A fiery comet gleamed in the night sky with such powerful radiance that it seemed to give a moral interpretation to the things of this world—or so Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of meteors and comets in The Scarlet Letter, noting, with muted irony, that it was a “majestic idea; that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven.” That was in 1850, the year of compromise. Eleven years later, on July 4, 1861, another comet lit the evening sky, its portents just as majestic. Surely it welcomed the new Southern Confederacy on the cope of heaven, or so it was suggested in Richmond, although Yankees figured it augured a Union triumph in the war recently begun, and Abolitionists saw in its traces, well, abolition.

The moral interpretation of the Great Comet of 1861 may never be fully known, just as the real war might never get in the books, as Walt Whitman famously said. Still, there’s no harm in trying (quite the opposite), or so we are learning this year, from the outpouring of interest in the Civil War’s sesquicentennial: postage stamps, art exhibitions, secession balls, battle re-enactments and, yes, histories, novels and anthologies either already published or soon to appear, all asking a host of questions ranging from what caused the firing upon Fort Sumter in April 1861 to why it had to happen, whether it had to happen and what might have happened if it did not.

By 1865 the war had taken the lives of at least 620,000 people, not counting the incalculable number of those who tended the wounded and died from typhoid or sheer exhaustion, or of those who stayed at home and read, day after day, the casualty lists that broke their hearts. But—no small thing—as a result of that war, slavery, once euphemistically called the “peculiar institution,” was abolished. The casualties were the great tragedy of the war; in emancipation lay its great virtue.

Americans like their tragedies to have happy endings, William Dean Howells once quipped, likely not thinking, at least not consciously, of the terrible slaughter he had avoided by being posted to Venice as US Consul during the war. And a spry tragedy is the subject of Adam Goodheart’s high-spirited 1861: The Civil War Awakening, which is less about the war’s massive casualties or even the political run-up to it, including the constitutional crisis provoked by secession, than the men and women (men mostly) who embodied the kind of Emersonian authenticity, self-reliance and self-determination we might discern in Abraham Lincoln, particularly by July 4, 1861, as the comet streaked across the sky and Goodheart’s book ends.

It begins when Maj. Robert Anderson raises the American flag at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor just a few months before the Confederates bombard it on April 12, 1861. On a chilly night the previous December, Anderson and his men had rowed under the cover of darkness across the channel to the sturdier Sumter from Fort Moultrie, another federal garrison in the same harbor, which Anderson had been sent to command during the secession crisis that swiftly followed Lincoln’s election. These forts were what Goodheart calls “ground zero” in the crisis: would the Yankees reinforce them or ignominiously let them fall into the hands of the South Carolinians, who had recently left the Union? And could Anderson and his men protect themselves and federal property while stationed at the crumbling Moultrie?

Anderson, a Kentuckian by birth but a loyal Union man, had faced his own crisis. John Floyd, the lame-duck secretary of war, had not ordered Anderson to move his men from one fort to another, although his not doing so, the corrupt Floyd knew, would put them in harm’s way. And it would essentially lead to the surrender of all three of the forts in Charleston Harbor to the South Carolinians, which was likely Floyd’s intention. To Goodheart, Anderson’s decision to abandon Moultrie for Sumter symbolizes the beginning of “a revolution” that “engaged both the nation’s progressive impulses and, at the same time, some of its profoundly conservative tendencies,” as revolutions do. That is, Anderson acted to preserve his honor and do his duty, and thus helped to sweep away an “older America stranded halfway between its love of freedom and its accommodation of slavery, mired for decades in policies of appeasement and compromise”—in other words, an America mired in stalemate for too long by that same mix of progressive and conservative leanings that paradoxically inspired its revolution.

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Goodheart does not explore the paradox. Rather, he offers a lively narrative that weaves back and forth from the trip to Sumter to the events preceding it or taking place long after it occurred. Nor does he intend to argue, as does David Goldfield in his recently published, compendious and riveting America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, that this essentially evangelical war might have been avoided. Rather, Goodheart shines a light on the broad social trends that, in a sense, either allowed the war to happen or made it inevitable. The nation was fed up, declares Goodheart, who speaks for its zeitgeist: “Enough. Enough compromise of principles; enough betrayal of people and ideals; enough cruelty; enough gradual surrender of what had been won in 1776.”

Enter, then, outfits like the Wide Awakes, a paramilitary Republican group that marched by night wearing shiny black capes and carrying torches, and whose symbol was a large open eye. (“Capes! Torches! Secret meetings!”) Or consider the Zouaves, named after a group of ferocious French soldiers who distinguished themselves in the Crimea and took their name from the Algerian tribesmen known for their colorful uniforms (loose jacket, baggy pants, fez). In America, the Zouaves were part of a youth movement that was “the logical outcome of the new republican ideology,” Goodheart writes, “that prized manliness and unyielding idealism.”

Such stout, gymnastic virility, whether bursting forth on the streets of Chicago or on the jowls and upper lips of young men who found beards and mustaches more authentic than a close-shaved “doughface” (a Northern name for Southern sympathizers), is traceable, according to Goodheart, to that apostle of self-reliant individuality Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose “public appearances were emotional events like the rock concerts of a later generation.” And Goodheart juxtaposes this virility against the debased politics of compromise practiced with deleterious effect by fogeys and fops, or the Old Gentlemen who had for years patched and padded a morally leaky ship of state. Chief among these anachronisms was Senator John Crittenden, another Kentuckian, who had served his government for forty years and who during the secession crisis proposed a series of compromise measures intended to head off disunion and, potentially, civil war by safeguarding slavery; they included such amendments to the Constitution as denying Congress the power to abolish the peculiar institution of the South.

The men of the future were men like Elmer Ellsworth, a poor boy from upstate New York with a penchant for military drills who became “the first male pinup” after he met, in Chicago, a French fencing instructor and former Zouave who taught him gymnastics, swordplay and military maneuvers. Soon, with unexplained resources, Ellsworth had formed his own group, the US Zouave Cadets, which performed on the shores of Lake Michigan and then throughout America in “a nineteenth-century version of Cirque du Soleil,” as Goodheart writes. Lincoln happened to meet Ellsworth, and shortly after Lincoln’s nomination as Republican presidential candidate the young man went to work for him as his clerk. After the surrender of Sumter, Ellsworth raised a swaggering volunteer infantry regiment from a group of New York City firemen; and after Virginia ratified its secession, he and his men disembarked at Alexandria, Virginia, which had been essentially evacuated. When Ellsworth impetuously removed the large Confederate flag that flew from the roof of Alexandria’s Marshall House hotel that night, he became the war’s first martyr. The hotel’s proprietor shot him dead at point-blank range. So much for the virility of youth.

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More successful, at least in the short run (years later, as president, he would be assassinated), James Garfield is another of Goodheart’s favored characters and perhaps the one most memorably sketched. Garfield is a self-made amalgam of Emersonianism, ambition and facial hair that to Goodheart personifies “a new generation in American politics.” As a Westerner, moreover, this Ohioan also incarnated a new vision of America aligned with “the transcendental spirit of the age.” A born-again believer and ordained minister, he was also a professor of Greek and Latin, a believer in progress and an authority—at least on the lecture circuit—on geology, religion and ethics. He considered Republican appeasers, like those Ohioans who returned the fugitive slave Lucy Bagby to her master, to be “emasculates.” Elected to the Ohio legislature as an antislavery Republican, he enlisted after Sumter.

With insouciant charm, Goodheart kaleidoscopically populates his narrative with representative sketches of forgotten, typical or gaudy Americans: Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, the “poker-playing, horse-trading” planter, “spoke frequently in italics”; sadistic federal officer Nathaniel Lyon, who cannily saved the St. Louis Arsenal from the clutches of secessionists, sucked on hard candies, “which clicked wetly against his ill-fitting dentures.” And to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, “race-baiting was red meat to many of his working-class Lowell constituents, and he had always been glad to toss healthy morsels of it in their direction.” The broad strokes are alternately amusing and slightly irksome: the hearts of liberals bleed, headlines scream, historians scratch their heads, abolitionists grow shrill.

Yet when deploying his prodigious research without caricature and thunder, Goodheart impressively re-creates the fear and claustrophobia of daily life at Sumter. And he shows how the nine officers trapped in Sumter represented the America of the era, its various regions and political affiliations. Plus, as Goodheart points out, only thirteen of the seventy-three enlisted men confined at Sumter were born in the United States. Immigration had shifted the country’s centers of population to the North and West, and as Goodheart perceptively notes, immigration would cast the war in ethnic as well as racial terms—particularly in places like St. Louis, with its large and liberal contingent of refugees from the European revolutions of 1848.

Also striking is Goodheart’s retelling of how fugitive slaves rushed into Fortress Monroe, where Ben Butler became their unlikely benefactor. Located near Hampton, Virginia, the federally held fortress was in enemy territory, a fact not lost on the runaways that flocked there by the hundreds in the spring and summer of 1861. Though the slaves of the Virginia Tidewater had presumably been well treated—it was said that Tidewater masters never put wires in their whips—freedom was a temptation they could not and did not refuse. With the Army, never mind the government, unprepared for their arrival, Butler took it upon himself to declare these fugitives “contraband of war.” In other words, since the Confederates had engaged them in “the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property,” Butler reasoned, he would keep them as his own militarily valuable laborers. That was not all. “If I take the able bodied only, the young must die. If I take the mother must I not take the child?” he reasoned. “Of the humanitarian aspect, I have no doubt.”

Soon the word “contraband” entered the American lexicon, though, as men like William Lloyd Garrison pointed out, it still implied that former slaves were property, not free human beings. Regardless, the damage to the peculiar institution had been done, and as William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, would aptly remark, the Emancipation Proclamation was actually written when Confederate guns fired on Sumter, although the federal government may have been the last to hear it. Butler had heard it.

Lincoln, too, at least according to Goodheart. When Lincoln described the “People’s contest” in his July 4, 1861, speech to Congress, as one whose mission was “to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life,” he was subliminally declaring the People’s contest one of abolition. By using the phrase “unfettered start” instead of the phrase “even start” (which he had written in an earlier version), Lincoln intimated that he too had heard emancipation in the guns at Sumter, although Eric Foner has lately noted, in The Fiery Trial, that Lincoln’s speech left wide open the slavery question and how Congress should deal with it, particularly in terms of the disposition of fugitive slaves. What’s more, a few weeks later Lincoln endorsed another resolution, introduced by John Crittenden, that affirmed that the war was decidedly not being fought to overthrow slavery.

Perhaps that was just the politically savvy thing to do. But the Confederates had seen victory in the sky—and abolition in Lincoln’s speech. So those who had heard a rumor about Butler planning to house hundreds of so-called contrabands in Hampton were willing to raze the town rather than let that happen. Confederate soldiers under Brig. Gen. John Magruder set fire to everything: the beautiful houses, the courthouse, the shanties in which the slaves had lived. It was the kind of self-immolation, Goodheart suggests, that symbolized the Southern cause. Maybe so. In any case, the light of those fires, like the tail of the Great Comet, seems still to gleam in the night sky, and despite the majestic hubris of the backward glance, we continue to interpret its complex moral portent, as we no doubt need to do.