A penetrating look at the crowded moment when the antebellum world began to turn.
The zeitgeist is by definition ephemeral and difficult to recapture—think, for example, of a period as recent as America before 9/11—but that’s the neat trick splendidly accomplished here by journalist and historian Goodheart, now director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. History, he reminds us, is composed not merely of the momentous judgments of government ministers and generals, but also of the countless decisions of ordinary people. These responses to unexpected challenges are complicated, not always predictable and, taken together, have the power to shift events decisively. Such a time was 1861, when the “Old Gentlemen” (the likes of Buchanan, Tyler and Crittenden) gave way to the self-made men (exemplified by Lincoln, multiplied by a still younger generation of strivers like James Garfield and Elmer Ellsworth); when the Republican marching clubs, the Wide Awakes, and the exotic Zouave drill team became something more than quasi-military; when the transcontinental telegraph replaced the Pony Express; when trolley-car executive William Sherman and shop clerk Ulysses Grant looked on as two unsavory men preserved Missouri for the Union; when fugitive slaves suddenly became “contrabands”; when a general in San Francisco and a major at Fort Sumter, notwithstanding their Southern sympathies, remained faithful to their military oath; when surging patriotism and romantic notions of war turned to hatred and bloodlust; when an unfolding national crisis required people to choose sides, sweep away old assumptions and rattle categories long deemed unshakeable, and bring forth something new. Whether limning the likes of Benjamin “Spoons” Butler, abolitionist Abby Kelley Foster or the young Abner Doubleday, explaining something as seemingly inconsequential as the fashion for men’s beards or unpacking Lincoln’s profound understanding of the nature and unacceptable consequences of the rebellion, Goodheart’s sure grasp never falters.
Beautifully written and thoroughly original—quite unlike any other Civil War book out there.