I’ve been agonizing over the writing of two book “reviews” for over a week. It’s been difficult because I really liked both books, but I’m concerned that my criticisms may overwhelm those assessments. So let me preface this recap of the first book, Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 by Nelson D. Lankford, by saying I give it a thumbs up. Also note that I have no delusions about the potential influence of my comments, as I am just a guy who likes to read about the period.
Cry Havoc!, as the full title implies, is primarily concerned with the period between the formation of the Confederacy by the “lower south” and the moments of decision affecting the remaining “upper south” states. The prologue covers John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and Chapter 1 picks up with Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. As such, the causes of secession are not explored in depth. Lankford correctly identifies the central issue as slavery, and the word “tariff” happily does not even appear in the index. The book focuses on the struggle for the at-heart loyal upper south, the prize sought by both the Federal government and that of the new Confederacy.
The book’s strengths are substantial. Lankford has a nice style, and the story is an easy read which in and of itself is a rarity in Civil War literature. He does a good job of telling what happened when and, generally, why. Various primary accounts, mostly newspapers, are mixed in with many of the standard secondary sources. These strengths outweigh what to me are some flaws.
Where the book falls short is in the execution of its “hook”. Each chapter identifies various turning points at which, if things had been handled differently, events might have been profoundly affected. The problem is that the alternative choices are seldom specific, and the alternative outcomes are rarely identified. Think of the 1927 World Series, which pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates against what was arguably the greatest team ever to take any baseball field, the New York Yankees – Murderer’s Row (though I think a good case can be made for the ’29 A’s). The Bucs lost in 4 games. Would things have been different had they won Game 1? Sure. But how could they have won that game, and how could the series have turned out differently as a result? That’s the hard part.
Another problem is the failure of the author to recognize that the fundamental difference between the Union and the seceded states were their mutually exclusive objectives – Union or Disunion. The failure of most peace at any cost arguments is a refusal to recognize the costs. The corollary to peace at any cost is that every man, or every ideal, can be bought. In the case of mutually exclusive basic requirements, there can be no compromise, only capitulation. Either the Federal objective (Union) or the Confederate (Disunion or Independence) would be achieved. There was no middle ground, no compromise. To suggest that there was is, to me, either naïve or willfully ignorant. Lankford does eventually address the conundrum on page 229 of a 241 page book by saying that Jefferson Davis’s April 29 statement that “All we ask it to be let alone” was “irretrievably at odds with Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union whole”. But this had been the case since secession and the formation of the Confederacy. On that one issue, Union, the Civil War turned. Those states were not coming back, and Lankford never suggests that they could be so coaxed. At the same time he seems to indicate that the only way to “save” the upper south for the Union was by “letting the wayward sisters go”, as Winfield Scott once said. So, where is the compromise?
The author identifies Lincoln’s reaction to the attack on Ft. Sumter, the call-up of 75,000 volunteers, as the straw that broke the camel’s back for upper south. This very well may have been the real or rhetorical reason for the decision of some of them to bolt, but the author’s suggestion that Lincoln could have used more “restraint” ignores the reality of the situation. The lower south Confederacy had already authorized a 100,000 man army. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 could hardly be considered sufficient to crush the rebellion, and would simply put the Federal forces at a level similar to that of what the chief executive had to assume was a hostile presence. Lincoln’s call was nothing if not restrained.
Lankford also notes that Lincoln faced “a dilemma that every wartime president of the republic to follow him would confront. He believed he had to curtail some civil liberties in order to preserve the greater good.” While it is true that Lincoln believed this, and acted on it (as did and would Davis in a similar fashion), Lincoln was hardly the first president to do so as suggested by Lankford. One of Lincoln’s predecessors wrote:
A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen; but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us, thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.
Such were the thoughts of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. He would invoke the legal maxim inter arma silent leges – laws fall silent when guns speak.
I know that this review, for lack of a better term, sounds like an indictment of Cry Havoc!, but I really do think this book contributes to the literature as a concise overview of the period between the secession of the lower south and the ultimate decisions of the remaining slave states. I think Lankford’s contribution could have been greater if he had provided more specifics in his turning point analyses, but I also doubt the existence of viable alternatives in many cases, and am not a big fan of “what-ifs” or “counter-factuals” anyway. As I’ve said before, I don’t advocate throwing babies out with the bathwater. Read the book.