So I finished Adam Goodheart’s 1861, which focuses on the year immediately preceding the Civil War. I had a couple of thoughts on this book.
The book does a great job of avoiding the Great Man style of history, i.e. a man (or men) have a vision, and they make it happen. There are actors in the book, but a strong theme running through the book is how little people knew what lay ahead for the nation. Benjamin Butler (pictured above) who, while in command at Fort Monroe, refused to return fugitive slaves to Virginia, which had seceded only the day before. Their owner, a Colonel Mallory of the Confederate army sent a representative to retrieve them, Major John Baytop Cary. The exchange between the two is one of the highlights of the book:
“I am informed,” he said, “that three negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those negroes?”
“I intend to hold them,” Butler said.
“I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession passed yesterday,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”
“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the negroes.”
“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
Ever the diligent scholar of jurisprudence, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize and hold any enemy property that was a being used for belligerent purpose. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, had been helping build a Confederate gun emplacement.
There was, he admitted to Cary, one loophole, “If Colonel Mallory will come into the fort and take the oath of allegiance to the United States, he shall have his negroes.” The rebel officer was, to say the least, unlikely to do so.
I like Butler’s style here, but like others on the Northern side he didn’t really know the extent to which the war would change him. Butler had been a racist southern sympathizer before taking up his post. But he saw how so many of his soldiers had joined the Union Army with the intention of fighting slavery and knew he couldn’t just hand these slaves back. In the absence of an official policy position from the White House (and no time to get a response), he made a decision. After that, fugitive slaves started to flood into Fort Monroe, and Butler would become radicalized, eventually leaving the Democratic party and joining the Republicans.
The other point made in the second half of the book is that this was the last time in US history that citizen militias played anything approaching an important role in the war, and that’s because they made fools of themselves. The Union had a tiny army at the beginning of the war, and most of it was off in the west, fighting with Native Americans. Northern spirit was high in the beginning, and there was no shortage of volunteers. But there was a shortage of uniforms and half of them apparently thought that baggy pants and feathered hats was the way to go. I applaud their bravery, but they must have looked utterly ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that they weren’t uniform, which resulted in a lot of friendly fire. Anyway, next time someone says “the Founding Fathers didn’t want a standing army, they wanted citizen militias, that’s what me and my buddies are doing on our weekends” please tell them to stop, before they embarrass and/or kill themselves.