March 15, 2014, Chestertown, PA — Civil War expert Adam Goodheart brings the history of the Civil War to life in this latest interview on David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Radio Show on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
The author of “1861” and the upcoming “1865,” Goodheart has penned two books that capture the essence of the battles and the time. A historian, essayist, and journalist, Goodheart’s articles have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and The Atlantic, and he is a regular columnist for The New York Times’ acclaimed Civil War series, “Disunion.”
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.
Co-hosts David Bruce Smith and Hope Katz Gibbs were thrilled to sit down with the popular author to talk about 1861: The Civil War Awakening.
Scroll down for their Q&A.
Adam Goodheart Brings “1861” to Life
This is a gripping and original account of how the Civil War began. Early in that fateful year of 1861, a second American revolution unfolded, inspiring a new generation to reject their parents’ faith in compromise and appeasement and do the unthinkable in the name of an ideal. It set Abraham Lincoln on the path to greatness and millions of slaves on the road to freedom.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Your book introduces us to a 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 these places where you really feel history come alive.
About eight years ago, I took one of my classes to one of the old plantation houses, a place that had been in the same family since the 1600s, more than 13 generations in this one family. As we roamed through this old brick house, we found in the attic all these boxes alongside old steamer trunks that were stuffed with family papers.
They 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 that had been written by a man who lived on this plantation. They were tied up in a bundle of 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: How long did it take you to write “1861”?
Adam Goodheart: Well, I was 40 when it was published. So it took me about 37 years. (Laughs.) Well, any book is really a project that you’ve been inspired to write, that you’ve been developing in your mind your whole life in some ways. With this particular book, the ideas were germinating in my mind, but really the writing itself just took about two years.
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: That’s a good word to describe them—an eclectic cast of characters. I actually started my career as a journalist, and to me the job was to bring these people to life and make them as real today as they were in 1861.
When you’re a journalist, you have to be ready to walk into a room and just have that sort of sixth sense of who is going to be interesting to talk to, the people I really want to interview for my story. That’s my approach as a historian, too. I step into that room, that foreign country of a moment in the past, and I look around for the people who intrigue me. It’s almost an instinctive feeling. So, for instance, I didn’t expect to write about James Garfield at all. I always had thought that he was one of the most boring 19th century presidents, the guy with a big bushy beard.
David Bruce Smith: I think of him as this guy who was president for about five minutes, then was shot by a madman, and that was it.
Adam Goodheart: Well just in reading about what was going on in 1861, I started coming across excerpts from his letters and diaries that made it clear that at that moment, 20 years before he was president, he was just an ordinary young American man in his 20s trying to figure out what it all meant, similar to the man who wrote the letters that I discovered in the plantation house .
Garfield was trying to figure out what this war was going to be, what it would mean for his personal future and the future of his country. His personality and his words just pulled me in and he became a character in my book. And people have said that he’s one of the more exciting characters in the 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 United States. She’s a very little known hero of this era, somebody who was not only working to save the Union but was working to stretch the limits of what a woman could achieve in the very restricted political environment at the time.
She was most famous, perhaps, for the famous men she associated with. Her father was Thomas Hart Benton, a very famous US senator who was also famous for challenging a man to a duel with pistols just five feet apart. He was really a rough character.
And then she also married a tough frontier character, John Freemont, who was a great explorer of the American West across the Rocky Mountains, ran for president, and did other amazing things. Jessie herself was actually more remarkable than either of these two men in many ways. She tried to step into the political spotlight in a time when women in upper class were banned in the political arena.
She worked behind the scenes, manipulating the politics in California where she was living. People tend to forget about California and the far West when thinking about the Civil War. We think the war happened in some battlefields in Virginia and Georgia and Tennessee. But Californians were actually considering whether or not they should leave the United States and form their own new country.
David Bruce Smith: So when you 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 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. If you’re reading about President Lincoln and what was going on for him politically as the Civil War began, you can read about what Lincoln was thinking and saying and writing in Washington as he tried to figure out his political strategy.
You can also read what Jefferson Davis was writing and thinking about and doing as he figured out his strategy for the war. So you know things that Lincoln didn’t know about Davis and some things that Davis didn’t know about Lincoln, and you can put it all together and get a perspective that no one at the time could 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 of the people who believed American slaves should be free didn’t think African Americans should be or could be citizens. They thought that people of African descent for various reasons should be excluded, and must be excluded forever, from becoming Americans.
For African Americans, the Civil War wasn’t just about gaining freedom, it was also about gaining citizenship. And that’s what they managed to do in the end to a significant degree, but then that was taken away from them to a significant degree as well. And the next hundred years begins to be the story of making sure that the promise of what was won in the Civil War would be fully fulfilled and realized. So you’re absolutely right. This was a moment that was a watershed for civil rights and really set the course for a lot of the American history for the next 150 years.
Hope Katz Gibbs: The Civil War era seems to have been a very romantic time. People spoke in very flowery language. They were thinking about big changes and how they wanted society to be structured. Is that accurate?
Adam Goodheart: Absolutely. People wrote these amazing letters, and I’m not just talking about Abraham Lincoln, but ordinary folks.
The soldiers wrote absolutely beautifully. This was a time when people were just steeped in great literature. I’m a great believer that you write what you read. So if you want to be a wonderful writer, the most important thing to do is to read wonderful books and poems and essays. This was a time in history when people were reading great stuff.
They were reading Shakespeare. They were reading the Bible. They were reading the great 19th century poets Byron and Tennyson. And they were absorbing their cadences. They were absorbing the rich language and they were writing that way themselves. One of the great pleasures for any writer in writing about that era is just getting to read their words.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Stepping back a bit, tell us why you believe the Civil War is a period that is important for everyone to understand today—especially kids.
Adam Goodheart: For one thing, it is just such an amazing story. History is all about storytelling. And we live not just for the things that are significant with a capital “S” or influential when you look at what’s happening in the current times. It’s also just for the great epic stories. And the Civil War really has it all—from Lincoln and Grant and Frederick Douglass to so many greater- and lesser-known heroes. This period in time is somewhat like the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” It’s a modern-day Greek myth that we keep telling and retelling through the generations.
I think the Civil War is important because it helped us definite our identity as Americans. While we don’t all share the same ethnic background, religion, or political ideas—we share the same history. We share a set of stories that whether our ancestors came here 300 years ago on the Mayflower or whether they got off the plane from Vietnam five years ago, we’re all American.
David Bruce Smith: How do you transmit that feeling to kids and adults who want to know people like Garfield or Freemont?
Adam Goodheart: You have to try to put people today in the shoes of people at that time. There are some historians who write as if people in the past were robots whose actions were determined by certain economic and social and political forces. You almost lose sight of these people as flesh-and-blood human beings with all the same passions, with all the same doubts, with all the same wants that we have now.
So I think it’s most important to create fully rounded flesh-and-blood characters who aren’t perfect. Lincoln in my book is somebody who is really blundering and stumbling before he begins to find his footing as a leader. So don’t try to make people into gods, and also don’t try to just make them into repositories for your pet academic theories. Bring them out on the pages as actual human beings.
David Bruce Smith: The US Marines talk about getting your “boots on the ground.” It seems that you believe in “boots on the ground” teaching and learning as well?
Adam Goodheart: I do! Just like I did with my students when we found the papers of the family—kids and parents should get out there and walk the places where history happened, walk the battlefields, walk through the towns and villages, explore—don’t just look at the historical markers, but read. Take a book out to one of these places. I’ve had such powerful experiences of just taking a book to a Civil War battlefield and reading about what happened there on the spot. You just see it unfolding. Read aloud to each other when you go to a place like that.
Talk to people as well. For instance, in many places there are African American communities that were founded by freed slaves right after the Civil War. I take my students there sometimes. There’s a wonderful church out in Maryland, an hour and a half from Washington, founded by the descendants of freed slaves, and the descendants of those families still live there.
And you can go to the church services and experience probably much of what an African American religious service would have been like in the 19th century and then stick around afterwards and talk to people about stories of when they were growing up. There are people alive today, amazingly enough, who remember Civil War veterans. It’s not that long ago, so talk to old folks and hear those stories and you’ll hear things that nobody else knows.
David Bruce Smith: Does doing that make a student who was uninterested initially become interested in history and then go on to something else, historically speaking?
Adam Goodheart: Absolutely. I had a student who took a class with me as a sophomore and is now a historian working for Congress. He does oral histories of people who served in and worked for the House of Representatives. And he just loves it. He says he jumps out of bed in the morning every day and can’t get to work. I love when I hear those stories. And I have students who are writing books. When I hear those stories, it’s just the best thing in the world.
What are three big ideas that your family can talk about tonight at dinner about “1861”?
Adam Goodheart suggests:
1. Freedom. “One of the stories that I like best in the book, in the next-to-last chapter, is a story of how freedom really began for enslaved African Americans,” he says. “This isn’t the story that most people think of when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and then Congress passed a congressional amendment setting all the slaves free. This is a story about how the slaves, the African Americans, decided to free themselves in the very first days of the Civil War and seized freedom.”
It starts with three completely unknown young men—Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend—who in the first weeks in the Civil War escaped from a Confederate encampment where they were being held in bondage as laborers. They made their way across the river into a Union fort and were taken in and given their freedom by the Union general. That started an absolute flood, an outpouring of enslaved people running to the Union lines, joining the Union cause, helping out the Union war effort, and really seizing freedom for themselves. They forced the issue of slavery onto the table at a moment where almost nobody—including Abraham Lincoln—wanted it there.
2. Elmer Ellsworth and the Zuave movement. A young colonel named Elmer Ellsworth came out of nowhere and led the Zuave movement. These guys would go in to battle dressed in the weirdest uniforms—little fezzes and big, baggy red pants. And when they were fighting, they would jump into the air and pirouette and twirl their muskets and turn somersaults. They were sort of like “the Navy seals meet Cirque du Soleil.” That is an amazing story.
3. Lincoln getting his sea legs as a politician. Readers of my book have told me that “1861” presents a very different Lincoln from the man they’ve read about elsewhere. My version of Lincoln portrays him as a man who comes to Washington, DC, as a complete political unknown. He is very naïve in many ways about politics and does not understand how the federal government works in many respects, and is faced with the worst crisis in American history. Yet, in the weeks and months to come, he transforms himself into one of greatest leaders, if not the greatest leader, America has ever known. So that Lincoln who starts out as a bumbler and stumbler in the early chapters of my book and becomes a great president in the final chapters is one that I really enjoy.
For more information, visit www.AdamGoodheart.com.
10 FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR
Did you know:
- The Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. During an average day during the war, approximately 600 people were killed. By the end of the war, more than 618,000 people had died—more Americans than WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
- If the names of the Civil War dead were organized similar to the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, the Civil War memorial would be over 10 times longer.
- During the Civil War, 2 percent of the US population died. This is equivalent to 6 million men today. While rifles were the deadliest weapons during the war, disease killed more men. Camps became breeding grounds for measles, chicken pox, and mumps. One million Union solders contracted malaria.
- 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.
- In the 20 years after the Civil War, the national divorce rate increased 150 percent.
- 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 near Richmond on June 3, 1864.
- The average Civil War solder was 23 years old, 5’ 8” tall, and weighed 143 pounds.
- Most Civil War soldiers marched 15 to 20 miles a day.
- In the United States, there are more than 20 federal historic sites, 50 museums, and 70 national cemeteries dedicated to the Civil War.
The Grateful American™ Series includes:
- The Grateful American™ Radio Show on the Inkandescent Radio Network features interviews about historical figures (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.) with the chief executives of the nation’s presidential homes, historians, and other experts: InkandescentRadio.com.
- The Grateful American™ TV series on YouTube, public access, and national TV stations.
- The Grateful American™ Guidebooks: Features insights from the leaders of the presidential homes, and interactive exercises that explore, engage, and help readers develop an interest in American history.
- The Grateful American™ Events: Dovetails with and promotes the events-in-progress currently going on at each of the nation’s presidential homes.
- An interactive website: Students post art, photos, writing, music, and other creative works about what excites them about American history.
About David Bruce Smith
Author and publisher David Bruce Smith is the creator of The Grateful American™ Series, an interactive multimedia program that is focused on restoring enthusiasm for American history in children—and adults, too.
A graduate of The George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in American Literature, and a master’s in journalism from New York University, Smith has spent decades as a real estate executive and the Editor-in-Chief/ Publisher of Crystal City magazine.
He is also the author of 11 books, including his most recent, American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.
For more information, visit davidbrucesmith.com.