HAGERSTOWN — A stack of letters bound in ribbon and hidden in an Eastern Shore (Md.) home ignited an acclaimed book telling the stories of little-known Civil War heroes and skyrocketed author Adam Goodheart to the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
Goodheart — a son of Maryland and lecturer in American Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. — came to the Visitor Welcome Center on Potomac Street in Hagerstown Wednesday to sign copies of his new book, “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”
The book by the Washington, D.C.-based author is listed as No. 13 on the Times’ best-seller list for the week of May 15.
“His book is a unique perspective on Civil War history,” said Beth Rowland, who together with her husband, Tim, writes a column for America’s Civil War Magazine.
Tim Rowland is also a columnist for The Herald-Mail
Beth Rowland, who lives near Boonsboro, said it was significant for an author of Goodheart’s caliber to visit Hagerstown for the day.
David Hanlin, development coordinator for the Washington County Free Library, arranged Goodheart’s visit in connection with the library’s fundraising dinner Wednesday night at Fountain Head Country Club.
His visit, which included the book-signing and speaking engagement at the dinner, was also sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Echoing Beth Rowland, Hanlin said Goodheart approaches history as a journalist, telling not just facts in detailed chronology, but stories, deep with emotion and humanity.
“He grasps the forces at work that led to the Civil War, and he uses those stories to highlight that pivotal year,” Hanlin said of the book.
Too often the start of 1861 is overshadowed by the following years of blood and devastation, Goodheart said.
“I hope that people really come away with a sense of the history, the places and the people that make it,” he said of his work.
Goodheart said reading those ribbon-bound letters — penned by Col. William H. Emory — immersed him in that moment of uncertainty as Emory, like many Americans at the time, grappled with a choice: Betray his country and fight for the South, or join the Union and chance fighting against his home.
For about a decade, Goodheart’s research grew that story of uncertainty into a much larger tale of the genesis of war, spanning American experiences from sea to shining sea, he said.
Yet, his book does not follow the long-trodden path of many Civil War tomes, telling history in what he calls “big, general abstracts.”
Rather, it reads almost as a novel, unfolding stories of America’s unsung participants as they shape the critical first months of 1861, he said.
Although his book only follows events through July of 1861, Goodheart said he does not plan to write books for each of the years of civil war.
However, he said he has another work under way, details of which he would not disclose.
“For now, it is still just a glittering in my eye,” he said.