Adam Goodheart

Adam Goodheart Adam Goodheart is a historian, journalist, and one of a handful of contributors to the New York Times’s Disunion blog. Disunion marks the 150th anniversary of the events leading up to and including the Civil War in daily installments. Goodheart is also the author of the forthcoming book 1861: The Civil War Awakening to be released on April 5.

TMN: How did Disunion come about?

Adam Goodheart: Well, obviously, with the 150th anniversary of the war coming up, a lot of people are going to be reflecting on it, and I think the Times editors felt that it was a chance to sort of do history in a new way, and, particularly, that the blog format could be applied to history so that we could do a sort of live-blog of the Civil War as it unfolded. Except, of course, 150 years later, so that we would be reporting things—not exactly in real time—but almost in real time—so that people, they could have that experience of, you know, actually experiencing events as they happen. I think when we read about history and when we write about history today it’s often from this sort of 30,000-foot-up, History Channel perspective where you are looking down at this vast landscape and seeing armies march from one place to another in huge historical movements unfolding. But when we think about the way that we actually experience history in our lives, of course, it’s not that way. It’s something that tends to happen as a bunch of little, separate, distinct, often contradictory, certainly confusing experiences. We don’t know what each piece of the puzzle means, we don’t know how it fits together with the others, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I think Disunion sort of represents that experience in a way that very few history books can.

TMN: Considering the massive body of work that has already been dedicated to the Civil War, what does Disunion contribute further?

AG: I think the Civil War is one of those great stories that each generation brings its own fresh eyes and its own fresh mind to. It’s been called the American Iliad, and it’s a little bit like Homer and the Homeric stories probably were to the ancient Greeks. Each generation for a thousand years in ancient Greek and Roman times, they would find different ways to retell, and to paint, and to carve that story. So I think, in our time today, we have a chance to tell the story of the Civil War, to look at the story of the Civil War, to paint the story of the Civil War in a different way than it was done in past generations. Already, our cultural moment today is very different than what it was 50 years ago when the centennial of the Civil War was celebrated when it was seen strongly through the prism of what was going on in civil rights history at that time. But I also think that we’re in a very different place now than we were when Ken Burns’s Civil War series came out 20 years ago. I think Disunion is part of a larger chance for this generation to write its own Civil War story.

TMN: To take that a step further, how do you think things have changed in the past 20 years with regard to the Civil War? How are the cultural repercussions today different than they were 20 or 50 years ago?

AG: I think we’ve sort of finally gotten over some degree of the obsession with healing the wounds between North and South that really caused a lot of the racial elements of the war to be swept under the rug for a long time. After the war there was a sort of a dominant narrative in American history for more than a hundred years, and I think we can still see it in Ken Burns’s work, creating a sort of equivalency between the “boys in blue” on the one hand and the “boys in gray” on the other, having a sort of shared American, tragic experience. That was a picture that roped black people out the story, frankly, to a large degree, and sort of sacrificed their experience for the sake of healing those wounds between the North and the South. I think that business seems to be more or less complete now, although there are always a few people still taking potshots back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line. I think people now are more ready to talk about the racial dimensions of the war in an honest way, and I think people more now than at any time since shortly after the end of the war are ready to simply and squarely say that the Confederate cause was simply a wrong one, and in fact a rather evil one.

But I also think that people are bringing their own passions and maybe their own distortions to bear on that period of history, and it’s been fascinating. To me, one of the most interesting things about Disunion is looking through readers’ comments. The conversations that the readers have with each other and with the pieces are as interesting, I think, as anything that we’ve actually been writing. One of the things that’s been an interesting surprise is how many people view the Civil War through this sort of prism of current day Tea Party politics. There are a lot of people who associate the Confederacy rightly or wrongly with the Tea Party, and say that this is part of a reactionary and selfish strain in American politics that we’ve had since the 19th century of a set of privileged, white males trying to protect their interests and sort of couching it in terms of a populist crusade, couching it in terms of being persecuted, and being oppressed, and having their liberties trampled upon, when actually, you know, that’s completely perverse and ridiculous. I think it’s not coincidental that this series began to run the week of the midterm elections. I mean, it is coincidental somewhat in terms of the chronology, although that was the anniversary of Lincoln’s election, but I think that that timing means that people have really been looking through the prism of current-day politics in a way that can be quite interesting and also, at times, that can be somewhat distracting if you’re trying to figure out what actually did happen in the 1860s.

TMN: To use a military term, are you then conscripted to keep working on this blog through 2015?

AG: [Laughs] No, I’m not conscripted through 2015. My contract at this point runs through April, although I think I’m likely to keep doing it after that.

TMN: But, as far as you know, do the editors intend to see Disunion through the full four years of the war?

AG: I mean, I can’t say that for sure, because I can’t speak for them. You’d have to ask Clay [Risen] and George [Kalogerakis] about that. They might tell you. It started out very much as an experiment, from what I understand, and we all had to wait and see what the readers’ response would be to it. I mean, you can’t simply sign on to do a five-year project, sight unseen, so I think it’s safe to say that all of us have been just really thrilled and excited at the following that it’s gotten pretty quickly, and the conversations that it’s sparking, and just how many times these pieces end up in the Times’s most emailed list. That’s been exciting, and the editors—I had lunch with George and Clay last month—and they said, well, if we stop the series at this point, the readers would be storming the building with pitchforks, so I think there’s definitely demand among the readers to keep it going. But it’s still very much an experiment. I wish I knew, and it feels like an adventure and an experiment.

It’s cool, too, because different people are reading it and getting hooked on it than the kinds that we would’ve expected. I sort of was expecting a lot of late-middle age history buff types, you know, sort of white suburban guys, not to be snobbish or anything. There’s nothing wrong with white suburban guys, but I think it’s a lot of younger people are reading it, a lot of women, a lot of racially diverse groups are reading it. I think this blog has been reaching people beyond sort of a stereotypical audience of people who read Civil War books or are obsessed with the Civil War, and I wouldn’t consider myself a Civil War buff, either. I set out to write the book 1861 because I was fascinated by a particular moment in the country’s cultural and political history, the moment when a new generation of Americans was coming into its own, making both on a collective and an individual level a series of life-changing decisions that would change their lives as individuals and would change the country as a whole.

So I was interested in that moment of decision, or, as I call it in the title of my book, a moment of awakening. I think a lot of people are kind of interested in moving past the military history. I mean, I couldn’t care less, frankly, whose cavalry went charging over which hill at the Battle of Antietam. That stuff makes my eyes glaze over. It was interesting because when I started to write, I kind of figured that there would be the most interest in this sort of military-history stuff, the kind of stereotype of the Civil War book. Then when I started writing it—and I also figured that people would have a low tolerance for talk about slavery and race. I just figured that people would think that that would be less interesting. Well, it’s been quite the opposite. Any time that we have something that reflects on race and slavery it just gets a lot of attention, a lot of discussion, and to me that’s really healthy and really encouraging when you look at the conversations that are going on right now about that history.

TMN: Since you claim not to be a Civil War buff, what do you consider your background to be?

AG: I guess I could say that I’m a journalist and a historian. I’m not an academic historian. I’ve written about the past for a long time, but I tend to write about connections between the past and the present. I like to use a journalist’s techniques to evoke history. I like very much to focus on place, to focus on character, to tell small stories that can illuminate a larger moment in time. So I guess—I certainly don’t feel like a Civil War buff. That moment in history, as I said, just fascinated me, gosh, through most of my life. That moment of the war’s beginning in 1861. When I set out to write the book, I don’t think I even could have told you exactly why it fascinated me or what I expected to find. I just knew that that moment called to me and that I wanted to step inside it and find out what was going on. I wanted to see what America looked like at that moment in time. I wanted to get to know intimately some of the people who were in the center of that moment in our country’s history, and find out what they were thinking about and find out how they were making the decisions that they were. I just had a feeling that if I managed to pull off that time-travel trick a little bit, then I just might start to learn some new things. So I pretty much buried myself in the Library of Congress every moment that I could spare from my day job for two years and read and read and read, and dug deep into 19th-century newspapers and chose a few specific characters to refract that era through.

It’s what I do on a smaller scale with my Disunion pieces. Each piece focuses around, usually, a particular moment in time, a particular person, a particular episode. Sometimes I’ve taken something specific like a work of art or Walt Whitman’s pocket notebook and start using that as a prism to view the past. So I think I’m a historian, but I’m not a traditional academic historian, you could say. I consider myself a writer more than a scholar.

TMN: As an insider, can you give us any hints about who’s going to win?

AG: [Laughs] Now I have to think of a clever answer to that. There sure are a lot of losers on both sides in the Civil War. It was a terrible moment in history, but I think there are a lot of winners on both sides, too. One of the most surprising things that I found in doing my research was how many white southerners there were who, in their heart of hearts, hated slavery. Even the people who owned lots of slaves, even many of the people who went off to war fighting to preserve slavery, hated slavery. It’s one of these great paradoxes of American racial politics that people at that moment in time both hated the institution and were ready to lay down their lives to defend it. It’s one of those complications of the human heart, I guess. One of the great Civil War characters of all time, and certainly of Civil War literature, is Mary Chesnut, the great diarist who was a South Carolinian whose husband was one of the commanders, actually, during the attack on Fort Sumter. He was one of the Confederate officers who demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter. So while her husband is off starting the Civil War and representing the Confederacy, Mary Chesnut writes in her diary and says, “I wonder if it is a terrible sin to think that slavery is a great evil.” She says there’s not one thing that Mrs. Stowe, that Harriet Beecher Stowe, or that Mr. Sumner, Charles Sumner, said about this institution that is not true, and she knows that at least half of the men who are going off into our Confederate army feel the same way. She and her husband’s family owned hundreds of slaves. Of course, they lost all of that with the end of the war. They lost everything; their entire fortune was wiped out. At the end of the war, when the slaves were freed, she describes the emotions she and her husband felt as a kind of “unholy joy,” which I think sums it up very beautifully, the sense that they were almost taking pleasure in the destruction of something they had defended. So I think it was a complicated victory for the North; I think it was a complicated defeat for the South.

TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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