- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007


By Nelson D. Lankford

Viking, $27.95, 320 pages


Shelby Foote’s death in 2005 created a huge vacuum in the top rank of narrative historians of the Civil War. With “Cry Havoc!” Nelson Lankford makes an impressive bid to fill that role with a historically rich tale that makes that tragedy stand out in sharper relief than before.

More academic historians are content to meticulously arrange dates and facts into a pattern that fits the current orthodoxy. Narrative history gathers those same facts but adds a story, a tale that reveals some greater truth.

Mr. Lankford’s important contribution to our understanding of that catastrophe we call the Civil War is to make clear that the war did not of necessity have to happen or to have been quite so devastating when it did.

As with his equally readable “Richmond Burning,” which covers the final weeks of the Confederate capital city, he leads us through a brief period of time in order to make a larger point that resonates today. History is not destiny. People make choices based solely on what they know at the moment and those choices are what drive the events we later call history.

In “Cry Havoc!” Mr. Lankford’s story starts on March 4, 1861, with Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural in which he sought to assure the seven Deep South states that had already seceded that he would leave slavery intact if it would preserve the Union but that he would preserve the Union come what may.

The trouble was that the new president was not sure just how he would go about that task at that moment. Also, since only Lincoln knew for sure how determined he was to hold the Union together at that moment it was not surprising that everyone else from Jefferson Davis down in the new Confederate capital of Montgomery to the most fervent abolitionist in Boston was uncertain what would happen next.

There was enough uncertainty to go around. Davis presided over a chimera of a nation that might not last the year out if not joined by most of the eight other slave-holding states that Mr. Lankford calls the Upper South.

These states — Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware — were of the South by tradition, family ties and by their economic addiction to human bondage. But increasingly many of them found stronger commercial and cultural ties to the Northern states on their borders and for the moment pro-Union forces held those bent on secession in check.

If the Confederacy of Deep South states was a government of high spirits and not much substance, poor Lincoln took over a Washington establishment that lacked both resources and spirit.

The new president was forced to surround himself with a cabinet dominated by the very men who had competed against him for the office. The capital city itself was a vulnerable outpost deep in the heart of hostile territory and most of the 20,000 regular U.S. Army troops were scattered across the continent. It seemed at the moment as if every man of ability in the Congress, the Army, Navy or civil service of the Union was resigning to join his native state in the rebellion.

One of the more fascinating points Mr. Lankford illuminates is the prospect that there could have been three nations, not two, if Lincoln had failed to negotiate the swift currents that swept around him.

There was a brief moment in the days after the inaugural when leaders of the Upper South saw an opportunity to band together as a bloc and mediate a peaceful Balkanization of the nation that would have left them free to sell their goods to the North, to cling to the hateful but irresistible institution of slave labor, and most importantly to avoid the waste and horrors of warfare.

This is where Mr. Lankford’s talent as an archivist and researcher shines most brightly. As editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, he skillfully excavated much of the dispersed correspondence of these men and women who found themselves caught between loyalty and fear, between the ambivalence of their consciences and the inflexibilities of their economic environment.

While he gives us lucid portraits of major figures like Lincoln and Davis, the drama of Mr. Lankford’s story really takes hold when he introduces us to pro-Union governors like Thomas Hicks of Maryland and John Letcher of Virginia whose struggles to keep their states out of the maw of war ended so differently.

Again, the lesson here is that history depends not just on having the right instincts, but also in having the cold political skill to battle the radicals who surface in every revolution lest they have their violent way. Not all men are up to the struggle for peaceful solutions.

Indeed, it was the radicals who denied Lincoln, Davis and Upper South conservatives the one thing they needed to escape the war solution to their confrontation — time.

In the period covered in the book, which culminates in late April, there were plenty of flashpoints in waiting to be sure. Washingtonians were terrified of being seized by rebel raiders. Two Union forts in the Deep South, Fort Pickens at Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, were particularly vexing to Davis. Union regiments being rushed to strengthen Washington’s defenses had to fight their way through unruly Baltimore mobs.

But time could not be had at any price. Sanctimonious Northern abolitionists nagged anyone who would listen. The Southern firebrands routinely went beyond verbal assaults. They disrupted legislative debates and assaulted anyone who hung back from the treason of secession. Men like Virginia’s Alexander Wise, the deranged agitator Edmund Ruffin, and it seemed the entire state of South Carolina could not rest until warfare was irrevocably underway.

When war did come and with it four of the eight undecided states entering into the Confederacy, there still was much left unresolved. Whole regions of the rebel nation rose up in pro-Union rebellions of their own (with a new state of West Virginia as just one result) but none of the eight Upper South states escaped the scourge they sought to avoid. Yet Mr. Lankford makes a reasonable argument that, given time, some way other than the catastrophe of fratricidal war could have been found.

As he concludes, “The story did not have to turn out the way it did. Today, we have trouble imagining a different course of events, because we know the results, good and bad: devastating civil war, slavery’s death, the modern United States of America. But Americans in spring 1861 could not know what the future held, any more than we can know what lies ahead for us.”

A point worth considering. A fascinating story well-told.

James Srodes’ latest book, “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father,” was named the City of Philadelphia’s One Book selection for 2006 for Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday celebration.

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