The themes of Erik Larson’s new book on the buildup to the Civil War still reverberate today.

The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War
By Erik Larson C’76. Crown, 592 pages, $35

Almost two months before the American Civil War began, Samuel Wylie Crawford M1850 could sense better than most the magnitude of what was coming.

A US Army surgeon stationed at Fort Sumter—and one of several richly portrayed characters presented in Erik Larson C’76’s new book The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War—Crawford wrote, in a foreboding letter to his brother, that “the first gun fired at our fort will call the country to arms; the bugle that sounds the attack upon us will echo along the slopes of the Alleghenies, and the granite hills of the North, along the shores of the great lakes, and far away on the rolling prairies of the west and the earth will shake with the tread of armed men.”

For Larson, a master at weaving old diary entries and letters into compelling historical narratives, Crawford, a 31-year-old graduate of Penn’s medical school, “understood that he was in the midst of something very, very significant” as Confederate forces surrounded the sea fortress outside Charleston, South Carolina, and was “a very important source for capturing the realities of what was happening at Sumter,” the author says.

He was one of many. “With a lot of these characters,” Larson notes, “it turned out to be really a sort of soap opera leading up to the Civil War.”

The author of six national bestsellers that have collectively sold more than 12 million copies, Larson uses his latest book to tell the story of the tense and chaotic five months between Abraham Lincoln’s November 1860 presidential election win and the Confederates’ April 1861 shelling of Sumter, which started the deadliest war in American history.

Although not a Civil War buff, Larson formulated the idea in 2020 when COVID cut short the book tour for his last war thriller, The Splendid and the Vile, an account of Winston Churchill and “The Blitz” [“Courage Through History,” Jul|Aug 2020]. “At that time, there was a lot of political discord, especially over the handling of the pandemic,” the author says. “And people were muttering about civil war, these secession fringe groups. And for whatever reason, I just started thinking, Well, how did the Civil War start?”

It was a challenging time to begin research on a new book. With physical archives closed, Larson instead “started looking in various online repositories of records” and came across a collection called The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. He ordered a bound volume. Impressed by the documents, letters, and telegrams curated in chronological order, he realized there “really was something in the tick-tock leading up to the Civil War that I could capture.” Although he continued to fight pandemic-imposed logistical challenges accessing archives—not to mention the “additional hurdle” of deciphering the handwriting of that era—Larson raced toward a 2024 finish line, feeling it was important to release the book before this November’s election.

The reason for that became clear on January 6, 2021, as Larson watched the US Capitol attacked by Trump supporters seeking to prevent the certification of the 2020 election. By then, the author was far enough along in his research to know that an angry mob of Southerners had similarly tried to disrupt the electoral count on February 3, 1861, only to be thwarted by General Winfield Scott and a well-prepared US Army that had fortified Washington, DC. “And I realized this is not a hoary old story from the past,” Larson says. “This is like today.”

Larson saw more parallels to the current toxic political climate in how Southerners perceived Lincoln as “the antichrist” even though he vowed during the campaign and in his inaugural address not to disturb slavery in states where it already existed. “Talk about an echo chamber,” Larson says. “They had reached their own conclusion about Abraham Lincoln, and they were not going to be swayed. And that really perplexed Lincoln.”

Like Churchill, Lincoln is one of the most lionized and written-about people in world history. But as he did in Splendid, Larson offers a different perspective on the figure you might remember from history class. A good chunk of Demon is devoted to Lincoln’s train trip from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, DC, during which he greeted throngs of supporters but was careful in his public comments to not exacerbate the secession crisis that had begun when South Carolina seceded to protect the institution of slavery following the election. “The reality is that in 1861, Lincoln was a little bit at sea,” Larson says. “I mean, the country was going to hell. He had this changeover in administration, he had these patronage seekers who were overwhelming him, and he insisted on handling much of it, at least initially, by himself. And I think he was really kind of in over his head.” Upon meeting him for the first time, one politician called Lincoln a “good-natured and well-intentioned” man “who seems to think of nothing but jokes and stories.” And Lincoln was skewered by the press for sneaking into the capital city ahead of his March 4 inauguration because of a potential assassination plot against him. “This was his triumphant arrival: an empty railroad station, before dawn, in disguise,” Larson writes.

Meanwhile, Larson does little to counter the predominant view among historians that Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, was one of the least effective presidents ever. During his lame-duck period, Buchanan “could not to wait to leave the White House,” Larson writes. And before Lincoln’s inauguration ceremony began, the outgoing commander-in-chief offered Lincoln little more advice than which side of the White House well produced better water.

Larson also captures some of the tension between Lincoln and his pick for secretary of state, William Seward, who was “convinced that he was the right guy to run the country,” Larson notes, and “had his own narrative that he believed, with no particular evidence to support it,” that seceded states would return to the union of their own accord. (Seward did provide valuable edits to the end of Lincoln’s famous inaugural address, even if the appeals to “the mystic chords of memory” and “better angels of our nature” did little to sway Southerners.)

While Lincoln, Buchanan, and Seward are among the most famous characters portrayed in Larson’s book, the author also gives accounts of lesser-known figures like the ardent secessionist Edmund Ruffin, who fired the first shot that hit Sumter; Mary Boykin Chestnut, who vividly describes upper-class life as a slaveowner in the South, about which she felt conflicted; and British journalist William Howard Russell, whose colorful descriptions of people and events proved to be an invaluable resource.

But “the true hero of the book,” Larson says, is Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter who was “sympathetic to the South but also deeply loyal not so much to the United States but to the United States Army.” Anderson’s secret move with his troops and weapons from the more vulnerable Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter (“a prime example of a sea fortress” with its 50-foot-high walls) after South Carolina’s declaration of secession was a smart military move, Larson says, “and even was applauded by his opponents.” And for the next several months, through mixed signals and miscommunications from Washington, relying on mail service that would eventually be compromised by the Confederates, and trying to determine how long food and supplies could last without reinforcements, Anderson kept hold of federal property that had been built to protect against foreign enemies but had become a great symbol to the North. Although Larson writes that Anderson “loathed the abolitionist fanatics of New England,” outsiders “saw only the heroism and gallantry of Anderson and his men, a classic David and Goliath story: the major and his little garrison—it was invariably described in the press as ‘little’—standing up to a far larger force that outnumbered them by at least twenty-five to one.”

In the end, the two-day bombardment of Sumter was almost anticlimactic:  Anderson and his men were able to evacuate, with the only casualties coming due to malfunctioning cannon fire during a 100-gun salute—part of a code of honor whose importance to both sides gave the opening skirmish a deceptively tame flavor, as if “this was not war,” Larson writes, “but rather an elaborate if perilous form of sport.”

That, of course, would soon change as the country was pushed past the brink, toward horrors that few saw coming. “Here lay the greatest of ironies: In thirty-four hours of some of the fiercest bombardment the world had ever seen, no one was killed or even seriously injured,” Larson writes, “yet this bloodless attack would trigger a war that killed more Americans than any other conflict in the country’s history.” —DZ

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