April 14, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
He was shot during an evening performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, and Lincoln died the next morning. The attack came only five days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his massive army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.
What made Booth want to kill the president?
To find out, we interviewed Civil War expert Adam Goodheart, author of “1861” and the upcoming “1865” — two books that capture the essence of that era.
A historian, essayist, and journalist, Goodheart’s articles have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. Goodheart is also the director of Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He splits his time living there and in Washington, DC.
Scroll down to read our Q&A, and click here to listen to the entire interview as a podcast on the Grateful American™ Radio Show. And be sure to watch the recent appearance of Goodheart and Smith on News Channel 8’s “Let’s Talk Live,” which is posted on Grateful American™ TV Show. — David Bruce Smith, Founder, Grateful American™ Foundation, and Hope Katz Gibbs, Executive Producer, Grateful American™ Series
Historian Adam Goodheart Reminds Us of What Life Was Like in “1861”
When it comes to restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and adults, David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Foundation is leading the charge.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, Smith appeared on today’s episode of News Channel 8’s “Let’s Talk Live” with one of his advisers — historian and Civil War scholar Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Following are Goodheart’s Top 10 Fascinating Facts about the Civil War:
1. The Civil War was the bloodiest American war ever fought. During an average day, approximately 600 people were killed. By the end, more than 625,000 Americans had died — more than in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
2. If the names of the Civil War dead were listed like the casualties from the Vietnam War, the Civil War memorial would be more than 10 times longer.
3. During the Civil War, 2 percent of the US population died. This is equivalent to 6 million people today.
4. While rifles were the deadliest weapons, disease killed even more. Camps became breeding grounds for measles, chicken pox, and mumps. One million Union solders contracted malaria.
5. The term “carpetbagger” was used by Southerners to describe opportunistic Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction. These newcomers often carried bags made from used carpet, or carpetbags.
6. In the 20 years following the Civil War, the national divorce rate increased 150 percent.
7. Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. About the same number of men died in the first 15 minutes of Grant’s assault at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864.
8. The average Civil War solder was 5’8” tall and weighed 143 pounds. He was 23 years old.
9. Most Civil War soldiers marched 15 to 20 miles a day.
10. The United States has more than 20 federal historic sites, 50 museums, and 70 national cemeteries dedicated to the Civil War.
Grateful American™ Series
Adam Goodheart Unearths a Hidden History in “1861”
By David Bruce Smith, Founder and Hope Katz Gibbs, Executive Director, Grateful American™ Foundation
Hope Katz Gibbs: Your book introduces us to a heretofore little-known cast of Civil War heroes. Among them, an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, an idealistic band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, and a young college professor who would one day become president. So tell us, what inspired you to write “1861”?
Adam Goodheart: It actually started with the discovery of buried treasure.
It was related to my work as a college teacher out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. If you’ve been to the Eastern Shore, you know that in many ways it feels like the land that time forgot. The area is filed with lots of old, crumbling plantation houses and little colonial villages tucked away along the tidal rivers. So when I’m teaching American history out there, I love to take my students out to explore the environment, where you can feel history come alive.
About eight years ago, I took a class to one of the old plantation houses, a place that had been in the same family since the 1600s. And as we roamed through this old brick house, we found old steamer trunks in the attic that were stuffed with family papers.
The papers ranged from land records from the 1660s, up to somebody’s credit card statement from the 1980s, all jumbled together. And mixed up in this treasure trove, we found a bundle of letters from the spring of 1861 — letters written by a man who had lived on this plantation. The letters were tied in a bundle with silk ribbon that clearly hadn’t been undone since the 19th century, and hadn’t been read in 150 years.
As we read them, we found that he was trying to figure out what it all meant as the country fell apart, as the South seceded, as the leaders of Maryland were deciding to be a Union state or a Confederate state. It was clear to me right then that I wanted to write a book about it.
David Bruce Smith: In the book, you bring so many great characters to life — including James Garfield and Jessie Freemont. It’s a very eclectic group.
Adam Goodheart: When I started out, I didn’t expect to write about James Garfield at all. But I came across excerpts from his letters and diaries that made it clear that 20 years before he became president, he was just an ordinary young American man in his 20s trying to figure out what it all meant, similar to the man whose writings I discovered in the plantation house. Garfield’s personality and his words just pulled me in, and he became an exciting character in my book.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us more about the women of the time, such as Jessie Freemont.
Adam Goodheart: Jessie Freemont worked behind the scenes to try to keep California in the Untied States. She’s a little-known hero of this era, who not only worked to save the Union but stretched the limits of what a woman could achieve in the very restricted political environment of the time.
She was most famous, perhaps, for the famous men she was associated with. Her father was Thomas Hart Benton, a US senator who gained fame by challenging a man to fight a duel with pistols only five feet apart.
She married another tough frontier character, John Freemont, who was a great explorer of the American West and ran for president. Jessie herself tried to step into the political spotlight even though upper-class women were banned from the political arena.
David Bruce Smith: Having spent so much time with James Garfield and Jessie Freemont and Abner Doubleday, that whole clique, do you feel like you got to know them?
Adam Goodheart: Absolutely. One of the things I love about writing history is that you feel like in some ways you can get to know these people almost better than they knew themselves, or at least you can get to know the circumstances that they were working in better than they could know them. For example, you can read about President Lincoln and what he was thinking as the Civil War began, and you can also read what Jefferson Davis was thinking as he figured out his strategy for the war. Putting it all together gives you a perspective that somebody at the time couldn’t have gotten. That’s very powerful.
David Bruce Smith: Would you say that the Civil War was the beginning of civil rights?
Adam Goodheart: I think the Civil War marked the moment when the struggle against slavery became the struggle over the definition of citizenship in our country. It’s amazing to think that many people who believed in American slaves being freed didn’t think that African-Americans should be or could be citizens.
For African-Americans, the Civil War wasn’t just about gaining freedom, it was also about gaining citizenship. The hundred years following the war is the story of making sure that the full promise of what was given in the Civil War would be realized.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us why you believe the Civil War period is important for everyone to understand today — especially kids?
Adam Goodheart: For one thing, it is just an amazing story. History is all about storytelling. And the Civil War really has it all — it’s somewhat like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” It’s a modern-day Greek myth that we keep telling and retelling through the generations because it speaks to us so much as human beings.
The Civil War is also important because it helped us define our identity as Americans. While we don’t all share the same ethnic background, religion, or political ideas, we do share the same history.
What are three big ideas your family can talk about tonight at dinner about “1861”?