on the ground.” It seems that you believe in “boots on the ground” teaching and learning?

Adam Goodheart: I do! Kids and parents should get out there and walk the places where history happened, walk the battlefields, walk through the towns and villages, and explore. Take a book out to one of these places. I’ve had such powerful experiences by taking a book to a Civil War battlefield and reading about what happened there on the spot. You just see it unfolding. Read aloud to each other when you go to a place like that.

Talk to people as well. For instance, near where I live and in many places are African-American communities founded by freed slaves right after the Civil War. I take my students there sometimes. There’s a wonderful church out in Maryland, not far from Washington, founded by the descendants of freed slaves, and the descendants of those families still live there.

You can go to the church services and experience probably much of what African-American religion would have been like in the 19th century. Then stick around afterwards and talk to people about when they were growing up. There are people alive today who remember Civil War veterans. It’s not that long ago, so talk to old folks and hear those stories, and you’ll hear things that nobody else knows.

What are three big ideas your family can talk about tonight at dinner about “1861”? Adam Goodheart suggests:

  • Freedom. “One of the stories I like best in the book is on how freedom really began for enslaved African Americans,” he says. “This isn’t the story that most people think of when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and then Congress passed a congressional amendment setting all slaves free. This is a story about how the slaves, the African Americans, decided in the very first days of the Civil War to seize freedom for themselves.”

It starts with three completely unknown young men — Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend — who, in the first weeks in the Civil War escaped from a Confederate encampment where they were being held in bondage as laborers. They made their way across the river into a Union fort and were taken in and given their freedom by the Union general, starting an absolute flood of enslaved people running to the Union lines, joining the Union cause, and forcing the issue of slavery on to the table at a moment where almost nobody — including Abraham Lincoln — wanted it there.

  • Elmer Ellsworth and the Zuave movement. A young colonel named Elmer Ellsworth came out of nowhere and led the Zuave movement. These guys would go in to battle dressed in weird uniforms — little fezzes and big baggy red pants. And when they were fighting, they would jump into the air and pirouette and twirl their muskets and turn somersaults. They were sort of like the Navy Seals meet Cirque du Soleil.
  • Lincoln getting his sea legs as a politician. My book portrays Lincoln as a man who comes to Washington, DC, as a complete political unknown. He is very naïve in many ways about politics and does not understand how the federal government works in many respects. Yet, in the weeks and months to come, he transforms himself into one of greatest leaders, if not the greatest leader, America has ever known.

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