Just like the recent 1812: The Navy’s War, this is another book from my Armchair Audies History category, another book about 19th century US, and another book clearly written by an American for an American audience (e.g. sentences like “the people of this country” and sorry Mr. Goodheard, but, President Garfield who?!).

Fortunately for me, this was where the similarities ended. I was afraid it would also focus too much on military and political strategy, but my mind was soon put to rest when Goodheart explains in the Prologue that

 … to get the full story of that moment in American History, it is necessary to go much further afield, to the slums of Manhattan, and the drawing-rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave camps and even to the shores of the Pacific.

It is also necessary to consider people and ideas that were migrating from the old world to the new. It is only then that this defining national event can truly be understood as a Revolution, and one whose heroes were not only the soldiers and politicians. That Revolution began years before the guns opened, as a gradual change in the hearts and minds of men and women, until suddenly, months before the attack on Sumter.

(…) One person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. Eighteen sixty-one, like 1776, was – and still is – not just a year, but an idea.

Sorry for the long quote, but I thought it was a great one, and one that can apply to all major events. A non-fiction author that feels like this is half-way towards writing a book I’d really enjoy reading. 1861 might be another of the thousands of books about the American Civil War, but it offers a fresh perspective by staying away from legislative bills and instead following the cultural movements of the day and people who inspired them.

The most surprising part for me was understanding the national feelings towards slavery of the time. I realized that even though the North despised slavery they weren’t abolitionists, who were considered dangerous radicals hell-bent on dividing the country. In these early days, Lincoln himself was willing to sacrifice abolition to preserve the Union (*gasp*).

From here Goodheart describes how the North came to a position where it was willing to accept  (and even welcome) war as the only solution against secession. Lincoln of course couldn’t be excluded from the story, but Goodheart also focuses on almost-forgot figures, like the dashing Elmer Ellsworth (photo), founder of the New York Fire Zouaves regiment, who inspired unprecedented patriotic passion. He also describes how states who were divided between Secession and Union came to a final decision. Ohio in particular went through a fascinating process.

There were only a couple of things that didn’t make me give it a 5/5, the most important of which is that the story is told from the Northerners’ perspective and I often wondered about what was going through the minds of their Southern counterparts. Also, Goodheart is prone to unapologetic flights of poetic patriotism that are a bit uncomfortable for someone from a much more self-effacing culture like mine (1861 is the story of Americans who rose up to the situation “not just with anger and panic but with hope and determination, people who, amid the ruins of the country they had grown up in, saw an opportunity to change history.”).

About Jonathan Davis’ narration. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s a very passionate book and Goodheart even includes the odd piece of poetry. It’s also full of inflamed speeches and proclamations, so it wouldn’t do to have a flat narration or one that goes the other way and becomes theatrical. I though Davis found the perfect balance.

The only thing I have to point out is that sometimes it was hard to differentiate between normal text and quotes – often there was just the slightest hint of change in tone or subtle accent. Probably this doesn’t apply to Davis, but don’t you sometimes have the feeling that narrators are ashamed of using a strong accent (or maybe insecure about it?)?


Other thoughts: Vulpes Libris, Book People’s Blog, Viral History, Read All Day (yours?)