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Looking At The Civil War 150 Years Later

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired 150 years ago in the Charleston, S.C., harbor. Less than two days later, Fort Sumter surrendered. It would take the Union army nearly four years to bring the coastal fortification back under its command.

On Fresh Air, historian Adam Goodheart explains how national leaders and ordinary citizens responded to the chaos and uncertainty in the days and months before and after the struggle at Fort Sumter, an almost-bloodless two-day battle that became the start of the Civil War almost by mistake.

"[At Fort Sumter] the Southerners thought that they would be able to drive the Yankees off of Confederate territory, and [they thought that] the North would feel like it wasn't worthwhile to fight to bring the South back into the Union," says Goodheart. "Suffice to say, they miscalculated hugely."

Goodheart is the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a social history of the earliest days of the Civil War, a time when the country — soon to be two separate nations — was preparing itself for battle. He chose the year 1861, he says, because there were so many uncertainties all over the United States.

"When we think about the Civil War today, we see the entire arch of the struggle — sort of a great epic struggle — ending, of course, with the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln," he says. "But by taking the one particular moment when everything was uncertain — when everything seemed to change overnight — I wanted to recover that sense ... of not knowing what's going to come next. And people didn't know in 1861 what was going to come next."

Adam Goodheart is a historian and journalist. He contributes to the "Disunion" column for The New York Times, which follows the Civil War as it unfolded 150 years ago. He has also written for National Geographic, Outside Magazine, The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine.

Adam Goodheart is the director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
Michael Lionstar / Knopf
Adam Goodheart is the director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Interview Highlights

On why people are still arguing about what the Civil War was really about

"When you go back and you look at the actual documents, many people have said since then that it was about states' rights, but really the only significant state right that people were arguing about in 1860 was the right to own what was known as slave property — property and slaves unimpeded — and to be able to travel with that property anywhere that you wanted to. So it's clear that this was really about slavery in almost every significant way, but we've sort of pushed that to the side because of course we want to believe that our country is a country that's always stood for freedom. And ... certainly it's difficult for some Southern Americans to accept that their ancestors fought a war on behalf of slavery. And I think that Northerners really, for the cause of national reconciliation, decided to push that aside — decided to accept Southerners' denials or demurrals."

On changes in the South

"I think the South is changing a lot today, even from where it was just a few years ago. Some of the deep genesis of my interest in this subject came about 10 years ago when I traveled through the Deep South, visiting plantations and plantations that had become historic sites. And I found there was this great collective amnesia going on. I visited one plantation in Natchez, Miss., where the slave cabins had been turned into guest rooms at a bed and breakfast, and there were Jacuzzi bathtubs in these places, and it was this incredible example of redecorating the past away. But I think even 10 years later, when you travel through the South and you visit these historic sites, there's an increasing willingness to engage with the slave past."

On the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg

"In 1913, there was an anniversary celebration at Gettysburg — the anniversary of the 1863 battle — and they brought these Northern and Southern veterans together, and the Confederate and Union vets embraced one another. There are some wonderful photographs, and they're holding Union flags and Confederate flags, and Woodrow Wilson went and gave a speech, saying that the 'old quarrel has been forgotten.' Well, it's very symbolically significant that excluded from that reunion were the black veterans. They were not even invited to participate. That part of the Civil War history was, for a long time in this country, simply pushed aside and erased almost completely."

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