Posts from the ‘Books’ Category

Excerpts from Midnight Rising: John Brown and the raid that sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

A new book on the famed abolitionist John Brown will be released next week (Oct. 25). It is written by Tony Horwitz, who previously wrote the best-seller, “Confederates in the Attic.” Bloomberg recently posted five excerpts in advance of this book, which are made available here. We’ll review this book in approximately 2-3 weeks, once the book is released and we read it fully.

From the author’s website,

The author of Confederates in the Attic returns to the Civil War era to tell the gripping drama of a man and a mission that changed the course of history.

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry ruptured the union between North and South. Yet few Americans know the true story of the militant idealists who invaded Virginia before the Civil War. Now, Midnight Rising paints Brown’s uprising in vivid color, capturing a nation on the brink of explosive conflict.

Unlike most abolitionists, Brown was prepared to shed blood in the cause of freedom. After fighting against slavery in Bleeding Kansas, he secured money and guns from clandestine backers called the Secret Six, and convened a guerilla band that included three of his sons, his teenaged daughter, a former slave desperate to free his wife from bondage, and a dashing poet who acted as a spy inside Virginia. Then, late one autumn night in 1859, Brown marched from his mountain hideout into Harpers Ferry, seizing the town’s federal armory and vowing to liberate every slave in the South.

The bloody fight at Harpers Ferry prompted a counterattack by U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee and shocked an already divided nation. While Southerners branded the raid an act of treason and terror, Brown’s bravery and eloquence made him a hero to many Northerners. The crisis also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown’s dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure the president once labeled “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.”

In this riveting book, Tony Horwitz probes the troubled soul of Brown, the desperate passion of his followers, and the spirit of a sundered nation. The result is both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a fiery time that still resonates in our own.

“With his customary blend of rich archival research, on-location color, and lyrical prose, Tony Horwitz has delivered a John Brown book for our time. Part biography, part historical narrative, Midnight Rising is a riveting re-creation of the Harpers Ferry Raid, told with an unblinking sense of Brown’s tragic place in American history. Writing with enveloping detail and a storyteller’s verve, Horwitz shows why Brown was-and still is-so troubling and important to our culture.”  -David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Bloomberg’s excerpts are in five parts, which you can find in the links below:

John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 1)

John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 2)

John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 3)

John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 4)

John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 5)


Pursuit – by Dean Urdahl

Pursuit - by Dean Urdahl






Pursuit is an interesting novel by Dean Urdahl. A fictionalized account of the 1862-1863 battles against the Dakota Indians. Urdahl uses the fiction to bring out the action – everything is accurate historically. Compare this to the Killer Angels by Michael Schaara. Available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Sisters pen book on Civil War history

by Mark Wineka, Salisbury (N.C.) Post

MOCKSVILLE — For five years, sisters Mary Alice Hasty and Hazel Winfree relied on John Spillman to supply the ham biscuits and coffee for breakfast or the tomato soup and grilled sandwiches for lunch.

Meanwhile, they sat at Spillman’s dining room table — piled high with their research — and wrote out in long-hand the manuscript for a state award-winning book, “The Civil War Roster for Davie County, North Carolina.”

Davie County sisters, Mary Alice Hasty and Hazel Winfree, spent years compiling and preparing a book that lists all of the 1,147 Davie County men that served in the Civil War. Photo by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.

“I was a referee,” Spillman says, laughing. “I kept them from clawing and biting each other. I kept the momentum going and gave them the praise they needed.”

The sisters called him their business manager. His pay in the end: a free book.

Published in 2009, the women’s book gives short biographies of 1,147 Davie County Confederate soldiers before, during and after the war.

It’s filled with photographs and includes invaluable extras such as the company and regiment rosters for Davie County soldiers, townships covered by the census information they used, cemeteries in Davie County where Confederate soldiers are buried, the names of the Davie men who died in the Civil War and a complete bibliography and index.

“It would make a movie,” Spillman says of the sisters’ devotion to the project. “Not ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but …

“The sequel,” Winfree says, finishing the thought.

Hasty and Winfree won the 2009 Willie Parker Peace History Book Award from the N.C. Society of Historians Inc. They didn’t even know their book was in consideration until after the awards ceremony in Morehead City.

Their research also led to the discovery that 55 names of Davie soldiers who died in the Civil War were left off the Mocksville monument memorializing the county’s Confederate dead.

That omission has since been remedied with the additional names carved into the stone.

The sisters’ book started when they were researching their own family history, and Doris Frye, librarian at the Martin-Wall History Room of Davie Public Library, directed Hasty to “The Civil War Roster of Davidson County.”

In that book, Hasty quickly found evidence of her great-great grandfather Nicholas Miller, leading her to discover that her great-grandfather Michael Miller died in the war when her grandfather John was only six months old.

She asked Frye whether Davie had a similar Civil War roster book, learned that it did not and declared that she would correct that situation. Hasty immediately called Winfree to tell her they were going to collaborate on a book.

Hasty remembers Hazel saying, “Oh, shoot.”

“That’s not exactly what I said,” Hazel recalls, “but that’s the way we’ll print it.”

Over the next five years, the women turned to federal census information, marriage and cemetery records for Davie County, Civil War pension applications, family correspondence, 1851-1892 injury and obituary notices from “The People’s Press” in Salem and the published works of more than 20 authors for backup.

They also received assistance from Frye and Jane McAllister at the Davie Public Library, historian Jim Rumley of Cooleemee, archivist Earl Ijames at the State Archives in Raleigh and Sion Harrington, a state military collection archivist and an old neighbor of Hasty’s from Harnett County.

“We wanted to do it right,” Hasty says.

Cousins Marie Roth and Brenda Bailey typed all of their manuscript pages and worked closely with the Jefferson publisher, McFarland & Co.

The sisters — Winfree is 87, and Hasty will be 80 in August — brought plenty of their own tenaciousness and expertise to Spillman’s dining room table.

Hasty is a retired English teacher and assistant principal from Harnett County, where she led the effort in 1993 to publish a large-volume Harnett County heritage book.

Winfree is a retired Salisbury Post proofreader and voracious reader in general.

Together, they make a pair, always jabbing and kidding with each other.

“We spent as much time laughing as writing,” Hasty says. “It was just so much fun.”

Winfree remembers overhearing Hasty on the telephone with an archivist in Raleigh, asking for forgiveness and saying, “If I tell you my assistant is 83 years old, will that help?”

“It made me feel sorry for her,” Winfree says.

Hasty jokes that she always takes a pill before giving Winfree a call at her home in Cooleemee. The women worked out of their friend Spillman’s house because it was close to the library and, when they started, Hasty was in the transition from Harnett County and still waiting for her condominium to be constructed in Mocksville.

As with many historians, the sisters discovered information that didn’t jibe with some published accounts from the past. Their work also helped to untangle the branches of family trees in Davie County.

The case of W.C. Perry Etchison, private in Company F, 42nd Regiment, is a good example. For generations his descendants lived with the belief that he had been shot as a Confederate deserter.

Having left the Confederate Army on many occasions only to be apprehended later, Etchison finally was sentenced to be shot for desertion in 1865. But the sisters’ research revealed that the sentence was suspended, and Etchison received a parole June 7, 1865.

“The execution order of 1865 overshadowed reality and the following rumor evolved:” the sisters’ book says. “Perry deserted, came home, was accosted on a path by Captain Clement and a contingent of men. He was shot where he stood by Captain Clement and that his body was left where it fell, and Perry’s 16-year-old son found his body and buried him where he lay.”

But Hasty and Winfree point out that Etchison would have only been 19 years old himself and could not have had a 16-year-old son.

“Unfortunately for his descendants,’ the women write, “the good news of Perry’s life was never told.”

They learned that Etchison had married Nancy Parker in January of 1865, and the couple had two daughters, Sarah in 1867 and Hetty in 1871. The family lived in the Clarksville district for a while, where Etchison was a farm laborer. He died March 14, 1923, and is buried in Rose Cemetery.

Hasty and Winfree also contacted Louise Stroud, “who had lived in Davie County 90-plus years and had a flawless memory,” the women wrote. She recalled that as a girl of 5 or 6, she watched a white-haired Etchison, Mocksville’s only policeman of the time, conducting his evening rounds in the square and lighting the kerosene lamps.

“It was pure detective work,” Winfree says of the whole process behind the book. “… And some facts didn’t add up.”

The sisters regret that one of Etchison’s descendants, George Smith, died before hearing that his ancestor was not executed as a deserter. Estelle, his wife, bought 11 of their books (at $60 each) and distributed them among relatives so they would know the real story.

“I just wish George could know this,” Hasty says.

While writing the book, the women took out newspaper notices asking people to bring them family photographs of ancestors who were in the Civil War. Sometimes, they also would make themselves available at the Davie Public Library on Sunday afternoons.

Since the book’s publication, they have had four book signings.

Spillman says people should realize that Hasty and Winfree produced the book out of love for the subject and at their own expense. They’ll never recoup the investment they have in the project, he says, but they’ve left Davie County with a historical treasure.

The sisters want desperately to do another research project.

“Man, I’d start tomorrow,” Winfree says. Meanwhile, after a 40-year break, Winfree has begun painting landscapes again. “I’ve decided I’m going to be the next Grandma Moses,” she says. (She is a great-grandmother.)

Hasty has a more personal project in the back of her mind. Over 15 years, she taught English to 1,650 students in Harnett County. Through Facebook and other means, she would love to contact all of those students and give them another writing exercise.

She would ask them to write about the most significant thing that has happened in their lives “since we parted.” She would collect the answers, she says, and publish them in a book.

“Should I go get us some lunch?” Spillman asks.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or

Best-selling author signs copies of new Civil War book in Hagerstown


HAGERSTOWN—  A stack of letters bound in ribbon and hidden in an Eastern Shore (Md.) home ignited an acclaimed book telling the stories of little-known Civil War heroes and skyrocketed author Adam Goodheart to the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

Click on the image to go to the page for this book

Goodheart — a son of Maryland and lecturer in American Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. — came to the Visitor Welcome Center on Potomac Street in HagerstownWednesday to sign copies of his new book, “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”

The book by the Washington, D.C.-based author is listed as No. 13 on the Times’ best-seller list for the week of May 15.

“His book is a unique perspective on Civil War history,” said Beth Rowland, who together with her husband, Tim, writes a column for America’s Civil War Magazine.

Tim Rowland is also a columnist for The Herald-Mail

Beth Rowland, who lives near Boonsboro, said it was significant for an author of Goodheart’s caliber to visit Hagerstown for the day.

David Hanlin, development coordinator for the Washington County Free Library, arranged Goodheart’s visit in connection with the library’s fundraising dinner Wednesday night at Fountain Head Country Club.

His visit, which included the book-signing and speaking engagement at the dinner, was also sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Echoing Beth Rowland, Hanlin said Goodheart approaches history as a journalist, telling not just facts in detailed chronology, but stories, deep with emotion and humanity.

“He grasps the forces at work that led to the Civil War, and he uses those stories to highlight that pivotal year,” Hanlin said of the book.

Too often the start of 1861 is overshadowed by the following years of blood and devastation, Goodheart said.

“I hope that people really come away with a sense of the history, the places and the people that make it,” he said of his work.

Goodheart said reading those ribbon-bound letters — penned by Col. William H. Emory — immersed him in that moment of uncertainty as Emory, like many Americans at the time, grappled with a choice: Betray his country and fight for the South, or join the Union and chance fighting against his home.

For about a decade, Goodheart’s research grew that story of uncertainty into a much larger tale of the genesis of war, spanning American experiences from sea to shining sea, he said.

Yet, his book does not follow the long-trodden path of many Civil War tomes, telling history in what he calls “big, general abstracts.”

Rather, it reads almost as a novel, unfolding stories of America’s unsung participants as they shape the critical first months of 1861, he said.

Although his book only follows events through July of 1861, Goodheart said he does not plan to write books for each of the years of civil war.

However, he said he has another work under way, details of which he would not disclose.

“For now, it is still just a glittering in my eye,” he said.

Civil War Trust provides history lovers with ‘Essential To-Do List’ for 150th Anniversary

(Washington, D.C.) – Whether it’s standing atop Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain or inside Antietam’s Dunker Church, or viewing the remains of the ironclad USS Monitor or the Confederate submarine HL Hunley, some experiences have the power to bring history alive like nothing else can.  Believing there is no substitute for experiencing the places and situations that made history, the Civil War Trust, the nation’s largest battlefield preservation organization, is marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of the American Civil War with the release of an exciting new book designed to bring the past alive for students of history in dynamic new ways.

The Civil War 150: An Essential To-Do List for the 150th Anniversary features top suggestions for the tours, museums, books, movies and other activities that every true Civil War aficionado should seek out during the four-year sesquicentennial commemoration.  Featured sites span the nation from Boston Common to metro Los Angeles, while some activities can be done anywhere with the assistance of a computer or television.

“The Civil War is such a dynamic part of American history that it was nearly impossible to distill its substance to only 150 experiences,” said Trust president James Lighthizer.  “Certainly there are hundreds of additional sites and activities that we could have included.  But we are confident that once you begin using this guide in to experience history in a whole new way, physically walking in the footsteps of heroes — be they famous generals or common soldiers and civilians — you’ll be hooked and eager to find your own adventures.”

The book is available for $14.95 from publisher Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, beginning today.  The 272-page paperback book includes numerous illustrations and maps, as well as checklists to track your progress through the challenging list.  For more information on Civil War 150, visit the Civil War Trust website

The Civil War Trust is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States.  Its mission is to preserve our nation’s endangered Civil War battlefields and to promote appreciation of these hallowed grounds.  To date, the Trust has preserved nearly 30,000 acres of battlefield in 20 states.  Learn more at, the home of the Civil War sesquicentennial.

To purchase a copy, click here.

The Lincoln Assassination: New research unravels old myths

A historiography by Jeffrey S. Williams

The Northern States were celebrating the end of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14, 1865. When the president passed away at 7:22 a.m. the next morning, the celebration abruptly stopped and the nation mourned the passing of its wartime leader.

Conflicting eyewitness accounts of nearly every major news story happen frequently and the Lincoln assassination is no exception. Historians still differ on several points surrounding the events of April 1865. Did Laura Keene enter the Presidential Box and cradle Lincoln’s head in her lap (Harbin, 1966)? What was Mary Surratt’s role in the conspiracy (Larson, 2008)? Yet the one thing that all historians seem to agree on is that the man who pulled the trigger at Ford’s Theater on that fateful night was actor John Wilkes Booth.

President Lincoln wasn’t even buried when the first myths about his assassination began to surface.

The first myth was perpetuated by John Wilkes Booth himself. When his effects were brought to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, following the assassin’s death on April 26, 1865, Booth’s personal diary was among the artifacts. He wrote, “I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night, with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump” (Kauffman, 2004, p. 399). Eyewitnesses immediately corrected the record about when Booth yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus,” noting that it happened after the shooter landed on the stage. Yet nobody made a reference to Booth breaking his leg at that time (Kauffman, 2004).

Michael W. Kauffman has studied the Lincoln assassination for three decades and believes that Booth’s broken leg didn’t occur at Ford’s Theater. In American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004), he writes:

John Wilkes Booth

Flying through the door to Baptist Alley, Booth thrust his left foot into a stirrup and almost leaped into the saddle. His movement startled the mare, and she pulled out from under him, leaving him twisting with the full weight of his body on that (supposedly broken) left leg. Peanuts Borrows and Major Joseph Stewart both saw Booth’s struggle to throw himself onto the horse, and neither reported anything that suggests he was in pain. Nor did Sergeant Cobb notice any discomfort when Booth approached him to cross the Navy Yard Bridge. Not until Booth reached the tavern in Surrattsville was he clearly suffering from a painful injury. He told John Lloyd that his horse had fallen on him, and he boasted of killing the president. Booth and Herold had switched horses by then. Sergeant Cobb and others were positive that Booth had ridden away on a bright bay mare, and everyone agreed that Herold was on a roan. But outside the city, everyone who encountered them remembered it the other way around. In light of Booth’s broken leg, the switch made perfect sense. An injured man would certainly have preferred the gentle steady gait of a horse like the one Herold had rented. From Lloyd’s to Mudd’s, Booth stayed on that horse, and Herold rode the mare, who was now noticeably lame, with a bad cut on her left front leg. Clearly, she had been involved in an accident. (pp. 273-274).

When the film The Conspirator was released in April 2011, after shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth falls on the stage and clutches his leg. Even though Kauffman’s book has been on the market for seven years before the film’s release, the myth of Booth’s broken leg is still being perpetuated.

Early Writings

             The earliest writings of the Lincoln Assassination were newspaper headlines and official dispatches from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Because of the rapidly moving news cycle and the slow telegraph technology, the early facts about the simultaneous assassination attempt of Secretary of State William H. Seward were incorrect, as the preliminary reports suggested John H. Surratt Jr., was the Seward assailant, instead of Lewis Thornton Powell. It took days before the War Department and the newspapers got the basic facts correct (Kauffman, 2004).

The real story of the assassination and the conspiracy didn’t start coming out until the trial of the conspirators – Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold and Edman Spangler, commenced a month later.

In The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D.C., May and June 1865, for the murder of President Lincoln (1865), the complete and unredacted transcript of the trial’s proceedings were published by T.B. Peterson & Brothers, shortly after the execution of Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell and Herold on July 7, 1865. This coincided with the release of the U.S. Army’s heavily edited transcript, The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (1865), edited by Benn Pitman, the trial’s court reporter.

George Alfred Townsend, a veteran journalist during the Civil War, published the daily reports that he wrote for the New York Herald between April 17 and May 17, 1865, into one volume titled, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (1865). All three books are source documents for historians today.

Townsend wasn’t satisfied with his coverage. He continued to hunt down leads and acquire information about the assassination throughout the remainder of his life. In 1883, he tracked down his biggest lead when he identified the person responsible for hiding Booth and David Herold for one full week they were on the run. Until then, nobody knew what happened to the pair of fugitives except that anonymous person. After repeated attempts at communication, Thomas A. Jones finally came clean and told his story to Townsend after keeping it a secret for 18 years (Swanson, 2006).

Osborn H.I. Oldroyd, a captain in the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry who began collecting Lincoln memorabilia in 1860, opened a small museum at the Abraham Lincoln House in Springfield, Illinois, in 1884. A decade later, he moved the museum to the Petersen House in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln died. Oldroyd ran the Petersen House Museum for three decades before selling his collection to the United States Government, which made it the backbone of their current artifact collection at Ford’s Theater (McAndrew, 2008).

Eleven years after Jones told his story to Townsend, the 74-year old Jones visited the Petersen House, viewed the museum’s artifacts, and examined the room where the late President breathed his last. He then introduced himself to Oldroyd and said, “My name is Thomas A. Jones, and I am the man who cared for and fed Booth and Herold while they were in hiding, after committing the awful deed” (Swanson, 2006, p. 245). Jones died the next year.

Another source document surfaced with the publication of Benjamin Perley Poore’s, Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis (1886), in which the newspaperman vividly recreated the scene in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, including the Lincoln assassination; Lincoln’s state funeral; and trial of the conspirators; though he didn’t describe the actual hanging of the four conspirators – Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt and Powell. Nonetheless, his descriptions of the events continue to help modern historians paint an accurate picture of the people and places that existed at that time.

The Lincoln Centennial

            After the turn of the century, Finis L. Bates wrote, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907), a largely fabricated story about Booth escaping from the Garrett Farm and fleeing to Enid, Oklahoma. Bates was so convinced that his subject, John St. Helen, was indeed the fugitive assassin that when St. Helen died in 1903, the author took possession of the mummified remains and put them in a traveling display (Bates, 1907). This was the first propagated myth suggesting that Booth might have escaped. The book’s source was an alleged granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth, with no proof of her actual relation to the assassin.

The attention to Bates’s book caught the attention of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. In a redacted January 10, 1923 letter, BOI Director William J. Burns wrote:

The escape route of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold after the April 14, 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

I have gone over with considerable interest the volume entitled “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth” by Finis L. Bates of Memphis, Tennessee, submitted by you. The work contains very strong evidence in support of the old belief that Booth did escape and live many years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This Department has no means of verification other than historic works, as the original case was handled by the military authorities. Thank you for bringing this to my attention (BOI, 1923).

This work led to a lawsuit filed by descendents of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin, to exhume the assassin’s body from Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery for identification purposes hoping to put the myth to rest. After a four-day trial in May 1995, Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan denied the family’s petition (Wilner, 1996).

The Booth escape myth was propagated as recently as December 23, 2010, when the History Channel ran an hour-long special on Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. Despite numerous attempts by historians to rebut the story with evidence that existed in 1865, this is a story that won’t go away (Kauffman, 2004).

In February 1909, as the nation observed the 100th birthday of President Lincoln, an address was given to the New York Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. It was titled, Lincoln’s Last Hours, written and delivered by Dr. Charles A. Leale, the Army surgeon who attended to Lincoln at Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House. Leale claims that he was the one who, “pronounced my diagnosis and prognosis: ‘His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.’ This message was telegraphed all over the country” (Leale,, 1909, p. 6). Why did Leale wait for 44 years before recording his memories of that fateful night?

On April 17, 1865, a New York newspaper reporter called at my army tent. I invited him in, and expressed my desire to forget all the recent sad events, and to occupy my mind with the exacting present and plans for the future…Recently, several of our Companions expressed the conviction, that history now demands, and that it is my duty to give the detailed facts of President Lincoln’s death as I know them, and in compliance with their request, I this evening for the first time will read a paper on the subject (Leale, 1909, p. 1).

The Leale document is important because it gives historians a first-hand look at the medical care that the president received from the time he was shot until his death the following morning. It also gives historians and surgeons an opportunity to compare older brain trauma techniques with modern medicine.

Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, director of the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center, believes that Lincoln could have survived the shooting if today’s technology had been available. Through Leale’s description of Lincoln’s condition, Scalea and other brain surgeons have determined that the round tore a path through the left side of the brain but did not hit the brainsteam or cross the midline, and stopped before entering the frontal lobes. They concluded that it was a survivable wound by modern standards (Brown, 2007).

After her brother was killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett, Asia Booth Clarke began to write her memoirs of growing up with John Wilkes Booth. Because of the public outrage over the assassination, Asia kept it to herself. Her work was not published until 1938. She solicited memories from her other brothers, Junius Jr., Edwin and Joseph. Edwin replied, “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world” (Clarke, 1938, p. 92).

Modern Writings

            Samuel J. Seymour was a five-year boy when his godmother took him to the theater that night. When he died on April 13, 1956, one day before the 91st anniversary of the assassination, the last witness to the assassination was gone (McClarey, 2011).

Since the passing of Seymour and other witnesses, historians have taken a more objective look at the events of April 1865. The U.S. Government has opened its files to researchers, documents have been located in private collections and more attention has been given to deciphering the accuracy of information.

Michael W. Kauffman’s research has been instrumental in bringing new evidence to light. He has examined eyewitness testimony, government reports, transcripts of the conspirator trials, traced the route of Booth and Herold, including rowing a boat across the Potomac from the same location and in the same manner that the fugitives did. He purchased the rolls of microfilm from the National Archives that contain the 11,000 pages of the Lincoln Assassination Suspects file, and then built a custom database to sort and analyze all of his collected information.

The event-based system I designed was far different from the statistical models used by most historians, and it may actually be unique in the way it applies technology to the study of historical developments. Most important, it works. It brought to the fore new relationships among the plotters, unnoticed patterns in Booth’s behavior, and a fresh significance to events I once considered unimportant. All this has given me a clearer picture of the Booth conspiracy – including incidents no writer had previously noticed…By sorting events over time, I could see how one conspirator fades from the scene while another is shoved into his place. I got a sense of how much work and money went into the plot. I noticed how carefully choreographed the scheme really was. But most surprising of all, I learned how Booth managed to organize and run a dangerous plot – undetected – in the face of unprecedented government paranoia (Kauffman, 2004, pp. xiii-xiv).

It was this event-based system that allowed Kauffman to discover that Booth broke his leg in a riding accident after he crossed the Washington Navy Yard Bridge and before his arrival at the Surratt Tavern (Kauffman, 2004).

        In American Brutus (2004), Kauffman spells out Booth’s conspiracy plot in great detail. With dates of meetings and performances, Booths’ travel schedule, money transfers and conversations with people, Kauffman succeeds in outlining the conspiracy with great suspense. However, he gives us only a brief glimpse about the reasoning behind Booth’s plot, and does not fully follow the investigators who were on the trail of the assassin.

James L. Swanson spent nearly his whole life examining the life and death of Abraham Lincoln. Like Kauffman, his research is thorough and conclusions are concrete. While Swanson didn’t put together a significant database of information, he examined many of the same sources as Kauffman, plus looked closer at the newspaper articles from that time period. Swanson published, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (2006), and picks up where Kauffman left off.

Swanson doesn’t spend much time on Booth’s background or his planning of the conspiracy plot. Swanson focuses on what happened April 14-26, 1865. He shows us what was going on with Booth and Herold during that time, along with the investigators who were examining leads, which eventually led to their apprehension. He also tells of the extreme difficulties that both the fugitives and the investigators faced during that time, and the overall result of Booth’s actions on American history.

          John Wilkes Booth did not get what he wanted. Yes, he did enjoy a singular success: he killed Abraham Lincoln. But in every other way, Booth was a failure. He did not prolong the Civil War, inspire the South to fight on, or overturn the verdict of the battlefield, or of free elections. Nor did he confound emancipation, resuscitate slavery, or save the dying antebellum civilization of the Old South. Booth failed to overthrow the federal government by assassinating its highest officials. Indeed, he failed to murder two of the three men he had marked for death on that “moody, tearful night.” He did not become an American hero, but he elevated Lincoln to the American pantheon. And, in his greatest failure, Booth did not survive the manhunt. His was not a suicide mission. He wanted desperately to live, to escape, to bask in the fame and glory he was sure would be his. He got his fame, but at the price of his life (Swanson, 2006, pp. 385-387).

While the bulk of the historical attention has been on John Wilkes Booth since 1865, two other conspirators had their biographies recently published. Alias Paine: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy (1993), was published by B.J. Ownsbey; and The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (2008) was published by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.

The first part of Larson’s work was a disappointment. A careful reading of Kauffman’s and Swanson’s works, both of which were source documents for The Assassin’s Accomplice, would have corrected some of basic historical inaccuracies, including the Booth claim of breaking his leg at Ford’s Theater. However, she spends more than half of the book discussing the trial of the conspirators, the rules of evidence, brief profiles of the attorneys involved, the sentencing, plea for the writ of habeas corpus, and the hanging of the guilty, which more than makes up for the inadequacies in the beginning.

As a testament to Larson’s professionalism, she admits that she went into the project with preconceived notions of Mary Surratt’s innocence but was swayed by the evidence she uncovered during the trial and in her further research.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the evidence cannot be ignored. Mary Surratt did indeed keep “the nest that hatched the egg.” She could have chosen not to help Booth, but she decided to assist him in whatever way she could. In providing a warm home, private encouragement, and material support to Abraham Lincoln’s murderer, she offered more than most of Booth’s other supporters. For that, Mary Surratt lost her life and must forever be remembered as the assassin’s accomplice (Larson, 2008, p. 230).

What influenced John Wilkes Booth enough to commit his heinous act? Nora Titone believes that it was a bitter rivalry between John Wilkes and his brother, Edwin, following the death of their father, the famed actor Junius Brutus Booth, that led to the assassination.

          In My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy (2010), Titone examines the relationship between the two brothers and draws some astonishing conclusions. She compares the careers of the two brothers and discovers that John Wilkes was always jealous of the success and accolades that Edwin received during his career, while Edwin dismissed his younger brother as undisciplined.

Since the assassination, historians have wondered why Secretary of State William H. Seward was a target for assassination while other cabinet members were not. She points out that Secretary Seward invited Edwin Booth to a private dinner on March 11, 1864, which was the beginning of a long friendship between the two men (Titone, 2010).

She also discusses Edwin’s plan for the three acting brothers to have separate territories in the country before the war. Junius Jr., who was already acting in the western United States, would continue to act west of the Mississippi River; Edwin would hold on to the lucrative Northeast; while John Wilkes was relegated to the southern and Midwestern states that were not as profitable. With John Wilkes touring in the south, he sympathized with them (Titone, 2010).

The history I tell is, in large measure, a theatrical history. For three generations, the Booths lived their lives on, and in the shadow of, the stage. To re-create their particular world, it was necessary to gather thousands of pages of primary sources from archives of nineteenth-century American theater history. Reminiscences of the famous clan abound, penned by fellow actors, by legions of journalists, by multitudes of contemporaries and friends. Most important, however, this narrative draws from over one hundred years’ worth of private letters, diaries, memoirs, account books, documents, and journals written by the Booths themselves, as well as from the family’s huge collection of playbills, paintings, statues, photographs, theatrical costumes, dramatic reviews, and stage props. My first debt is to librarians, curators, and archivists who guided me on a five-year search through this rich voluminous record (Titone, 2010, p. 457).

Titone gives us a fresh look at an event that has been well documented and heavily researched. Further investigation into some of the events, like the Seward dinner and the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City that had the entire Booth family, including Edwin and John Wilkes, hiding in fear for their lives, would, perhaps, give us a better indication of the reasons behind the assassination (Titone, 2010).

The Future

            Even though nearly a century and a half has passed since the assassination of President Lincoln, historians like Kauffman, Swanson, Larson and Titone are only now scratching the surface in telling the story objectively.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

However,  little has been written about the involvement of other conspirators like John H. Surratt Jr., who was in Elmira, New York, when Lincoln was killed; George Atzerodt, who failed in his attempt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson; and David Herold, who spent 12 days in hiding with John Wilkes Booth. Other than Dr. Samuel Mudd, little has been written about the lives of Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlin (Kauffman, 2004).

With the release of The Conspirator, questions have been raised about the life of Frederick A. Aiken, Mary Surratt’s attorney. Other minor characters, like Thomas A. Jones, who hid Booth and Herold for seven days while they were fugitives from justice, along with certain myths that continue to be propagated today, are also worthy of further research.


Bates, F.L. (1907). The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Memphis: Historical Publishing Company.

Brown, D. (2007). Could Modern Medicine have saved Lincoln? The Washington Post. May 21, 2007.

Clarke, A.B. (1938). The Unlocked Book: A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth by his sister Asia Booth Clarke. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons.

Harbin, B. J. (1966). Laura Keene at the Lincoln Assassination. Educational Theatre Journal. Vol. 18, No. 1 (March, 1966). pp. 47-54.

Kauffman, M.W. (2004). American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House.

Larson, K.C. (2008). The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. New York: Basic Books.

Leale, C.A. (1909). Lincoln’s Last Hours: An address delivered before the commandery of the State of New York, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States at the regular meeting, Feb. 1909, City of New York.

McAndrew, Tara McClellan. (2008). The First Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum: How a deadbeat saved history. Illinois Times. Nov. 19, 2008.

McClarey, D. R. (2011). Last Eye Witness to the Lincoln Assassination. The American Catholic. February 2011.

Meltzer, B. (2010). Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. History Channel. Aired: Dec. 23, 2010.

Ownsbey, B.J. (1993). Alias Paine: Lewis Thornton Powell: The Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy. North Carolina: McFarland & Co. Inc.

Peterson, T.B. (1865). The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D.C.,

May and June 1865, for the Murder of President Lincoln. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers.

Pitman, B. (1865). The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trail of the Conspirators. New York: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin.

Poore, B.P. (1886). Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis. Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers.

Redford, R. (Director). The Conspirator [Motion Picture]. United States: American Film Company.

Swanson, J.L. (2006). Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. New York: Harper Collins.

Titone, N. (2010). My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy. New York: Free Press.

Townsend, G.A. (1865). The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald.

Wilner, C.J. (1996). Reported in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, No. 1531, September Term 1995, Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline et. al. v. Green Mount Cemetery, et. al., June 4, 1996.

United States Government. (1923). Letter from William J. Burns, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, Jan. 10, 1923. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Fire on the Water exhibit at Athenaeum observes 150th anniversary of Civil War

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – A ship that helped turn the tide of public opinion at home and abroad during the Civil War is featured in a new exhibit, “Fire on the Water: Portsmouth’s Kearsarge Sinks the Deadly Confederate Raider Alabama.”

“Civilian and military morale, at a low ebb over the Union’s seeming inability to bring the long war to a decisive conclusion, was enormously bolstered by the stunning defeat of the Alabama in 1864,” said Richard Adams, who is curating the free exhibit that opens May 6 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. An opening reception that coincides with Portsmouth’s Art ‘Round Town gallery walk will be held in the Randall Gallery on Friday, May 6, 5-8 p.m.

John A. Winslow, who commanded USS Kearsarge in the epic Union naval victory over the Confederate raider Alabama, was born in 1811 in North Carolina, though his parents were of old Yankee stock with direct ties to the Pilgrims. He gained admittance to the Naval Academy in 1827 through the sponsorship of Daniel Webster, who at the time was living in a house on the Winslow estate in Marshfield, Mass. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum

Adams said the 90-minute battle between the Portsmouth Navy Yard-built Kearsarge and the Alabama was witnessed by thousands of onlookers who lined the cliffs of Cherbourg, France. Hundreds of salvos were exchanged as Kearsarge Capt. John A. Winslow engaged the Alabama, which had put into the French port for a much-needed overhaul.

“The battle became enormously popular as a subject for artists,” Adams said. “Dozens of paintings were made, mostly taken from eyewitness accounts.”

Several of those paintings will be on display in the Athenaeum’s Randall Room, as well as photographs, musical pieces, a written account of the engagement by a Newington man who fought in the battle and a model of the USS Sassacus, a steamer that disabled a Confederate ironclad. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is loaning the original construction plans of the three-masted, steam-powered Kearsarge as well as a sailor’s hat from the era.

Capt. Winslow assumed command of the Kearsarge — named for the mountain in New Hampshire — in April 1863 and had spent more than a year in a fruitless quest for Confederate raiders. The Alabama, under the command of Raphael Semmes, had sunk 55 merchant ships, Adams said. Winslow was docked in Flushing, Holland, when he got word that Semmes was in the Normandy port.

“He anchored just outside the territorial waterline on June 14, 1864, and patiently awaited Semmes’ next move,” said Adams, who described the Alabama’s commander as “an aggressive fighter.”

Six days later, Semmes steamed out of Cherbourg and fired the first shots. Word about the impending battle had spread, and trains had brought spectators from as far away as Paris, Adams said.

“The two ships maneuvered around each other in seven concentric circles, each attempting to gain advantage in firing position,” Adams said. The superior marksmanship of the gunners aboard the Kearsarge decided the battle, and the Alabama raised a white flag of surrender after its rudder was disabled and boilers destroyed.

“In all, about 30 of Alabama’s crew were killed or drowned, while the Kearsarge’s casualties totaled three wounded,” Adams said.

Semmes and 40 Confederate crew members managed to escape aboard an English steam yacht, the Deerhound, which seems to have been stationed near the battle “by prior arrangement,” Adams said.

The Union victory — widely celebrated on U.S. soil — also had international implications.

“The battle’s outcome served to shift foreign sentiment, in France especially, toward greater sympathy for the Union cause,” Adams said.

Other Civil War

anniversary events

The Athenaeum exhibit is just one of a number of events going on in New Hampshire to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

They include exhibits at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke on Gen. Fitz John Porter (May 1-Oct. 31) and the Peterborough Historical Society (April 20-Oct. 29), self-guided tours of Civil War Portsmouth offered at the Discover Portsmouth Center, a series of Civil War Roundtable discussions in Epping and the Civil War diary and letters of John Hay at The Fells in Newbury (June 27-Oct. 10).

The Discover Portsmouth Center, 10 Middle St., will have a related exhibit opening June 4, “Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection.”

The Athenaeum exhibit, which runs through Sept. 17, draws heavily on the works of art and ephemera collected by Joseph Sawtelle, a Portsmouth philanthropist and avid student of local marine history who died in 2000.

On June 9 at the Athenaeum, author William Marvel will give a gallery talk at 7 p.m. Marvel’s many books include “The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War,” as well as “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” and “Andersonville.” He has won a Lincoln Prize, the Douglas Southall Freeman Award, and the Bell Award.

On June 23 at 7 p.m., Alan Fraser Houston will present a talk on his recent book,“Keep Up Good Courage, A Yankee Family & the Civil War: The Correspondence of Corporal Lewis Q. Smith of Sandwich, N.H., Fourteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, 1862-1865.”

Richard Adams and Richard Candee will conduct a Civil War Portsmouth Walking Tour on Aug. 6.

Reservations are required for both talks and the walking tour. For reservations and information, call the Athenaeum at 431-2538.

The Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership museum and library founded in 1817. See more at

WHAT Fire on the Water: Portsmouth’s Kearsarge Sinks the Deadly Confederate Raider Alabama, curated by Richard Adams

WHEN May 6-Sept. 17; reception May 6, 5-8 p.m. in conjunction with Art ‘Round Town gallery walk

WHERE Portsmouth Athenaeum,

EVENTS June 9, 7 p.m. at the Athenaeum, author William Marvel will give a gallery talk. Marvel’s books include “The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War,” as well as “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” and “Andersonville;” June 23, 7 p.m., Alan Fraser Houston will present a talk on his recent book, “Keep Up Good Courage, A Yankee Family & the Civil War: The Correspondence of Corporal Lewis Q. Smith of Sandwich, N.H., Fourteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, 1862-1865;” Aug. 6: Richard Adams and Richard Candee will conduct a Civil War Portsmouth Walking Tour. Reservations are required for both talks and the walking tour. For reservations and information, call the Athenaeum at 431-2538. CONTACT, 431-2538

Too Many Civil War Books?

Written by John Hiett 

The flood of books a couple of years ago commemorating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth got me wondering just how many Lincoln books our library could absorb.

When so many titles get published at once, don’t many get overlooked, or does an event create enough interest that the books find an audience? The same thing is happening now with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (1861-1865). Lots of books, many of them well reviewed, are being released and will be for the next few years. Where to start? A couple approaches might work.

American Brutus

First, there are some excellent overviews of the entire era. “The Civil War: A Concise History,” by Louis Masur, covers the tensions leading to war, Lincoln’s election, secession, the war itself and reconstruction in a mere 118 pages. In no time at all, you can get back to trying to keep up with James Patterson. Less concise, Steven Woodworth’s “This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War” is more thorough. The Smithsonian Institution is involved with “Civil War: A Visual History,” published by DK, meaning it will contain excellent graphics. Ken Burns (yes, we have his landmark video series) contributes a foreword to “Discovering the Civil War,” a collection of original documents and photographs from the National Archives.

Alternately, one could approach the Civil War chronologically, beginning with David Egerton’s “Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War.” From there, try “Dogs of War 1861,”by Emory Thomas, or “1861: the Civil War Awakening,” by Adam Goodheart, or “The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those who Lived It.”

Looking for revisionist history? David Goldfield’s “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation,” attributes the war to religious fundamentalism and manifest destiny in the North. “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War,” by George Rable, examines the role of religion on both sides.

One also could approach the war through different lenses. “The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War,” by Donald Stoker, would be for military buffs looking for a macro view. “Lincoln on War”collects the writings of the great man himself, revealing the lengths he was prepared to go to preserve the union.

Finally, John Lockwood asks why the Confederacy didn’t simply invade Washington, D.C., a mostly undefended southern city at the beginning of the war in “The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union.”

If the Civil War is a topic that interests you, there will be plenty to choose from this year. These and other books on the Civil War can be found on the second floor of the Iowa City Public Library.

John Hiett is a senior librarian at the Iowa City Public Library.

Lincoln Assassination Books

Here are the four best books for details on the Lincoln Assassination.

American Brutus, by Michael W. Kauffman

It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. Therein lie all the classic elements of a great thriller. But the untold tale is even more fascinating.

Now, in American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators.

Piece by piece, Kauffman explains and corrects common misperceptions and analyzes the political motivation behind Booth’s plan to unseat Lincoln, in whom the assassin saw a treacherous autocrat, “an American Caesar.” In preparing his study, Kauffman spared no effort getting at the truth: He even lived in Booth’s house, and re-created key parts of Booth’s escape. Thanks to Kauffman’s discoveries, readers will have a new understanding of this defining event in our nation’s history, and they will come to see how public sentiment about Booth at the time of the assassination and ever since has made an accurate account of his actions and motives next to impossible–until now.

In nearly 140 years there has been an overwhelming body of literature on the Lincoln assassination, much of it incomplete and oftentimes contradictory. In American Brutus, Kauffman finally makes sense of an incident whose causes and effects reverberate to this day. Provocative, absorbing, utterly cogent, at times controversial, this will become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.

Assassin’s Accomplice by Kate Clifford Larson

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Assassin-s Accomplice tells the gripping story of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln through experience of its only female participant.Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt ran a boarding house in Washington, and the depth of her complicity in the murder of President Lincoln has been debated since she was arrested on April 17, 1865.Calling upon long-lost interviews, confessions, and court testimony, historian Kate Clifford Larson magnificently captures how Surratt-s actions defied nineteenth-century norms of piety and allegiance. A riveting account of espionage and murder, The Assassin-s Accomplice offers a revealing examination of America-s most remembered assassination.

Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

“The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history – the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.” “At the very center of this story is John Wilkes Booth, America’s notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, Booth threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South’s defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.” Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln’s own blood relics, Manhunt is a fully documented work, but it is also a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you’ve never read it before.

My Thoughts be Bloody by Nora Titone

In some ways, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre was John Wilkes Booth’s most stunning theatrical performance. The assassin waited offstage until his cue (gunshot-muffling audience laughter); then burst into the president’s theatre; shot him and leaped onto the stage. According to historian Nora Titone, this play-stopping dramatic scene marked not just the end of Booth’s bombastic acting career; it was the climax of his bitter lifelong rivalry with his older brother Edwin. With persuasive force, Titone argues that John Wilkes’ jealousy of his sibling’s much more successful acting career fueled the hatred that culminated in a single violent act that changed history.

A Nation Stirs, the Civil War Begins

Members of a regiment of New York Zouaves conducting an ambulence drill, 1861.

By DEBBY APPLEGATE, New York Times Sunday Book Review

On the morning of April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate States Army opened fire on the federal garrison of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. After 36 hours of shelling by Confederate cannons, United States Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered the battered fort to his former countrymen. The fall of Fort Sumter touched off four years of a civil war that would kill more than 620,000 soldiers and revolutionize American culture.

Click on the image to go to the page for this book

More prosaically, that fateful first shot unleashed a barrage of books about the War Between the States. In 1995 one bibliographer estimated that more than 50,000 had been published, exploring every aspect of the conflict on and off the battlefield. Thousands more have appeared since then.

Now, 150 years after the surrender of Fort Sumter, the journalist, travel writer and historian Adam Goodheart has let loose his own salvo in what will be a four-year firestorm of books commemorating the Civil War. Many good studies about the struggle will be published, but few will be as exhilarating as “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”

Like many of the best works of history, “1861” creates the uncanny illusion that the reader has stepped into a time machine. We are traveling, Goodheart writes in the prologue, to “a moment in our country’s history when almost everything hung in the balance.” Goodheart leads us on a journey through the frenzied, frightening months between Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 — followed with breakneck speed by the secession of the Confederate States and the outbreak of war — and July 4, 1861, when President Lincoln delivered his first message to Congress, laying out the case not only for the necessity of war, but for a more democratic vision of the United States.

The election of Lincoln and the secession crisis is, of course, familiar terrain. But Goodheart’s version is at once more panoramic and more intimate than most standard accounts, and more inspiring. This is fundamentally a history of hearts and minds, rather than of legislative bills and battles. He traces the process by which the states that did not secede evolved, in less than a year, from a deeply divided, intensely ambivalent and decidedly racist population into a genuine Union, united by the hope of creating a nation that would fulfill the promises of 1776. This is the story of the thousands of Americans who responded to the crisis, as Goodheart puts it, “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.”

So Goodheart turns the lens away from the usual stars of the story, the politicians, military officers, activists and editors who strove to direct the course of events. Instead, he explores the more obscure corners of antebellum America, introducing fascinating figures who loomed large at the time but have now been mostly forgotten.

Many of these are young men struggling to decide what manhood requires of them when the old models of patriotism, loyalty and self-interest were rapidly dissolving. In upstate Ohio, the irrepressible future president James Garfield was an idealistic state senator whose sense of Emersonian independence was increasingly affronted by the equivocation, self-censorship and unsavory compromises required to keep the slave states from seceding. In Chicago, Goodheart introduces young Elmer Ellsworth, whose boyhood dreams of glory led him to found the dashing Fire Zouaves, a military regiment composed of roughneck New York firemen but modeled on — and dressed in the exotic style of — the elite French forces in Algeria.

We glimpse the clerks and shopkeepers who organized themselves into secret political clubs called the Wide Awakes, who showed their support for candidate Lincoln by parading at night through the Northern cities in eerie silence, draped in makeshift capes of shiny black oilcloth that reflected the blaze of their flaming torches. Out in St. Louis, we visit the Forty-Eighters — reviled as the “Damned Dutch” by the Missouri secessionists — refugees from the failed revolution against the monarchs of the German Confederation, who discovered in the slaveholders “exactly what they had come here to escape: a swaggering clique of landed oligarchs, boorish aristocrats obstructing the forces of modernity and progress.”

And in the Union stronghold of Fortress Monroe outside Hampton, Va. (about as far south as Goodheart ventures), we witness the remarkable encounter between the Union general Benjamin Butler and three slaves — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, James Townsend — whose decision to liberate themselves ignited a sudden revolution in white attitudes toward emancipation.

Goodheart, the director of the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and a regular contributor’s Civil War blog, Disunion, combines a journalist’s eye for telling detail with the rigorous research of a good historian. But he gives his far-flung journey narrative tension and suspense by religiously following two fundamental rules of the novelist: first, make the reader care about your characters, then make the reader worry about them.

Goodheart excels at creating emotional empathy with his characters, encouraging us to experience the crisis as they did, in real time, without the benefit of historical hindsight. He lets the players speak for themselves and make the best case for their own motives and beliefs. Even more effective is his use of the technique of free indirect speech, subtly incorporating the distinctive language of the various characters into his own narration. For example: General Anderson would be “damned if he was to surrender — even worse, perform a shabby pantomime of surrender — before a rabble of whiskey-soaked militiamen and canting politicians.”

This is a particularly useful sleight of hand for the Civil War historian, who must recreate the feelings and rationalizations of a wide variety of people whose beliefs we might find incomprehensible or reprehensible — without sounding anachronistic or censorious, or seeming to endorse them. That same technique allows Goodheart to suggest the characters’ moral or intellectual blind spots, their failures of perception or their unpreparedness for the events to come. These moments are some of the most affecting in the book. They are also some of the funniest, as in Goodheart’s depiction of the boisterous Fire Zouaves arriving in drowsy, bureaucratic Washington:

“Waiting may have been the locals’ favorite pastime, but the New York firemen did not share their taste. After four days en route to the capital, cooped up on the steamer and then the train, they had expected and hoped to disembark straight into the thick of battle. (You could hardly blame them — it had been weeks since their last chance for even a good street brawl.) As they tumbled out of their train, a newspaperman had heard one Zouave ask: ‘Can you tell us where Jeff Davis is? We’re lookin’ for him.’ A comrade chimed in, ‘We’re bound to hang his scalp in the White House before we go back.’ Others squinted in perplexity, looking around for secession flags to capture but failing to discover any.”

The Zouaves’ situation turns tragic only a few weeks later, on the night of May 23, when their leader, the ebullient Ellsworth, impetuously decides to cut down a rebel flag that is flying over a Confederate sympathizer’s hotel, and is brutally killed. The young colonel was mourned as the first martyr of the war, inspiring over 200,000 men to join the Union Army. “Sumter’s fall had loosed a flood of patriotic feeling,” Goodheart observes, but “Ellsworth’s death released a tide of hatred, of enmity and counterenmity, of sectional blood lust. . . . Indeed, it was Ellsworth’s death that made Northerners ready not just to take up arms but actually to kill.”

Throughout “1861,” Goodheart shows how such small individual choices helped to decide momentous questions. A cascade of life-and-death decisions drives the book’s momentum from the beginning: Will the North elect Abraham Lincoln despite the South’s threats to secede? Once Lincoln is elected, will Congress be able to keep the South from leaving without committing the nation to slavery in perpetuity? Faced with the founding of the Confederacy, will the North let the slaveholders leave peacefully, capitulate to their demands, or embrace “the ideology of Freedom”? What will the West do, after years of being checked between Southern and Northern interests? Will the men of the North take up arms against their own people? What will happen to the slaves once war has come? Will the war become a fight to end slavery, or will it simply reunite the nation as it was?

The interplay of the intimate, the panoramic and the ironic reaches a heroic climax with these last two questions. The very day that Elmer Ellsworth died, General Butler encountered a dilemma in the form of the three fugitive slaves, who, before they escaped, had been helping build a Confederate artillery fortification across the harbor from Fortress Monroe. Butler’s course should have been clear. Legally, he was required to return the slaves to their owner. Politically, the general was bound by Lincoln’s vow that the federal government would not interfere with slavery — a position applauded by most Northerners.

But when the owner’s emissary arrived, waving a white flag of truce, to reclaim his runaway properties, Butler refused to turn them over. Since Virginia was no longer part of the United States, the wily general declared, and since the slaves had been aiding the rebel army, he was confiscating the men as “contraband of war.”

“Out of this incident seems to have grown one of the most sudden and important revolutions in popular thought which took place during the whole war,” Lincoln’s assistants John Hay and John Nicolay observed. The befuddling logic of the “contraband doctrine” had a clarifying effect on the North. Those who decried “emancipation” as an unconstitutional attack on property rights found no objection when it was called “confiscation.” The impact among blacks was even more profound. Within weeks, slaves by the hundreds were flooding into “the freedom fort” and other Union bastions — without inciting a racial bloodbath, as many whites had long feared. It was the blow that sent slavery to its deathbed.

Not everyone will be enamored of “1861.” Some will object that it concentrates too much on the white men of the North, giving short shrift to women, blacks and Southerners. Readers hoping for a conventional war story might be put off by the book’s peripatetic structure. Skeptics may look askance at Goodheart’s unabashed optimism and open admiration of the Union cause in spite of the many ways it would fall short of its most noble goals. But readers who take “1861” on its own passionate, forthright terms will find it irresistible. And for those who don’t like this Civil War book, well, just wait — there are plenty more to come.

Debby Applegate is the author of “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. She is now writing a biography of the madam Polly Adler.

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