Books: A bottomless well

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 1:13pm
By Clay Risen
0813 Adam Goodheart head final.jpg
Adam Goodheart (Chapter 16)

In his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, historian and journalist Adam Goodheart presents what he calls a “pointillist” picture of a country on the brink of self-destruction. Through a series of profiles and stories, Goodheart demonstrates how America was both gearing up for an epic conflict and coming to grips with the horror that lay before it — and all the while slowly realizing that whatever happened, it would change the nation forever. He spoke with Chapter 16 by phone prior to his upcoming appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.


Once you decided to write about the Civil War, how did you settle on the idea of writing about a particular year—and why 1861?

The genesis of the book was in a bundle of letters that I found in the attic of an old plantation house here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I live. The letters documented the dilemmas faced by a man who was serving as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1861, as the country was falling apart. He was stationed out in Indian territory, in what is now Oklahoma, and he was trying to decide what to do as the country went to pieces. Should he stay loyal to the country whose flag he had fought under for decades, or should he stay loyal to the South, since he considered himself a Southerner, being from Maryland? Those letters brought me into that moment and into the dilemma that man faced, and I decided I wanted to tell a story of a big moment in history through a series of small, individual stories.


That’s what is so moving about the book. The Civil War is often framed as either inevitable or the result of political mistakes, in either case without any connection to the lives of everyday people. Your book does a great job bringing that story to life.

All of us know from our own times that history isn’t something that happens because of one speech that’s made or one law that’s passed, but that it’s an accumulation of individual moments and individual decisions and individual dilemmas for millions of people. That’s what I try to capture in the book — a pointillist image of that moment, that crisis. Wars, civil wars especially, have a gravitational pull of their own, drawing in many people for many reasons. All too often the depictions of war in either popular history or academia have been much too reductive. I wanted to recapture some of the complexity of actual human experience.


How did you find the stories you wanted to tell?

My background is one that combines academia with journalism. When I was a full-time journalist, I would be assigned by an editor to go to a foreign country and send back a magazine piece about it. That’s how I treat history: Iit’s often been said that the past is a foreign country, and I try to be a foreign correspondent in the land of the past. I visited a moment in time and looked for people and places that would bring that moment to life for the readers.


One story that grabs me, and probably grabs most readers, is that of Elmer Ellsworth. His story seems to capture the nut of what you’re trying to say with the whole book. Who was he?

He was a young man who sparked a cultural craze in late 1850s, what began as cultural phenomenon and then became a military one, known as the Zouaves. Zouaves were troops of a kind that originated in Europe, known for uniforming themselves in Moroccan-style fezzes and baggy pants. They would take the battlefield this way and perform military drills that were a cross between Cirque du Soleil and Seal Team 6. They’d turn somersaults and twirl bayonets and perform acrobatics. Elmer Ellsworth became obsessed with the Zouaves and created a group of Zouave cadets that toured America to great acclaim in the late 1850s. He became a cultural hero, almost a 19th century rock star.

When the Civil War began, he formed a regiment of Zouaves made up of New York City firemen. He led these troops as part of the first wave of Union troops into Virginia during the first weeks of war. That came about partly because he had become good friends with Abraham Lincoln, had been practically adopted as a member of the Lincoln family. His death in the very first weeks of the Civil War — a death that occurred not in the glory of the battlefield, but in a squalid double murder on the staircase of a cheap hotel — was a signal moment in the war.


Telling the story of the war through the stories of the war feels like such a natural way to approach the history of the era. The Civil War is, after all, our Iliad, the font of a thousand American stories.

There have been, they say, more than 75,000 books published about the Civil War, more than one per day since the surrender at Appomattox, which is a lot of books. But I think it is one of those epics like The Iliad, like the Bible stories, that can be told and retold by each generation. When people ask me, “Why do you study the Civil War?” of course one can say all sorts of things about its relationship to the nation we have become, to the continuing dilemma of race in this country. But I also need to talk about how marvelous the characters and episodes are and the way they’ve continued to inspire generation after generation of American artists and writers.

One of the examples I love the most is a story Bob Dylan recounts in the first volume of his memoirs, when he describes arriving in New York as a very young man 50 years ago, during the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Dylan would go at least once a week to the New York Public Library and scroll through the microfilmed newspapers and see what was happening exactly that week 100 years before. He said he was obsessed with speeches and sermons and the “epic bearded characters,” as he called them, who were on stage at that moment in American history. As he describes it, it was the Civil War era that inspired much of his music and poetry. So I think it’s a nearly bottomless well, not just for historians but for
writers of all kinds.

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.