During the long, slow descent into war at the start of 1861, Capt.Abner Doubleday filled the tedious hours at besieged Fort Sumter by designing a medal he thought Congress ought to award him and his fellow soldiers holding out at the Union garrison in Charleston Harbor. In northeastern Ohio, James A. Garfield — a young professor of classics, English literature, philosophy, natural science, American history, geography, geometry and religion at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute — bought a handbook of military science and began practicing two-man musket drills with his roommate. In St. Louis, William Tecumseh Sherman sat disconsolately at a desk, running the city’s horse-drawn streetcar line.

Adam Goodheart declares his intention at the outset of “1861,” his peripatetic exploration of America on the brink of civil war, to take the scenic route through this well-traversed era of American history. It is a route, he insists, that not only has been forgotten or neglected, but that holds the key to understanding how, “one person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 — as their grandparents had in 1776 — that it was worth risking everything, their lives and their fortunes, on their country.”

And so to get “the full story,” Goodheart writes, it is necessary not only to look to the halls of power and the fields of battle, but “to go much farther afield: 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.”

Goodheart, a former op-ed editor at the New York Times, has a good eye for detail, both tragic and absurd. While Doubleday was dreaming of medals, a fellow officer at Fort Sumter, assistant surgeon Samuel Wylie Crawford, was mailing off sketches of the fort to Harper’s Weekly for $25 apiece and taking copious notes for a book that (as he wrote his brother a month before the Confederate attack) “will be eagerly sought after, I think, and would certainly pay.” In the first few months after secession, Goodheart observes, Southern newspapers were filled with imaginary, panic-stricken reports of slaves plotting “insurrections,” so much so that the price of slaves fell to half or even a third of their value a year earlier as owners began to doubt their reliability, if not the future of the entire institution. And some of his scenes of life in Washington during those uncertain early days are, for better or for worse, indelible. I can guarantee you will never look at the corridors of the Capitol building quite the same way after reading the aghast report from the architect of the Capitol of the “cartloads of - - - - in the dark corners” that he had to have hauled away after the building served as the temporary bivouac for a New York regiment that had rushed south to help defend the city.

Goodheart is a fine writer but not without the occasional lapse. (Attention book editors, if you still exist: This is where you come in, to save writers from themselves.) His attempts to novelistically reconstruct scenes at times fall into the trite and formulaic: Characters in several instances are encountered “hurrying” through the streets, coattails flapping. Too many metaphors are redolent of the creative writing class hard at work: “clapboard houses, thin and white as a child’s paper cutouts,” “bayonets glinting as if in Morse code.” At intervals the author himself makes a sudden odd appearance in the text, waving his arms to remind us that he’s the guy who wrote the book as he gratuitously tells of a visit to the Smithsonian to peer at an artifact, or recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, like one of those TV historians wheeled out to place history in “context.”

The larger problem with “1861” is that the tour to these far fields often seems to lose even its own serendipitous way — the author’s declared intention of rediscovering the Civil War as a grass-roots awakening in which history was made by the individual actions of millions — and there is much aimless, though always thorough, chronicling of people and events whose significance is obscure. Attempts to justify some of this irrelevancy (an account of the last surviving veteran of Bunker Hill, notably) as allegorical or symbolic are particularly strained. The lives and events that more plausibly offer a connection to real historical meaning, such as Maj. Robert Anderson’s agonized decision to defend Fort Sumter, tend on the other hand to be very familiar. Even a casual reader of Civil War history will have encountered them before; they are hardly “largely forgotten,” as Goodheart insists.

The one section where his close focus really pays off is the account of Union Gen. Benjamin Butler’s lawyerly inspiration to declare escaped slaves arriving at Fort Monroe as “contraband of war” and refuse to hand them back to their owners — a pivotal moment in the evolution of the war from a fight to preserve the Union into a struggle that could end only in the complete abolition of slavery. It is one place where this offbeat journey in search of the “full story” delivers what it promises, suggesting how the cumulative decisions of unsung individuals could have momentous consequences in this war that forever changed America.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of “Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815.”


The Civil War Awakening

By Adam Goodheart

Knopf. 481 pp. $28.95