The Crooked Road To Civil War

I am currently making my way through Nelson Lankford’s new book Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road To Civil War, 1861.  The book is essentially a micro-study of the days following Fort Sumter.  In some ways the book can be seen as a companion volume to his previous book Richmond Burning, which took a similar look at the final days of the Confederate capital.  [Click here for my H-Net review of this book.]  The first few chapters set the stage for the incident for Fort Sumter with chapters 6 through 17 focusing on the period between April 12 – 25.  For those of you already familiar with this period there is very little that is new.  What is impressive, however, is the extent to which Lankford is able to integrate recent scholarship on the secession winter and the Upper South by Daniel Crofts, William Freehling, Charles Dew, and William Link.  And he manages to do this within a narrative that is beautifully written.  There is nothing worse than reading books geared to the general public that are written by people who have no sense of the relevant historiography.  It makes for poor history and all too often it reinforces long-standing assumptions that can no longer be justified.  Yes, it turns out that good history is revisionist in the sense that we continually add to our understanding and in turn hopefully understand better.

Like his earlier study, Lankford relies heavily on contingency.  He places his reader in a narrative space where they can appreciate the role that perception played in the continually changing political shifts and subtle misperceptions in Virginia in the days leading up to and following Sumter.  In doing so Lankford reminds us that Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and even the establishment of the new Confederate government in February 1861 did not necessarily lead to war.   

This is the story of the unfolding of those events as Americans experienced them, not knowing the outcome any more than we can know the outcome of events in our own day before they happen.  Long-running discord over slavery and sectional rights prepared the way.  That antipathy long predated Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and all the other actors of 1861.  Perhaps by then the war could not have been avoided.  But the particular way that it began was in the hands of individuals, not impersonal, irresistible historical forces. (p. 7)

Lankford actually takes this one step further as he argues that even the bombardment at Sumter did not necessarily have to end in war:

"And the war came."  So Lincoln would famously reflect in his second inaugural address, tersely eliding complexities of cause and motive.  But that cryptic remark four years later conflated events terribly.  In April 1861, no one could see where the furious cannonade woud lead.  For several tumultuous weeks, in fact, many Americans still hoped and worked to avert a full-scale civil war.  For all the hostility, noise, and anger released in Charleston Harbor, the shape of the prospective disunion of the country, like Edmund Ruffin’s fate, still lay hidden in the unknowable future. (p. 83)

Lankford’s language clearly echoes recent work by Ed Ayers based on his Valley of the Shadow project. I highly recommend this book.  Even for those of you who are familiar with this time period I am confident that you will enjoy it.   

1 comment… add one

  • Marc Ferguson Jan 22, 2007

    This book has been on my radar screen for a while, and I look forward to reading it. It is always important to remind ourselves of the contingency of historical events. That being said, I cannot, for the life of me, see any way for Lincoln to have avoided war short of capitulation to secession. Even then, I think that conflict over territorial and economic interests would have inevitably led to war.

    Marc

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