In his marvelous new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart tries to capture what it felt like to live through secession and the opening months of the Civil War, at a time when it wasn't clear, or destined, that the war would become the bloodiest and most important event in American history. A historian at Washington College and one of the lead authors of the New York Times' Disunion blog, Goodheart writes especially vividly about photography, so last week I invited him to tour "The Last Full Measure," a new Library of Congress exhibition of portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers, where I interviewed him about the images, and about his book. "The Last Full Measure" displays more than 300 photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection: Most are portraits of individual soldiers in uniform, and most of those soldiers are unidentified.
Slate: Americans have a sense of the whole scope of the Civil War, but what is it about the year 1861 that we miss when we look back and see the Civil War as a single complete event?
Goodheart: We tend to think of the Civil War in a very fatalistic way, as a sort of vast national martyrdom. It's hard to recover the fact that things could have turned out very, very differently. It's also hard to grasp the idea that Americans at the beginning of the war had no sense of the way that things were going to unfold. When I wrote the book, I really wanted to recover that moment of uncertainty and change – to convey how people, then and now, experience history not as seen from 30,000 feet as the History Channel might, but as a barrage of individual events coming at them, alternately thrilling and terrifying.
Slate: What's an example of a moment in 1861 where the Civil War wouldn't have had to unfold the way it did, or where secession wouldn't have had to unfold the way it did?
Goodheart: The greatest blunder that the Confederacy made in the entire Civil War may have been opening fire on Fort Sumter this week 150 years ago. In winning that fort, they may have lost the entire war. What I mean is: Here was this little besieged garrison, 60 soldiers and a brass band, and basically a worthless 2-acre piece of federal real estate on an island in the middle of Charleston Harbor. They were being starved out. The Lincoln administration simply wanted to send provisions to resupply this fort, and the Confederacy opened fire when they did because they didn't want provisions coming in. Lincoln famously said, "Fort Sumter fell and in so doing did more service than it could have otherwise," by which he meant that it made the Confederacy inhumane aggressors in the eyes of the nation and in the eyes of the world.
The Confederates had no good strategic reasons for taking that fort, and if they had simply, as a humanitarian gesture, let these Union troops be resupplied with food, I think they would have had time to make the Confederacy seem more and more credible as a nation. New nations have a way of becoming more credible as time passes—they get things like judicial systems, postal systems, diplomats—and if that had happened, if they had simply refused to fire the first shot, I don't think that Lincoln would have allowed the first shot to be fired, and quite possibly the Confederacy would have gained legitimacy as a nation.
Slate: What about once the war started? Is there a way the war could have unfolded differently once it had begun?
Goodheart: If firing on Fort Sumter was Jefferson Davis' biggest blunder, Lincoln made his biggest blunder just three days later. After Fort Sumter had fallen, there was an incredible patriotic outpouring across the North—it was like nothing in American history except possibly the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on 9/11. There were literally probably over a million American men of military age across the North who were ready to sign up and fight. Men were mobbing recruiting stations. Instead Lincoln called for only 75,000 troops, which disappointed a lot of people. Lincoln didn't call up all those troops, and the Union mobilized much more slowly than the Confederacy did and missed a chance to strike a decisive blow at the South.
Slate: One of the most entertaining chapters in 1861 is about James Garfield, the Ohio university professor and state legislator who would go on to become a Union general and eventually president of the United States. Who is Garfield and why is he interesting at this moment when the war starts?
Goodheart: I wanted to get inside the brain of an ordinary young American in the North. Of course Garfield turned out to be President of the United States, but at this time he was just a lowly state legislator in Ohio who had come up from poverty. He was the last president to be born in a log cabin. Because he later became president, every scrap of paper, practically, was saved, and he was a prolific writer, diary keeper, he saved every page of his lecture notes—so you can really get inside him in a way that you can't with other Americans from the time who didn't become president. And Garfield exemplified the romantic longings of the time, as well as a political ambivalence that then turned into very passionate feelings for the Union and against slavery.