When you get off the train in downtown Richmond, Virginia, you’re just a half-block from the site of that city’s former slave market; reading the plaque that explained this bit of local history, and looking across Main Street at the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, I was forcibly reminded of one of the main reasons I wanted to start the Civil War Book Club—While I may know quite a few things about the Civil War, there’s still much of it I don’t fully understand. The 150th anniversary, which began last week, is a good opportunity to expose myself to this history, and hopefully to share it with others.
I had come to Richmond to meet Adam Goodheart, the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a book that does a fantastic job of exploring how the months after the presidential election of 1860, and the early months of the war, were not a simple matter of “North against South,” but a personal crisis of conscience for every American citizen: Where did our loyalties lie? What did we hold most dear about our nation? Were we willing to fight for it? Adam and I came to Fountain Bookstore to talk about these volatile months for a small but appreciative audience. In the clip above, you’ll hear him read for about fifteen minutes from his account of the last moments in the Confederate assault on the troops stationed at Fort Sumter.
After Adam’s reading, I asked him about the ways in which the personal and political mixed in the months leading up to Fort Sumter, and the events that radicalized people on both sides of the issue—that made them ready to treat slavery and secession not just as a political debate, but as issues worth killing over. We also discussed the student project that inspired him to dig into this topic, and then the audience had more great questions to ask. The video below is just short of 40 minutes long, and we only lost the last question or two to a full camera. I’m grateful to Adam and the audience for such a powerful conversation, and to Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore for providing a space in which it could happen.
On my way back to the train station the following afternoon, I crossed the street to take a closer look at the reconciliation statue, and to read the message that stood next to it: “Men, women and children were captured in West and Central Africa and transported from Benin and other countries. They were chained, herded, loaded on ships built in England and transported through the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage. They were imported and exported in Richmond, Virginia and sold in other American cities. Their forced labor laid the economic foundation of this nation.”
It’s one thing to know this intellectually; it’s something else, something both unsettling and moving, to stand on a street corner in the middle of a major American city and realize that these things took place in this very spot, until people decided they would rather fight their fellow citizens than stop what was taking place here. My people on both sides of my family didn’t come to this country until roughly a half-century later, so I don’t share the personal connection to the war that many Americans have, but the moment of silence with that statue is something that I will carry with me as I continue to learn more about what this country went through 150 years ago.