David Frum

02.18.12

David's Book Club 1861: The Civil War Awakening

When did Americans start flying flags on town greens?

According to Adam Goodheart in his widely (and justly) praised new history, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, the custom erupted in December 1860. The event that precipitated the new flag craze was Major Robert Anderson's transfer of his Charleston garrison from the (indefensible) Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. At a time when most federal installations in the South were being surrendered either by weak-willed local commanders or by treasonable officials in the War Department in Washington, and months before Abraham Lincoln took office, the Kentucky-born Anderson gave the first hope that secession would be resisted. Anderson's raising of the flag above Fort Sumter inspired thousands of ordinary Americans to do the same wherever their hands could reach.

"Suddenly," Goodheart narrates, "the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after September 11—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above village greens and college quads. For the first time, American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched, and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand."

Goodheart quotes a letter from a young woman in New York written that first spring of the war: "It seems as if we were never alive till now; never had a country till now."

Goodheart focuses his story on the months from Anderson's flag-raising until the battle of First Bull Run, July 21, 1861.

In those weeks before the first meeting of large military units, the war was something that primarily happened in the minds and lives of individual Americans. Which is not to say that the war was not a violent reality, only that the violence was much more personal than it would later become.

Here is how the war came to Missouri. A hastily organized force of Union-loyal German immigrants led by the commander of the St. Louis arsenal moved upon the camp of the pro-secession state militia:

Afterward, no one could agree on how the shooting started. One teenager recalled seeing  a boy his age pitch a clod of dirt at a mounted [Union] officer. Other witnesses described an unarmed man stepping out of the row of onlookers and being savagely bayoneted by one of the 'Dutchmen.' The most credible accounts corroborate what [William Tecumseh Sherman, then a St. Louis businessman] would remember. As he and [his son] Willie watched, a drunken man in the crowd tried to push his way through the ranks of Sigel's troops to reach the other side. When a sergeant blocked him with his musket, shoving him roughly down a steep embankment, the drunkard staggered to his feet, pulled a small pistol from his pocket, and fired. An officer on horseback screamed as the bullet tore a gaping wound in his leg. (The captain, an exiled Polish nobleman named Constantin Blandowski) would die of his injury a few weeks later.) And so it was that the panicking soldiers turned their muskets on the crowd.

...

A few bold civilians stood their ground and fired back at the soldiers. ... By the time the shooting stopped, bodies lay everywhere: a middle-aged street vendor, a teenage girl, a young German laborer in his work clothes, and several soldiers from both [Union and secession] commands. A wounded woman sat keening on the ground, clasping the body of her dead child in her arms. In all, more than two dozen people had been killed or mortally hurt.

As Goodheart observes, the early scenes of the US Civil War resembled Baghdad or Belfast much more than the traditional big-unit narrative allows. He borrows a good quip: "One historian has described this approach as treating the war like 'a great military Super Bowl contest between Blue and Gray heroes.'"

Civil war begins in murder: a shot in the face, a knife in the gut, neighbors burning each other's houses. Passions have to be worked very high for people to act in this way. Passions were worked so high in those first days of war, by Americans who recognized what their descendants too often refuse to recognize: the war was about slavery from the very start.

The slave property of the South was valued at $2 billion on the eve of war: more than the value of all the nation's factories and railroads, more than the value of the South's agricultural land. It was to protect this stupendous asset that the South went to war. That decision by the South in turn pushed many Northerners to reject the lies and hypocrisies necessary to incorporate the fact of slavery into the ideal of American democracy.

Certainly the slaves themselves understood from the start that the war was about slavery. Goodheart introduces us to the first three slaves to cross Union lines, the original "contrabands": Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. Assigned to dig earthworks for rebel militia near Hampton, Virginia, they took a boat that spring of 1861 and slipped away to the Union force at Fort Monroe. When their master demanded their return, General Benjamin F. Butler had to determine what to do. Butler was no abolitionist. He was a powerful Democratic politician from Massachusetts, who had voted 57 times to nominate Jefferson Davis for president at his party's convention in 1860. And yet when the demand came, Butler refused:

Ever the diligent student of jurisprudence, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize and hold any enemy property that was being used for belligerent purposes. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, had been helping build a Confederate gun emplacement. Very well, then - if the Southerners insisted on treating the blacks as property, the Yankee lawyer, too. In that case, he had as much justification in confiscating Baker, Mallory, and Townsend as he would in intercepting a shipment of muskets or swords.

Butler's lawyering opened the doors to thousands of refugees. Within weeks of the start of hostilities, the price of slaves began to fall. By the summer of 1861, the price of slave property had fallen by more than half as self-emancipation spread. The difficulty of defending slavery hobbled the Southern cause from the start, not only diplomatically, but also because fears of what unguarded slaves might do inhibited the southern states from committing their militias fully to the Confederate cause: military forces were needed at home too to deter slave rebellion. Goodheart observes that the rebellion never came, but that's not quite right. It did come, but in a less murderous and more effective form: in the form of running away northward and then enlistment in the Union Army—300,000 black enlistments by the time all was done. "You say you won't fight to free Negroes," President Lincoln wrote reproachfully to a mass meeting in Illinois in 1863. "Some of them seem ready to fight for you."

Goodheart has achieved a remarkable thing: he has written something both interesting and novel on those opening days of the Civil War. The Civil War Awakening will change the way you think about why Americans fought for the Union, and what they imagined that Union to stand for. The ideals he describes would be worth rediscovering at any time—but rarely more than now, when so many invoke a spurious version of the past in order to thwart progress in the present.