Author Interviews
6:06 am
Fri March 9, 2012

'1861': A Social History Of The Civil War

Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 1:12 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on April 12, 2011. 1861: The Civil War Awakening is now available in paperback.

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired almost 151 years ago in the Charleston, S.C., harbor. Less than two days later, Fort Sumter surrendered. It would take the Union army nearly four years to bring the coastal fortification back under its command.

On Fresh Air, historian Adam Goodheart explains how national leaders and ordinary citizens responded to the chaos and uncertainty in the days and months before and after the struggle at Fort Sumter, an almost-bloodless two-day battle that became the start of the Civil War almost by mistake.

"[At Fort Sumter] the Southerners thought that they would be able to drive the Yankees off of Confederate territory, and [they thought that] the North would feel like it wasn't worthwhile to fight to bring the South back into the Union," says Goodheart. "Suffice to say, they miscalculated hugely."

Goodheart is the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a social history of the earliest days of the Civil War, a time when the country — soon to be two separate nations — was preparing itself for battle. He chose the year 1861, he says, because there were so many uncertainties all over the United States.

"When we think about the Civil War today, we see the entire arch of the struggle — sort of a great epic struggle — ending, of course, with the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln," he says. "But by taking the one particular moment when everything was uncertain — when everything seemed to change overnight — I wanted to recover that sense ... of not knowing what's going to come next. And people didn't know in 1861 what was going to come next."

Adam Goodheart is a historian and journalist. He contributes to the "Disunion" column for The New York Times, which follows the Civil War as it unfolded 150 years ago. He has also written for National Geographic, Outside Magazine, The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine.




Interview Highlights

On why people are still arguing about what the Civil War was really about

"When you go back and you look at the actual documents, many people have said since then that it was about states' rights, but really the only significant state right that people were arguing about in 1860 was the right to own what was known as slave property — property and slaves unimpeded — and to be able to travel with that property anywhere that you wanted to. So it's clear that this was really about slavery in almost every significant way, but we've sort of pushed that to the side because of course we want to believe that our country is a country that's always stood for freedom. And ... certainly it's difficult for some Southern Americans to accept that their ancestors fought a war on behalf of slavery. And I think that Northerners really, for the cause of national reconciliation, decided to push that aside — decided to accept Southerners' denials or demurrals."

On changes in the South

"I think the South is changing a lot today, even from where it was just a few years ago. Some of the deep genesis of my interest in this subject came about 10 years ago when I traveled through the Deep South, visiting plantations and plantations that had become historic sites. And I found there was this great collective amnesia going on. I visited one plantation in Natchez, Miss., where the slave cabins had been turned into guest rooms at a bed and breakfast, and there were Jacuzzi bathtubs in these places, and it was this incredible example of redecorating the past away. But I think even 10 years later, when you travel through the South and you visit these historic sites, there's an increasing willingness to engage with the slave past."

On the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg

"In 1913, there was an anniversary celebration at Gettysburg — the anniversary of the 1863 battle — and they brought these Northern and Southern veterans together, and the Confederate and Union vets embraced one another. There are some wonderful photographs, and they're holding Union flags and Confederate flags, and Woodrow Wilson went and gave a speech, saying that the 'old quarrel has been forgotten.' Well, it's very symbolically significant that excluded from that reunion were the black veterans. They were not even invited to participate. That part of the Civil War history was, for a long time in this country, simply pushed aside and erased almost completely."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest today is Adam Goodheart, author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening," about the opening year of the Civil War. It's now out in paperback.

Goodheart said he wanted to write about how ordinary citizens and national leaders experienced and responded to sudden crisis and change as it unfolded. He also contributed to the New York Times Civil War Web series, "Disunion," which describes events 150 years ago using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments. Goodheart also directs Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Terry Gross spoke with Adam Goodheart on April 12, 2011, 150 years to the day since the provisional forces of the Confederate States opened fire on For Sumter in the Charleston Harbor of South Carolina. That act is now considered the official start of the Civil War.

Terry began by asking him exactly what happened on that day back in 1861.

ADAM GOODHEART: There had been this little garrison of Union soldiers, 60 soldiers and a brass band, sitting on a two-acre island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, the very hotbed of secession for the past four months.

And at this moment, the South decided that they couldn't tolerate this little garrison there any longer, and they opened fire on the fort. It was a great symbolic statement of Southern sovereignty, Southern nationhood.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

So it was meant to be symbolic. Was it meant to launch a civil war?

GOODHEART: Well, this little island, it was this sort of useless, two-acre piece of federal real estate. It had no military importance, really, at all. But to the South, it was freighted with symbolism, and their great miscalculation was that it turned out to be freighted with symbolism for the North, as well.

I don't think that they intended to certainly launch a Civil War on the scale that the war became. In fact, the Southerners sort of thought that they would be able to drive the Yankees off of Confederate territory and then that the North would feel that it wasn't worthwhile to fight to bring the South back into the Union. And suffice to say, they miscalculated hugely.

GROSS: And there was controversy within - disagreement within the Lincoln administration over what to do about Fort Sumter. You paraphrase Secretary of State William Seward, who said that, you know, keeping the garrison at Fort Sumter would be like the bellicose act of a hard-line abolitionist regime.

It would make it seem like the conflict was one, quote, "upon slavery or about slavery," unquote, whereas the crisis must be framed as a question simply of union or disunion.

GOODHEART: Yeah, Lincoln was in a very difficult position as April 1861 began because here was this little garrison in Charleston Harbor, and they were literally being starved out. This war began, really, due to that ancient law of siege warfare that you can't survive forever without food. And the Confederates had cut off food supplies.

So Lincoln had to decide either to simply withdraw the garrison and yield this fort to Confederate control, as in fact forts all across the South had been surrendered to the Confederates over the past several months, or he had to attempt to resupply them with food. And that, many Americans in both North and South, believed would be seen as an act of aggression, a statement that the federal government was not going to let the South leave in peace.

And in fact, Lincoln ended up doing something very clever, and it was his first sort of great political master stroke as president. Rather than sending a military expedition to Fort Sumter, he sent some tugboats carrying food.

And he actually did something that I think a more seasoned military commander never would have done: He telegraphed to the Southern commanders, and he said that this expedition was on its way to Charleston Harbor.

And he said that this was a routine, humanitarian, resupply mission. So he ended up putting them in a very difficult situation, turning things around so that the South had to either allow this garrison to stand, or they had to open fire upon a purely humanitarian mission. And so, that was when they decided to start firing at Fort Sumter before the humanitarian mission could arrive.

GROSS: And was that seen officially as an act of war? Did President Lincoln decide, after the South fired on Fort Sumter, we are now at war, this is a civil war, and...

GOODHEART: I think Lincoln knew at the point that he sent that expedition that the war was going to begin sooner or later. And we have records of discussions within his Cabinet where it becomes clear that gradually, this realization was dawning.

And so Lincoln recognized that it would be in the North's best interest to have the South fire the first shot, to have the South be the aggressors. He was not going to have the North open fire on the South, which would have been very divisive, which would have risked alienating foreign powers that might have stepped in on the side of the South.

And there's a very telling remark that Lincoln made to a close confidante of his a couple of months after the beginning of the war. He said: They attacked Sumter. It fell and thus did more service than it otherwise would.

GROSS: Meaning?

GOODHEART: Meaning that sort of the best thing that the South did for the Union cause was to launch that attack on Fort Sumter, to become the aggressors in the eyes of the world and united a previously very divided North behind the cause of the Union.

GROSS: Now, your book focuses on one year, 1861. It's the year the Civil War starts. Why did you want to focus the book on just one year?

GOODHEART: Well, I think that when we think about the Civil War today, we tend to think of a sort of a fatal inevitability in the process. We see the entire arc of the struggle, sort of a great epic struggle ending, of course, with the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln.

And by taking that one particular moment when everything was uncertain, when everything seemed to change overnight, I wanted to try to do what I think is one of the most difficult things for a historian to attempt, which is to recover that sense that I think we all have as we experience history happening to us of not knowing what's going to come next. And people didn't know that in 1861. There was a great national insecurity that I think is very important to understanding that time.

GROSS: Do you think that a lot of people in the North and the South thought that there'd be some kind of negotiated settlement, that it wouldn't really come down to war?

GOODHEART: Yes, I think they did. I think that a lot of people had faith in the American ideal of compromise, which of course is something that we all believe in as a foundation of our democratic system, although as we've seen in our own times, we don't always succeed at reaching that, certainly as easily as we'd like.

But yes, people had faith in that. Several past generations, ever since the framers of the Constitution, had managed to paper over the slavery question through compromise. And so, many Americans hoped that a similar compromise could be reached in 1860 and 1861.

But it was one of those moments - and again perhaps familiar from other times in American history - when the radicals on both sides ended up controlling the agenda.

GROSS: And what did the radicals on each side stand for?

GOODHEART: Well, the radicals on the Southern side stood for a free, independent, Southern republic. A republic that would be founded on slavery, with slavery as its cornerstone, as Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, famously said in a speech known as "The Cornerstone Speech."

He explicitly repudiated Thomas Jefferson's doctrine that all men are created equal, and he said: We in our new republic have a new dogma, that we are a republic whose cornerstone is slavery.

In the North, there were a lot of people who, in the 1850s, were increasingly unwilling to tolerate the expansion of slavery. And in some cases, of course, they were abolitionists. But in many cases, they were not abolitionists but simply felt that slavery was an evil system that should not be allowed to gain any more ground.

And a lot of people were tired of compromising. They were tired of a generation of what were seen as weak politicians, known as the dough faces, and they were simply ready to draw a line and say no more.

GROSS: So both sides, for the extremes of both sides, it was about slavery. And yet, there are still arguments about what was the Civil War really about. And some people say: Oh, it wasn't really about slavery. Why are we still arguing about what the Civil War was about?

GOODHEART: Well, you know, when you go back, and you look at the actual documents and debates from the time, of course, many people have said since then that it was about states' rights. But really the only significant state right that people were arguing about in 1860 was the right to own what was known as slave property - property and slaves - unimpeded and to be able to travel with that property anywhere that you wanted to, to be able to spread slavery across the United States.

So it's clear that this was really about slavery in almost every significant way. But, you know, we've sort of pushed that to the side because, of course, we want to believe that our country is a country that's always stood for freedom. And I think it can be difficult for Americans to accept.

Certainly it's difficult for Southern Americans to accept that their ancestors fought a war on behalf of slavery. And I think that Northerners really, for the cause of national reconciliation, decided to push that aside, decided to accept Southerners' denials or demurrals.

GROSS: You know, it's - in terms of how we're still talking about what was the war really about, in 2010, the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, made a statement about Confederate History Month. And he didn't mention slavery in it. He praised those who fought for their homes and communities and commonwealth, but there was no mention of slavery. And he got a lot of criticism for that.

And Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that the Civil War was about slavery, and that remark was considered, like, very important, a very important admission.

GOODHEART: Yes, I think the South is changing a lot today even from where it was just a few years ago. I actually - really some of the deep genesis of my interest in this subject came about 10 years ago when I traveled through the Deep South, visiting plantations and plantations that had become historic sites.

And I found there was this great sort of collective amnesia going on. I visited one plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, where the slave cabins had been turned into guest rooms at a B&B, and they were sort of Jacuzzi bathtubs in these places and all sort of decorated in chintz. And it was the sort of incredible example of sort of literally redecorating the past away.

But I think today, even just 10 years later, when you travel through the South and you visit these historic sites, there's an increasing willingness to engage with the slave past. And I think that's something that sort of parallels in many other ways, the ways that our country has grown on the issue of race including in some fairly improbable places, among some fairly improbable people.

And I think actually that overall, I find a strong note of hope at this 150th anniversary of the Civil War. You know, certainly, it's very difficult from the 50th anniversary of the Civil War.

In 1913, there was an anniversary celebration at Gettysburg, the anniversary of the 1863 battle. And they brought these Northern and Southern veterans together, and the Confederate and Union vets embraced one another, these old men. There are some wonderful photographs, and they were holding Union flags and Confederate flags, and Woodrow Wilson went and gave a speech and said that the old quarrel is forgotten.

Well it's very symbolically significant that excluded from that reunion were the black veterans. They were not even invited to participate. So, that part of the Civil War history was, for a long time in this country, simply pushed aside, erased almost completely. And I think we're in a very different place today.

BIANCULLI: Historian Adam Goodheart, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book, "1861: The Civil War Awakening," is now out in paperback. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with historian Adam Goodheart. His book "1861: The Civil War Awakening" is now out in paperback.

GROSS: In your book, "1861," you tell the story of a lot of individuals and a lot of groups of people in the North and in the South who took surprising positions or who had a hard time deciding what their position would be.

One of the groups that you write about is the German immigrants in St. Louis at the start of the Civil War. St. Louis was officially slave territory, but these German immigrants opposed slavery and opposed the Confederacy. Tell us why.

GOODHEART: St. Louis was a very strange place because here was a slave state, the state of Missouri, but within Missouri, you had the city of St. Louis, which was a great industrial city, had a lot of people who had come, actually, from the North, a lot of Yankees who had settled there because of the industry, a whole lot of immigrants, especially German immigrants.

And these people had their own very particular set of allegiances. And in fact these Germans were, in many ways, much stronger abolitionists, much more committed Lincoln partisans than most non-immigrant Americans were.

Many of them had come fleeing the aftermath of the liberal nationalist revolutions in Europe in 1848. And so, they came with a sense of battling for freedom in their native countries. They came with a sense of having arrived in a land where they didn't have to fear a sort of a small, aristocratic oligarchy. And they were not ready to live within the kind of society that the Confederates wanted.

And in fact, these Germans began arming themselves very, very early in the war. Almost from the moment that Lincoln was elected, and it became clear that the South was going to secede. They start drilling with rifles, secretly at night. They form these paramilitary groups. And this sort of minority of Germans within the state actually kind of stages what they tried to do in Germany. They staged a sort of a push or an uprising against this tyrannical, against this sort of right-wing state government. And they managed to overthrow it.

They sent the pro-slavery governor of Missouri fleeing for his life across the state. And Missouri did not fall into Confederate hands. So it was a moment of great heroism that I think has been really forgotten in the story of the war.

It was also a moment of great tragedy because this was a struggle. The struggle in Missouri was fought not on a battlefield somewhere between blue and gray troops, but literally a war in the streets. This was a civil war like the kind that we see today in a place like Benghazi, for that matter.

It was a civil war of people opening fire on crowds of civilians, capturing one another and killings in execution-style at point-blank range. There was a kind of savagery, a kind of squalor to this civil war that I think also has been deliberately forgotten.

GROSS: And this is the state divided against itself?

GOODHEART: It was. It was the state divided against itself. And there were also many Americans who were divided against themselves at this moment.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Adam Goodheart, and his new book is called "1861: The Civil War Awakening." He also writes the New York Times Civil War blog. He's a major contributor to it. That blog is called "Disunion."

GOODHEART: And, Adam, in your "Disunion" blog, you wrote about the difficulty that many Native Americans had choosing their side, choosing what side to take during the Civil War, and you wrote about the Choctaw and their divided loyalties at the start of the Civil War. Would you tell us about those divided loyalties?

GROSS: Yeah, that's right. And, you know, there were all of these different groups within America that really had to decide where they wanted to put their loyalties at that moment. And it was anything but a fait accompli.

GOODHEART: The Choctaws were interesting. Well, really, a lot of these Native American tribes were interesting because they actually had a long history of having to throw their loyalties with one group of whites against another one. This was something that went all the back to early colonial times, and some of the struggles between the French and the English or the French and the Spanish over control of the American continent.

And so here they were, and on the one hand, they had this new Confederate government that was based on slavery, based on white supremacy, which certainly wasn't something that seemed promising to the Indians in certain respects. The Southerners had done much to push the Indians, including the Choctaws, out of their ancestral lands, farther west. And yet they also had the North, which represented the federal government, that had been no friend to the Native Americans, and that had newly been taken over by the Republican Party.

And Lincoln and Seward both made it clear that westward expansion was a very central part of the Republican political agenda. And so, the Indians really were caught between a rock and a hard place.

And groups like the Choctaws ended up going and fighting for the Confederacy while other groups ended up going and fighting for the Union. And it really ended up - there ended up being a sort of a tragedy for both groups because, in the long run, both the pro-Union and the pro-Confederate Indians ended up suffering a lot and not gaining very much.

GROSS: Now, you say that among the Choctaw, though, were many tribal elders who actually owned black slaves.

GOODHEART: That's right, and that's something that we tend to forget, again, today, that there were Choctaw leaders who owned black slaves. There were many Cherokee leaders who owned black slaves.

And many of these Indian groups also had become really intermarried with whites at this point. So the divisions between groups in America were much fuzzier than the sort of Union and Confederate, blue and gray categories that we try to fit people into.

BIANCULLI: Adam Goodheart speaking with Terry Gross last April on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War. His book, "1861: The Civil War Awakening," is now out in paperback. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2011 interview with historian Adam Goodheart. His book about the start of the Civil War called "1861: The Civil War Awakening" is now out in paperback.

At this point in their conversation, the topic shifts to one of the central concerns of the Civil War - slavery.

GROSS: Let's talk about the economic importance of slavery to the South. We know how slaves were used on cotton plantations and within the homes of plantation owners. Were there other ways that slave labor was being used or other ways that the South intended to use slave labor?

GOODHEART: Well, I think it's important in general to remember that slaves were the largest single investment of these Southern planters. So we have to think about the slaves not simply in the way that they were being used or employed but also in the way that they represented, as terrible as it is to say, a sort of a liquid asset, actually a highly liquid asset for these Southerners who owned them.

We tend to think of slavery also as just sort of simply a moral issue. But I think we think of it differently when we realize that the value of slave property, some $4 billion, enormous amount of money in 1861, represented actually more money than the value of all of the industry and all of the railroads in the entire United States combined. So for Southern planters to simply one day liberate all of that property would have been like asking people today to simply overnight give up their stock portfolios, give up their IRAs.

And again, it's terrible that people thought of their slave property this way. They thought of the amount that their slaves would be able to fetch on the market if they happen to fall on hard times. They thought of what those slaves would be worth as inheritance to their children, and how that slave property would have to be divided or liquidated with their estate.

And they also, again, as terrible as it is, thought about the value of that slave property increasing over time. And even so great an idealist as Thomas Jefferson also did some calculations and realized, as he put it, that the rate of return he could get on his, as he called it, breeding women, was as much as five percent a year, where his return on the value of their labor would be much less.

So the economics of slavery were very important driving the South into war. They weren't simply protecting their ideals, they were protecting their investments.

GROSS: And the South wanted the new territories to have slaves, for slaves to be legal there. So were there new kinds of work the South envisioned slaves doing as new territories opened up?

GOODHEART: Well, I think the South really envisioned that it would have a slave empire that would stretch all the way around the Caribbean, all the way around the Gulf of Mexico, and that they would control not just cotton but all of the other sort of great staple crops of the 19th century - things like sugar and coffee. And there were Southerners in 1861 saying that once we control this wealth we will also control the political destinies of the world and we will have an empire greater than any that was known by Greece or Rome.

So they were dreaming not only of a sort of an independence from the North, but actually of a sort of a grand imperial future.

GROSS: You reprint an ad from a Virginia newspaper from the day that Lincoln was inaugurated, March 4th, 1861, and this is a sheriff's sale of free Negroes. And the ad reads: On the 4th day of March, 1861, I will proceed to sell at public auction, in front of the courthouse door, for cash, all free Negroes who have failed to pay their tax for the years 1858 through 1860.

What was that about, selling free Negroes' labor?

GOODHEART: Well, you know, in very real ways African-Americans in the pre-Civil War era and even in the post-Civil War era were not really truly free. Even though they technically had been emancipated, their lives were still constrained in many ways. And one of them was that in many Southern states if you were a free black person and fell behind on your taxes, which, of course, was not uncommon for very poor people, which most of the free blacks were, you could actually be auctioned off in order to pay that debt. You wouldn't be sold permanently back into slavery, but your labor could be auctioned off for a period of time that it would take to repay that.

Now, actually, in many places free blacks could be re-enslaved, not usually for debt, but if they committed certain crimes. Free blacks were also not infrequently kidnapped back into slavery. So this really was a white supremacist culture throughout America.

Thinking about just how interwoven slavery was into Southern society, into American society actually, because there were large sectors of the Northern economy that depended on slavery, the entire textile industry, which was huge in many parts of the North. And Northerners were very aware of what the destruction of slavery would mean for their economy.

But thinking of how interwoven it was, you know, one example I use with my college students at Washington College when I'm teaching this history is to talk about today when many of us recognize that in burning fossil fuels we're doing something terrible for the planet, we're doing something terrible for future generations. And yet in order to give this up would mean sort of unraveling so much of the fabric of our daily lives, sacrificing so much, becoming these sort of radical eccentrics riding bicycles everywhere, that we continue somewhat guiltily to participate in the system.

And that's something that I use as a comparison to slavery, that many Americans in the North, and even I believe sort of secretly in the South, felt a sense of guilt, felt a sense of shame, that knew that the slave system was wrong but were simply addicted to slavery and couldn't give it up.

GROSS: When you mention the textile industry you mean cheap cotton?

GOODHEART: That's right; the cheap cotton that was being sent to New England to be processed in the Northern textile mills and then shipped all over the world. It was one of the great American industries at the time.

BIANCULLI: Historian Adam Goodheart speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Civil War historian Adam Goodheart. His book about the beginnings of that war called "1861: The Civil War Awakening," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: What was the state of the Union military when the war started?

GOODHEART: When the war started the Union military consisted of really just 15-17,000 men who were all scattered, strung out in forts along the western frontier. They certainly were not concentrated in any way anywhere where they could counter the threat of secession. And, in fact, throughout the South, when the Confederacy began to flex its military muscle, Union forts tumbled one by one sort of like chess pawns into the hands of the Confederacy, simply because in many cases they would only have a couple of dozen men guarding them.

And again, the North was in a very difficult situation because if they called up thousands or hundreds of thousands of Union volunteers they would be seen as the aggressors and yet the South was calling up thousands and thousands of volunteers and arming itself for war. So in many ways the North ended up sort of caught unprepared for the war, and I think if they had started preparing themselves much sooner they really could have shifted the momentum of the war militarily much more quickly.

And, in fact, I think that part of it also has to be blamed on Abraham Lincoln. You know, in retrospect, of course, Lincoln seems like a sort of a great wise figure who stepped into his role as a national leader very easily. But, in fact, he had some strokes of genius in early 1861, but he also made some great missteps and blunders.

And one of these was at this moment that Fort Sumter gets attacked, it's sort of a 9/11 moment or a Pearl Harbor moment for America and literally probably over a million Union men of military age are ready to volunteer and go off to fight the rebels. And they're literally - they're mobbing recruiting stations throughout the North, pushing and shoving to get there to sign the enlistment forms, and Lincoln decides only to take 75,000 men. He doesn't want to make this seem like a crusade against the rebels.

And that was an enormous blunder because again, the Union goes in sort of with one hand tied behind its back and does not sort of attack the Confederacy with everything it has at the beginning of the war.

And very quickly, when it becomes clear that this war is not going to be as easy a war as everyone thought, all of that sort of war fever, the rage militaire, as the French call it, evaporated very fast and it became difficult to get troops to the point where, of course, a draft became necessary.

GROSS: There were slaves who had been conscripted by the Confederacy to fight or at least to help in like building forts and stuff like that and some of these slaves escaped and joined the Northern Army. But when they defected they were given the status of contraband. Would you explain why?

GOODHEART: Yeah. You know, very early in the war this problem of slavery presented itself, sort of thrust itself into the faces of the North. Many people wanted to simply restore the Union as it was in the Constitution, as it was as many people said in the North. And it quickly became apparent that this could not be the case because almost from the moment that these Union armies start penetrating the South, slaves are resisting their masters. They're rising up and escaping and flocking to the Union lines. And the Northern generals and the Northern politicians had to decide what was to be done with them and it was a real dilemma.

They sort of managed to get around this issue for a while with a very clever sort of tricky legal construction, which was the concept of contrabands.

There was one Union general in particular, General Benjamin Butler in Virginia, who, when three of these escaped slaves at the very beginning of the war made their way into his fort, he thought about it - and Butler was a lawyer in civilian life - and he thought, well, you know, what I'll do is if these Southerners claim that these slaves are property, I'll claim that they're property as well. And if they're property that's being used to support the military cause of the Confederacy, I can confiscate them as contraband of war. And so he declares these slaves contraband of war much as he might with an intercepted shipment of sabers or muskets.

And what happens is almost overnight more and more escaped African-Americans are just flocking to that fort until within a few weeks there are over a thousand of them. And they're flocking to Union fortifications and Union camps, anywhere that the Union forces are within range. And soon it's just literally an outpouring of enslaved African-Americans who are coming into these camps. And this is, you know, well over a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. There's a Union Army officer who said that the onrush was like the oncoming of cities pouring into our camps.

So really, I believe that the slaves began to liberate themselves long before Lincoln signed that document emancipating the slaves.

GROSS: Part of your research involved reading letters that you and your students found - 300 years worth of letters and documents from one family, the Emory family. And even within this family there was difficulty deciding which side to take.

GOODHEART: Yeah. The moment that really brought this book into being for me was two years ago when the students of mine at Washington College and I were exploring a crumbling old plantation house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place where there were very strong divisions within communities, within families between North and South at the beginning of the war. And we came across an attic full of family papers. And as we started going through these, there was one bundle of documents that we found that was all tied up with a silk ribbon that clearly hadn't been undone in more than a hundred years, and written on the outside was the date 1861.

And we opened up this bundle and inside was an incredible series of letters between a United States Army officer who was stationed all the way out in the West, in the Indian Territory at what's now Oklahoma, writing to his family back in the East. He's very far removed from the scene of the action, as it were, and he's trying to figure out which side to take.

And on the one hand he's grown up in a slaveholding family. He comes from a slave state. He considers himself culturally and politically a Southerner. And yet, here he is out West under the Stars and Stripes, this flag that he's served ever since literally he was a teenage cadet at West Point almost 40 years earlier. He'd fought in the Mexican War for this flag, for this nation.

He's pulled by personal loyalties because he has many friends who are Union officers. He has the other close friends. He's a very close friend of Jefferson Davis. And he's trying to figure out which way to go and he's writing to his brother and writing to his sister. And so that was fascinating to me.

But what was equally fascinating was that he's not just thinking about politics. He's not just thinking about morality. He's not even just thinking about North and South, but he's also thinking about, well, what's this going to mean to me personally in a kind of a selfish way. What will this mean to my career?

If I go with the South, will I become a sort of a founding father of a new nation, much as our grandparents founded the new United States and were remembered as heroes? Or, he says, will I literally be strung up as a traitor? And his wife writes back to him and she says it is like a great game of chance.

And, you know, when I read that phrase I said I really want write a book that recaptures that moment when for millions of Americans it was like a great game of chance when everything was on the line and no one knew which way their gamble would turn out.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Adam Goodheart. His new book is called "1861: The Civil War Awakening." Some states today want the right to basically be able to nullify federal legislation in their state and not obey it; for example, to not follow the new health care policy that Congress passed. Do you see that as like a contemporary expression of similar divisions dating back to the Civil War?

GOODHEART: Yeah. Definitely nullification was sort of a version of secession-light, and that was a great controversy going back to Andrew Jackson's administration. And, you know, I think a lot of people in America were ready to let the South, ready to let this Southern minority sort of dictate the terms by which it would stay within the Union.

A lot of people in the North were even ready to let the South peacefully leave the Union if they felt that strongly about it, including a number of abolitionists, amazingly enough, who wanted the stain of slavery removed from the land of liberty. But, you know, part of the sort of the genius of Abraham Lincoln is that he articulated from the very beginning the reason that secession must not be allowed to stand.

Lincoln understood that secession was in a very real sense anarchy or even in a way terrorism against the foundations of democratic government. Because the basic principle of democratic politics in America was, and still is, majority rule and minority acquiescence to the will of that majority. And without that honored you could simply have groups and factions and regions withdrawing their allegiance as soon as they felt like it.

And Lincoln was right; the Union would not have been able to stand for long. Democracy, as he famously said in the Gettysburg Address, would have perished from the Earth in a way because the American example of democratic government would have failed in the eyes of the world, and Lincoln was very much conscious of these nations in Europe and even beyond turning their eyes to the American example at this moment.

And even the South would have been undermined from within. There were very real divisions between different states in the South and what was to keep Virginia from seceding from the Confederacy, or Louisiana, as soon as a political debate turned against it? So Lincoln realized this and he realized that in fighting against secession he was fighting for the existence of the Union and he was fighting for the existence of democracy itself. That was not an exaggeration.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOODHEART: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Historian Adam Goodheart, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book about the beginnings of the Civil War titled "1861: The Civil War Awakening" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new comedy "Friends with Kids." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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