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Power to the People

I’m the last person to recommend yet another book about the American Civil War, one of which seems to be published every five minutes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. You would think by now that every meaningful thing to be said about the War Between the States has been.

But Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening might be the exception. For one thing, look at the way he sets events then into context with events now. Money quote from a New York Times article adapted from the book, How Slavery Really Ended in America (emphasis mine):

Earthshaking events are sometimes set in motion by small decisions. Perhaps the most famous example was when Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. More recently, a Tunisian fruit vendor’s refusal to pay a bribe set off a revolution that continues to sweep across the Arab world. But in some ways, the moment most like the flight of fugitive slaves to Fort Monroe came two decades ago, when a minor East German bureaucratic foul-up loosed a tide of liberation across half of Europe. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, a tumultuous throng of people pressed against the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, in response to an erroneous announcement that the ban on travel to the West would be lifted immediately. The captain in charge of the befuddled East German border guards dialed and redialed headquarters to find some higher-up who could give him definitive orders. None could. He put the phone down and stood still for a moment, pondering. “Perhaps he came to his own decision,” Michael Meyer of Newsweek would write. “Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Why not?’ . . . ‘Alles auf!’ he ordered. ‘Open ’em up,’ and the gates swung wide.”

The Iron Curtain did not unravel at that moment, but that night the possibility of cautious, incremental change ceased to exist, if it had ever really existed at all. The wall fell because of those thousands of pressing bodies, and because of that border guard’s shrug.

In the very first months of the Civil War — after Baker, Mallory and Townsend breached their own wall, and Butler shrugged — slavery’s iron curtain began falling all across the South. Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, in their biography of the president, would say of the three slaves’ escape, “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.”

Power to the people. I’m sold.


If you haven’t seen it, Ken Burns’ Emmy Award-winning series, The Civil War, is still the most comprehensive, most insightful, and most heart-wrenching account of the American Civil War ever made, and it may even be the best documentary ever made. I’ve seen it all the way through twice, and I could watch it again. Video clips here on the PBS website.

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