You think you know about 1861, right? Confederates soldiers open fire on Union soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, forcing a Union surrender and the beginning of the Civil War. Battles followed, families torn apart, a nation divided, slaves are emancipated, the Confederacy wears out, and surrenders, everyone is happy until Lincoln is assassinated. Of course if you're a Civil War expert, you know much, much more than that. But I would guess that even if you consider yourself an expert, you probably haven't looked at 1861 in the way Adam Goodheart does in his new book--conveniently titled 1861--about the beginnings of the war.
Instead of trudging chronologically through the events that led to the beginnings of war and the early battles, Goodheart focuses in tightly on a variety of less-covered topics: the slow, long debate within Fort Sumter, as the Federal troops led by Major Robert Anderson tried to figure out what to do; the formation of the "Wake Ups," an informally organized group of young men who began to prepare themselves for war against the Confederate states; the role of the large German immigrant population in St. Louis in keeping Missouri from seceding; the story of how California was kept from seceding from both the Union and the Confederacy; how escaped slaves who arrived to help Union soldiers pushed the decision for emancipation.
Most intriguingly, Goodheart tells the story of Elmer Ellsworth, little known now, but (according to Goodheart) practically a rock star in his day. Ellsworth, a young man from upstate New York, saw a French Zouave regiment perform and became fascinated by their gaudy uniforms and strenuous gymnastic moves. He formed his own American Zouave regiment and actually went on tour with them; if you can imagine, audiences cheered the young men as they jumped, rolled, and waved their bayonets in sync. Picture a dance team, except armed. Afterwards, Ellsworth studied law, clerking in Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, office. Lincoln liked him and brought him to Washington after Lincoln was elected president. When the war broke out, Ellsworth offered to form a new Zouave regiment. However, instead of filling his ranks with bright eyed young boys, he decided to recruit the toughest men around--New York City firefighters. The "Fire Zouave Regiment" took over Washington--they weren't the most gentlemanly unit around, but they sure came in handy if a fire broke out.
Ellsworth led his unit to one of the first actions of the war, a venture across the Potomac to take Alexandria, Virginia, back from the Confederates. While trying to take the Confederate flag down from an inn, Ellsworth was shot, becoming the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War (there is a story that Mary Lincoln had seen the Confederate flag flying in Alexandria and said she wished someone would take it down, thus prompting Ellsworth's foolhardy action. But the story is unconfirmed, and Mrs. Lincoln, nutty as she was, takes enough historical crap; let's leave her out of this one). Ellsworth received a massive state funeral and served as an inspiration to young men who joined the Union army. And now he is virtually forgotten.
As much as I love history, I've never been much of a Civil War aficionado--too many other people are, so I stubbornly resisted. But I really enjoyed this book--it's well written and covers material that you didn't sit through over and over again in junior high school and high school. Whether you are a Civil War expert, or a relative newcomer, I think you will enjoy it too.