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.