"All politics is local," Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once noted. Historian and writer Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, concluded that the same should be said of history. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Goodheart following his lecture at the American Association for State and Local History Conference in Richmond. The basis for his book has origins in a field trip with his students to Poplar Grove Plantation - an abandoned 250 year old manor house in the back country of Maryland near Chestertown. There, one of his students discovered a bundle of letters describing the national turmoil and inner debates Americans felt regarding secession, Union, treason, loyalty, and uncertainties. One Virginia colonel who was considering the merits of secession weighed the risks of become a Founding Father in a new revolution or being branded a traitor in an illegal rebellion. "It is like a great game of chance," his wife reflected. In times of war, citizens reflect not only on what can be gained but what can also be lost.
In order to understand the past, Goodheart argues, one has to travel to it. As he drives his students down the long gravel path to the desolate Poplar Grove he exclaims, "Fasten your seat belts. We are now leaving the 21st Century!" Few things in the study of history can compete against "the eloquence of place." It is in such locations that one can best relate and connect with the compelling human drama of the era. The conflict was more than a movement of politics, tactics, and mass columns of troops. It was a war of "millions of individual hearts and minds." Each of those individuals are pieces of the larger historical puzzle illustrating the times in which they lived and died.
When recalling his middle school field trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, he noted how the Electric Map was "never a history that appealed to me." He continued that such methods of "treating the Civil War like a great Super Bowl contest" in some ways diminishes their individuality and human traits, not to mention their reasons for fighting. In many instances, Civil War soldiers, "treated schematically, marching mathematically in step to ideological beats" oversimplifies the men and their respective causes. Contrary to Thoreau's famous quotation, "Simplify, simplify," Goodheart contends the historian should "Complicate, complicate." Stir the hornet's nest. Cause people to rethink, reanalyze, and further appreciate the history they thought they knew.
Drawing contemporary parallels to the past is an effective measure of allowing comprehension to important or tumultuous events. Events such as 9/11 change our perceptions of what had been as well as our expectations of what to was come. The author claims that Fort Sumter was that "9/11 moment" to the Civil War generation. On the rooftops of Charleston, South Carolina in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, commoners watched the ensuing devastation and wept much like New Yorkers watching the Twin Towers 140 years later on 9/11. Both were pivotal moments that reshaped how people perceived their lives and their world. There was no going back - and they knew it.
Goodheart concluded by sharing a story regarding Secretary of State William Seward, revealing what Fort Sumter truly initiated and represented to the nation:
"When Lincoln finally unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862, he framed it in Butleresque terms, not as a humanitarian gesture but as a stratagem of war. On the September day of Lincoln’s edict, a Union colonel ran into William Seward, the president’s canny secretary of state, on the street in Washington and took the opportunity to congratulate him on the administration’s epochal act.
"Seward snorted. 'Yes,' he said, 'we have let off a puff of wind over an accomplished fact.'
“'What do you mean, Mr. Seward?' the officer asked.
"'I mean,' the secretary replied, 'that the Emancipation Proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Sumter, and we have been the last to hear it.'"
Adam Goodheart speaks at the Library of Congress.