Goodheart’s book was released April 11 by Alfred A. Knopf and is already in its fourth printing. The narrative actually begins in 1860, with Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for president, and ends July 4, 1861, when President Lincoln sent a message to Congress outlining his plans for prosecuting the war.
This new work of history, which Knopf describes as “a sweeping portrait of America on the brink of its defining national drama,” has been excerpted in the New York Times Magazine (April 3) and will be featured on the cover of the April 24 issue of the New York Times Book Review. In that upcoming review, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate describes Goodheart’s account of the secession crisis as “at once more panoramic and more intimate than most standard accounts, and more inspiring” and admires how he combines the journalist’s eye for telling detail with the historian’s rigorous research and the novelist’s ability to make readers care about his characters.
Goodheart, who also regularly contributes to the popular “Disunion” blog about the Civil War on NYTimes.com, has recently appeared on panels with filmmaker Ken Burns and noted historian James McPherson. In the months ahead, he will be doing readings and talks across the country. (For a listing, visit http://www.adamgoodheart.com/events.) He’s also been a guest on the nationally broadcast public radio shows Fresh Air, Here and Now, and Studio 360. (Click here to listen to the Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.)
Praise for the book has been effusive from the start. Kirkus Reviews called it “beautifully written and thoroughly original—quite unlike any other Civil War book out there,” and historian McPherson wrote that “Adam Goodheart is a Monet with a pen instead of a paintbrush.” Award-winning literary critic Anne Fadiman weighed in this way: “1861 isn’t merely a work of history; it’s a time-travel device that makes a century and a half fall away and sets us down, eyes and ears wide open, in the midst of the chaos and the glory.”
As Goodheart explains in 1861’s prologue, it was a student’s discovery that first inspired him to write the book. In April of 2008, he and his “Chestertown’s America” history class at Washington College were exploring Poplar Grove, an old plantation house in Queen Anne’s County, when Jim Schelberg, a U.S. Marine veteran attending Washington College on a Hodson Trust Star Scholarship, ventured into the attic and discovered there, buried beneath canvas and dust, a treasure trove of family papers going back some 13 generations.
Goodheart writes that, for him, the most intriguing find among the family records and documents was a small bundle “wrapped in paper and bound tightly with a faded yellow silk ribbon that clearly had not been untied in more than a century.”
On the outside of the wrapper was a date: 1861. And inside were letters written between a U.S. Army colonel stationed out west in the Indian Territories, and his wife and brother back East, in which the colonel weighed his allegiances and agonized over which side to take in the nation’s growing schism. A Southerner, a member of a slave-owning family, and even a good friend of Jefferson Davis, he also had reservations about the institution of slavery and felt a great loyalty to the U.S. Army, which he had served since enrolling as a cadet at West Point.
“It is like a great game of chance,” his wife, a Northerner, wrote in one of her letters. Ultimately, the Poplar Grove colonel decided to stick with country over region, and Goodheart decided to write a book that would show how, for millions of Americans like this colonel and his family, the coming conflict was “a great game of chance in which everything was on the line and no one could know the final outcome.”
Goodheart is a 1992 graduate of Harvard and a founder and senior editor of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. Since arriving in Chestertown in 2006 to become director of the College’s C.V. Starr Center, he has taught courses in American Studies, English, history, anthropology, and art.
Based at the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown's colonial waterfront, the Starr Center supports the art of written history and explores the nation’s past—particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach. For more information, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.