Stunning Photographs of Civil War Soldiers
1861 author Adam Goodheart discusses an amazing new exhibition, and his book about the start of the Civil War.
Slate: What's the 1861 sense of who Abraham Lincoln is? How much do Americans know about him at the start of the war?
Goodheart: Lincoln was the least known figure ever to assume the presidency until then, and I think we forget just how inexperienced he was. He was a one-term Congressman from Illinois, and hadn't even set foot in Washington in a dozen years when he came to the White House. He was a cipher. Everyone was speculating on what he would do, and nobody thought that Lincoln would be the preeminent power in the White House. Most people thought it was going to be William Seward. We tend to look at Lincoln now from the perspective of this fully realized figure who was martyred four years later, but Lincoln in 1861 was very much groping his way and in many instances blundering his way through this crisis. He made a lot of mistakes. But it's also this moment right at the beginning of the war when you see him stepping into his own for the first time and making a couple of political masterstrokes that bespoke the kind of leader he would become.
Slate: I read Ulysses Grant's memoirs recently, and one of the most astonishing things I learned was that in 1861, Grant was a store clerk. Four years later he is the most important man in the country.
Goodheart: Grant is a shop assistant. William Tecumseh Sherman is the president of a streetcar company. They're both in St. Louis, incidentally, at the same time, as the war begins, and Grant is padding around looking for a commission and not getting one. So the war was also a revolution in the sense of bringing an entirely new group of Americans to power and to prominence while the great figures of the previous era, the Millard Fillmores, the Franklin Pierces, the James Buchanans, sank into obscurity.
Slate: I recently heard Yale Professor David Blight say that there have been more books published on the Civil War than there have been days since the Civil War ended—more than 70,000 of them. Why does the world need another one?
Goodheart: Another figure is that there have been more Civil War books published than there were soldiers at the battle of Bull Run. But I feel like the Civil War is one of those great stories that can just keep being visited and revisited. It's famously been compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey, in that there's a new way to narrate it in each generation.
I came to the Civil War very much informed by my experience with 9/11: being here in Washington and seeing mobs of people fleeing from the area of the White House, and people standing on the street corners looking at the column of smoke rising from the burning Pentagon. That moment when just everything changed, when things that had been certainties the day before suddenly evaporated into thin air, was something I think we have a new appreciation of in our times.
Slate: Did everything change suddenly for Americans in 1861, or had they felt secession and the war coming with a creeping sense of inevitability for the previous 20 years?
Goodheart: When Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward called it "the irrepressible conflict," he was widely attacked in both the North and the South, because people still believed in compromise. They still believed in the American political system to work things out. They still believed in white solidarity trumping the politics of slavery. So the bombardment of Fort Sumter really was a revolutionary moment, when many people's politics changed overnight, many people were ready to go to war in a way that they hadn't been just 24 hours earlier. Whitman expressed it very well—he said, "News raced through the land as if by electric nerves," and then he also said, "The Negro was not the chief thing. The chief thing was to stick together."
Click to view a slide-show essay featuring portraits of Civil War soldiers.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of Adam Goodheart courtesy Random House.