In 2011 the United States observes the sesquicentennial of the event that defined it as a modern nation. The American Civil War began when the South fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor 150 years ago. In outrage over the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, South Carolina and six other states voted to secede from the Union, and since they wanted to keep possession of Charleston, sleepy Fort Sumter suddenly became a national crucible.
The standard historical portrait of Southerners firing on the fort and precipitating the war is inverted in the first few pages of Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a stirring and remarkable history of the conflict's opening exchanges. He reminds his readers that it was Major Robert Anderson who decided to move his small force of men from the dilapidated Fort Moultrie to the nearby and more heavily fortified Sumter, and that the stolid Anderson made this move perhaps less for strategic reasons than for emotional ones: "He would be damned if he was to surrender - even worse, perform a shabby pantomime of surrender - before a rabble of militiamen and canting politicians."
He spiked his cannons, burnt his gun carriages, cut down Moultrie's flag pole and made his move to stronger ground. Four months later, batteries of what were now Confederate guns opened fire on Sumter, forcing Major Anderson's surrender and setting off a cascade of quick events. The newly installed president called for the raising of a volunteer army to reclaim the forts; four more states seceded rather than comply, and full-scale war began. But by subtly shifting the emphasis from Southern aggression to Northern tactics, Goodheart dusts off some traditional preconceptions and begins to make the story his own.
Thanks to countless books, films and TV programmes, that story is a familiar one, and it revolves around the first issue to defeat the trademark American political penchant for compromise: slavery. Compromises there had been, most notably in 1820 and 1850, but they'd proven patchy and unsatisfactory. By 1860, the fervour of the North's anti-slavery abolitionist movement, combined with the South's growing desire to expand the business of slavery to the vast new territories the country now possessed, raised tensions to an unbearable pitch.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln assured the stunned country: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists." But the United States had banned the trade of African slaves a generation earlier, leaving trade within the country as the only avenue for "the peculiar institution" to perpetuate itself. In an era of increasing agricultural mechanisation, slavery was a costly luxury - and one that Southern slave owners were almost pathologically determined to keep.
A growing chorus of advocates was equally adamant they should lose it. Goodheart gives us bright portraits of the great Boston abolitionists Wendell Phillips, Senator Charles Sumner, and the great William Lloyd Garrison, but the main strength and chief delight of this book lies in the minor characters he finds and wonderfully fleshes out.
One of these, a timid-seeming Unitarian divine named Thomas Starr King, whom Goodheart refers to as "the awakened Christian warrior", was discontented in the civilised confines of New England: "I do think we are unfaithful in huddling so closely around the cosy stove of civilisation in this blessed Boston, and I, for one, am ready to go out into the cold and see if I am good for anything." He struck out on speaking tours of the west coast, giving fire-and-brimstone harangues in towns like Deadwood, Rough and Ready, and Mad Mule to audiences by no means guaranteed to by sympathetic.
Even more contemporary renown was garnered by Jessie Fremont, the wife of "the Great Pathfinder", John Fremont, who as Union military commander in Missouri in 1861 had ordered freed all slaves belonging to masters who had aided the Confederates. When Lincoln made it clear he intended to override Fremont's edict, Jessie argued with him doggedly on her husband's behalf, prompting Lincoln to make a condescending remark about her impertinence. "Strange, isn't it," she later remarked, "that when a man expresses a conviction fearlessly, he is reported as having made a trenchant and forceful statement, but when a woman speaks thus earnestly, she is reported as a lady who has lost her temper."
Goodheart's spotlight touches on many such figures whose fame has now faded. The North, for instance, was once in love with Elmer Ellsworth, an oyster-peddler's son and star Chicago volunteer cadet who was a darling of the war's earliest days. Ellsworth was shot dead in May 1861. Prior to his death, he was idolised by everybody from breathless shop girls to Lincoln himself, although the author doesn't see the allure: "He might almost be a member of a rock band. His face still has a unformed quality, a postadolescent doughiness. The dry-goods store clerk lurks not far underneath the surface of the martinet."
Ellsworth came to the Union army when, as Goodheart reminds us, "volunteering for military service was more like joining a weekend bowling league than enlisting in the army", and he stands in here as the embodiment of a nation that had as yet no idea what kind of conflict was about to unfold.
This ignorance was shared by most of Ellsworth's superiors in the armies of both sides, and although Goodheart's book is a sociological and not a military study, we necessarily see quite a few of those superiors. Robert E Lee is here, and General Ulysses S Grant, as well as lesser lights like Benjamin Butler, the Boston lawyer turned major-general, about whom we're told: "The self-made Butler could not attract clients through social connections or charm, so he became a grind, a man who knew every loose thread in the great tangled skein of common law."
The reader comes to eagerly anticipate these little gems of description - and to wonder how the author will manage to capture the Civil War's greatest enigma, Lincoln himself.
"Non-interference with slavery", Goodheart tells us, "was the very cornerstone of the Union's war policy, as every sentient American knew", and yet this is the man who would not only interfere with slavery but end it, and he did not at first inspire confidence. Goodheart is only echoing the general sentiment of the time when he asks: "Could this amiable, well-intentioned man possibly measure up against the challenges ahead? Could his charisma hold even the North together? Could he save the Union? Could he ... win a war?"
General Winfield Scott, the hero of the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War and Lincoln's top military man, certainly had his doubts. Goodheart dramatically narrates the first confrontation between Scott and the new president, where the old general laid out his plans to surrender Fort Sumter. Lincoln "was turning pale with anger" and told Scott that if he was not prepared to carry out the president's orders, the president would find somebody who would.
"The general," Goodheart writes, "crimson-faced, stuffed his memorandum back into his tunic and hastily stomped out of the White House just as the first guests were arriving for dinner. It had taken as great an insult as this to make Winfield Scott pass up a meal."
In the end though, everything comes back around to slavery. The most vocal citizens of the North could not abide it, and some of the least savoury inhabitants of the South would not give it up. Goodheart portrays the structure of slavery itself as rotting and riven with tension: "The heavenly order of slave society enforced for so long by the constant threat of white Southern violence - began to crumble as soon as Southern violence needed to be directed externally, against the North, instead of just internally, against the slaves." It was a social and moral chasm, and Goodheart is clear-eyed but guardedly hopeful about how well it has been bridged even today.
The tensions that gave rise to that opening shot on Fort Sumter in 1861 would open a very different chasm - into battle and carnage such as the modern world had never seen before. Battles whose names have entered the national mythology of America - Shiloh, Antietam, above all Gettysburg - still wait in the future for the cast of characters present here.
Those battles and that bloodshed became almost a living thing with a mind of its own (as Goodheart tacitly acknowledges in his book's subtitle), and in this engaging book we see that creature slowly, tortuously being born.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.