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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 1, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

1861, Bug and Plant Art, Common Phrases

I've been a lifelong student of the American Civil War, ever since as a kid I received Bruce Catton's brilliant and definitive The Army of the Potomac as a birthday gift.

I've read books about the battles, the generals; tactics and grand strategies and the politics of the war; but never have I read a better and more powerful book on the Civil War than Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

Actually, I'm listening to it -- nearly finished now -- and while narrator Jonathan Davis has an alarming ability to misunderstand what he's reading, so that he gets the phrasing weirdly wrong, the writing is so powerful that it transcends the reader's limitations.

1861's aims are limited. It's not a tactical war book. It's not about the commanders of the great battles. It focuses instead on the America in which the Civil War took shape, became inevitable, and then began.

Fort Sumter, of course, but also the recruits, the political maneuvering, the removal of that pesky secessionist flag from a hotel across the Potomac from Washington -- matters both trivial and consequential.

Through it all, Goodheart is such a skillful writer that you never lose the main threads. As he switches back and forth between events in St. Louis, as German immigrants become the main union opposition to slave-owning secessionists, and San Francisco, where a senator's daughter and an eastern preacher labor to keep California from seceding, Goodheart keeps the reader fascinated with these people whose part in the war rarely gets much individual attention in the big histories, yet who, in their small way, changed the world.

Goodheart's focus is primarily on the union side, mostly because that's the side that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the war. The South had already become so dominated by the anti-democratic but supposedly freedom-loving pro-slavery fanatics that there wasn't much serious room for discussion.

The South in the decades leading up to the Civil War had become rather like our politically correct society today -- if you uttered even the slightest thought that did not conform with the Only Permitted Opinion, you were severely punished.

Today, that takes the form of getting fired, being called ugly names, or being threatened with various reprisals (just try publicly voicing opposition to gay marriage on any grounds and see what happens to you); in the South before the Civil War, however, the response was often violent -- you could go to jail, be whipped, be lynched, or be driven out of town.

The result is that even though private diaries reveal that many -- perhaps most -- southerners had their doubts about slavery and secession and war, their voices had been effectively silenced in the public arena.

In the North, however, there was freedom because, unlike today, nobody in a position of power felt entitled to force others to remain silent if their opinions were not "standard."

It is fascinating, in Goodheart's book, to see how Abolitionists were at first blamed for causing all the problems -- a triumph for pro-slavery public relations, putting the onus on the people who weren't claiming a right to own human beings -- and then, almost imperceptibly, Abolitionists practically ceased to exist because almost everyone began to understand that there was no way to fight this war and leave slavery intact at the end of it.

There is particular delight in watching as union political general Benjamin Butler -- a Democrat and no Abolitionist, at first, anyway -- found himself articulating a policy toward slaves who escaped from their owners and fled to Fort Monroe, near to Hampton, Virginia.

Butler couldn't free the slaves -- he had no authority for that -- but he also couldn't stand to return them to their owners, partly because most of Butler's men were New England Abolitionists, and partly because these slaves were being used to build Confederate fortifications!

So, ever the consummate lawyer, Butler declared them to be "contraband" -- war-related property seized from the enemy, in the same category as weapons and ammunition. Almost instantly the joke spread through the north, calling runaway slaves "contrabands."

There was a bit of racism in the term, but also a lot of irony, because this "contraband" had legs and intelligence and everyone quickly came to understand that nobody was ever going to send these runaways back into slavery. Period.

Their legal status might not be defined yet, but for all intents and purposes, they were free.

Goodheart also dismisses the charge that Lincoln was a racist for the calumny it has always been. The political reality of the time required that, until the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln publicly assert that the war was not about slavery and that he had no intention of freeing slaves.

If he had done otherwise, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware would have seceded, too (Missouri was only kept in the union by force), and the war would have been far harder to fight and win.

But, as 1861 made clear, Lincoln always had in mind the idea that he had already articulated back in the Lincoln-Douglas debates: the nation could not endure half slave and half free. As Lincoln told his private secretary, there would come a time when the United States could not hope to win the war without divine aid, and divine aid could not be counted on unless it was a war for freedom rather than merely to preserve the union.

Goodheart's treatment of what slavery was like in the South takes into account all the claims that slaves were happy and well-treated, and exposes them for the lies they were -- for the entire South lived in constant terror of violent slave rebellion.

But in no way is Goodheart creating a political tract. He is actually quite even-handed, showing hypocrisy wherever it pops up, and returning relentlessly to the historical data to bring us ever closer to a true understanding of the times.

And he has a gift for storytelling, especially when he talks about the man who created the zouave craze.

I remember as a kid seeing pictures of "zouave" soldiers in uniform, but there was no explanation -- there or anywhere -- of why otherwise sensible Americans would dress in these fantastically weird bright-colored baggy-pants turbaned uniforms when heading off to war.

By the time Goodheart has told us the whole story, we not only understand just how cool the zouaves were -- think of them as the Green Berets or Ninjas of their day -- but we follow the story of a young man whose tragic death brought the war home to Lincoln himself, and also brings home the war to the readers of 1861.

I'm not ashamed to say that as I was puttering around the garden while listening to this book, I wept -- a great inconvenience, since my hands were covered with dirt and I couldn't wipe my eyes.

Who actually cries while reading a history book? Well, with this history book I bet I won't be the only one. It reads like a very, very good novel -- and yet Goodheart has the integrity of the best sort of historian. The story is, insofar as it is possible, true.

We cry because this war was worth crying over -- the stupidity of it, and yet the necessity of it, for the evil of slave-owning had determined our nation could never be redeemed without bloody conflict.

This has been a pretty poor year for movies -- but it's a great year for books. Between 1493 (reviewed last week) and 1861, it's an especially great year for books whose title consists of a date!

Truly: You don't understand the Civil War, or America in that time, until you've read this book.


Ever since I got old enough to have any money at all, buying books as gifts for me has been nearly impossible -- because if it's a book I'd be interested in, I already bought it.

But my wife struck paydirt on my birthday, recently, when she gave me a couple of glorious scientific art books that I had never heard of.

You know: Big coffee-table books full of colorful artwork. Only the art all comes from nature.

Years ago, we found a gallery of butterfly art -- butterflies that died naturally, but which were then mounted inside acrylic boxes for display. The piece we bought has hung on our wall for twenty years now.

Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley does that same job, but with a fantastic array of colorful beetles, damselflies, butterflies, weevils, and other insects.

Some people find it hard to believe, but these insects are not painted, retouched, or enhanced in any way -- this is how nature made these amazing creatures.

Marley's contribution is to select and arrange them artistically -- and he does a marvelous job. To get an idea, you might want to visit his website, http://www.formandpheromone.com/ .

The actual art pieces are mostly in the thousand-dollar range, so I'm not buying any; but the "licensed" category offers much-more-affordable books, note cards, a game, a set of flash cards. In short, there are ways to get these images into your home without having to sell one of your kids to do it.

In The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants, by Wolfgang Stuppy, Rob Kesseler, and Madeline Harley, often you are not seeing the natural colors -- because electron microscopy does not yield a color image.

Stuppy and Harley are scientists of seeds and pollen. Kesseler is an artist, who carefully colorizes the astonishing images to bring clarity to what we're looking at.

Together they have created a tour of the strange, beautiful structures and textures of life forms that we could never see so clearly (or at all!) with the naked eye.

But it's not just about the images. The authors do a good job of talking about what we're seeing, giving a decent introduction to the sex life of plants. Now and then they take for granted that we all paid attention in high school biology class. It happens that I did, and even remember most of what I learned, so their narration works for me.

The result is a book of images you can't stop looking at -- except that you also want to read all about them.


Max Cryer, who wrote Common Phrases: and the Amazing Stories Behind Them, is from New Zealand, which may explain why every now and then, his version of a "common phrase" is so very weird.

Have you ever heard "all over bar the shouting?" Me neither. In America, the phrase is "all over but the shouting." We just don't use the word "bar" to mean "except" very often; apparently they do in Kiwiland.

But such oddities aside, Cryer has done a very good job of giving us credible stories for the origin of many phrases and a few words. Since many of these came into use during my lifetime, it's a bit of a trip down memory lane.

Sometimes, though, the effort to find the first use of a phrase in print can be quite misleading. "At this point in time" was already in common usage -- I heard it all the time and used it often -- before John Dean used it during the Watergate hearings.

The news media made a big deal about the phrase, but I thought this merely showed their ignorance. They criticized it for what it revealed about the mental deficiencies of the Nixon administration -- but they treated everything that way. My guess? Every reporter who criticized the phrase had already used it many times themselves.

Still, when searching for first printed use of a phrase, it may very well be that Cryer's Watergate citation is the first famous use.

I was baffled by his choosing "slept her way to the middle" as if the phrase came out of nowhere. He clearly missed the point that it's a joke on the common phrase "she slept her way to the top."

"Middle" suggests she was willing to use sex to get ahead in the world -- but was so inept at targeting her seductions that she only got a little way up the ladder.

And even that phrase is a twist on the much older phrases "He started at the bottom and worked his way up" and "He worked his way to the top." The female version, where "she slept" her way to the top, is an ironic twist on that old adage -- suggesting that in a sexist world, working hard wasn't as effective for women as simply marrying or sleeping their way up the ladder.

Maybe that's why Cryer wasn't aware of the real origins of the phrase -- women really can work their way to the top nowadays, rumors of a glass ceiling to the contrary notwithstanding. Come to think of it, "glass ceiling" isn't in his book, either.

Look, a collection like this can't possibly contain everything, and nobody can possibly come up with all the possible origins of every phrase. Cryer does a good job, and the stories are fascinating.

Especially when he defines terms or phrases that clearly reflect either British or New Zealand usage. Have you ever heard of "sledging" to mean "loud annoying comments" from players on one team, meant to distract a player on the other team?

We do it -- but we don't call it that.

This book is worth owning -- it makes great bathroom reading, if nothing else! But I urge you to buy the paperback, since it is published by the American Library Association, so that profits presumably go to that worthy organization.

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