From 1861 to the Present: Understanding Historical Upheaval


2013-05-24 by Robbin Laird

The 21st century is not the 20th.

The late 20th century was characterized by global growth, globalization, American and European dominance, Russian decline, and the rise of Asia.

The 21st century is really none of these.  

The struggle for growth is moving beyond the stock markets and board rooms, and in many parts of the world, including Europe, is becoming a focal point for social conflict and disorder. America and Europe are not only rivaled by Asia, but the American Century is not likely to replaced by the Asian Century, but no century at all.  The conflict over global relevance and dominance is a key aspect of contemporary life.

Conflicts which are local are becoming regional, and globalization has ensured that no regional conflict is limited by the adjective.

For example, it is clear that the Eurozone crisis is not just about the future of Europe as the Arab Spring turns nasty and the two regions have become areas dynamically interconnected.

When we look back on this decade a decade from now, I am sure we will have a good way to describe it.

For now, we don’t.

I recently read a book which provides a very good sense of what historical transition feels like.

There is no sense of inevitably about outcomes, but clear clashes of players, uncertain indeed about the future.  This book is entitled 1861, which is an amazing look at the US in transition to the civil war.

It is subtitled the Civil War awakening, which is really what the book is about.

The core point of the book is rather straightforward: the year 1861 saw the country changing dramatically under the pressure of the coming of the Civil War, and latent developments become realized as the fissures of the nation opened up.

In effect, the book provides significant insights into the processes of historical change.

The Civil War was in effect the realization of revolutionary change throughout the country, with Californians thinking seriously about setting up their own nation, Southerners having to deal with internal security concerns while preparing to fight the North, and Northerners deeply divided among themselves about the future.

The author adds that:

To get the full story of that moment in American history, it is necessary to go much farther afield (beyond Fort Sumter) to the slums of Manhattan and the drawing rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave cabins, and even to the shores of the Pacific.  It is also necessary to consider people and ideas that were migrating form 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.

The writer has a fantastic knack to capture the character of people, and to provide vignettes on life at the time. There are many fascinating images portrayed in the book.

A favorite one is the duplicity of Washington DC. 

Indeed, the usual categories of slave and free, black and white—terms that seemed so simple and stark in the speeches of abolitionist preachers or proslavery politicians—were all mixed up here in the shadow of the Capitol. Census takers recorded only a few thousand slaves in Washington just before the Civil War, a figure that nearly all modern historians have accepted unquestioningly. But most of the District’s slaves didn’t belong to Washingtonians, and so they weren’t counted in the census. Some were the property of Southern senators, congressmen, and even presidents, who brought them along as butlers, chefs, and body servants.

Many more were owned by Maryland and Virginia planters who rented their Negroes out, often for years at a time, to work in the city. Other masters simply sent slaves off to seek employment on their own, demanding only a share of the earnings. The lives of such men and women, though often squalid and impoverished, could occasionally seem like freedom.

The District’s large population of free Negroes and mulattoes, on the other hand, lived in what sometimes seemed like slavery. In countless small ways each day, they were reminded that Washington was the capital of a country not their own. Any person of African descent was barred from entering the grounds of the Capitol—except, of course, for the servants and laborers whose work was in many respects more indispensable than that of the congressmen.

Goodheart, Adam (2011-04-05). 1861: The Civil War Awakening (p. 61-62). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Here slavery was abolished except for slaves.

And while the Capital was deep in the rhetorical and personal battles over the future of slavery, in Washington DC itself blacks predominated, some free and some slaves.

To give a flavor of the author’s skill in described key players in the playout of the runup to the Civil War consider his characterization of one Louis T. Wigfall.

Perhaps the feistiest Southerner of all was Louis T. Wigfall, a freshman senator from Texas. If Crittenden represented the past, this new man from a new state might represent the future—though there were many who devoutly hoped not. His very face was that of a man who, whatever his other endowments might be, found it unbearable to hear more than three or four words spoken consecutively by anyone else. His beetling eyebrows clenched and unclenched when he talked (which was almost incessantly), and his pugnacious black beard seemed to jut out perpendicular to his face. Even his nose, an English journalist wrote, was somehow “argumentative.”

But his eyes, the writer continued, were most dangerously transfixing: “of wonderful depth and light, such as I never saw before but in the head of a wild beast. If you look some day when the sun is not too bright into the eye of a Bengal tiger, in the Regent’s Park, as the keeper is coming round, you will form some notion of the expression I mean.”

By the age of twenty-five, Wigfall had managed to squander his considerable inheritance, settle three affairs of honor on the dueling ground, fight in a ruthless military campaign against the Seminoles, consume a small lakeful of bourbon, win an enviable reputation in whorehouses throughout the South, and get hauled before a judge on charges of murder. Three years after that, he took the next logical step and went into Texas politics.

Goodheart, Adam (2011-04-05). 1861: The Civil War Awakening (p. 71). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In other words, the book examines two historical epochs clashing with each other at the moment of transition.

As such, insights are provided into how such transition occurs.  In our own time of profound historical change, it is useful to remember that the outcome is not a given, but is up for grabs.

Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2011).