A Series of “What Ifs”

Review of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 by Nelson D. Lankford. (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008): 308 pages.

Few people, whether northerners or Southerners know the details and decision making processes that led to Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter and thus the Confederate decision to fire on the fort to prevent that aggression. Even fewer know the intimate details of how and why Abraham Lincoln decided to use that event as the occasion to call forth 75,000 militia to “suppress the rebellion and enforce the laws of the union” or how that decision dramatically affected the debates in the secession conventions in the States of the Upper South, especially Virginia and Maryland. Cry Havoc! recounts these details. Lankford’s main thesis is that the war was a tragedy of epic proportions that could have been avoided. He writes:

For it was quirks of timing, character, and place—particularly in Virginia and Maryland—that influenced the course of events during those critical weeks, the final hiatus of uncertainty between peace and war, the vestibule leading to national tragedy. What gave precise shape to the conflict was a chain of decisions and reactions, of demands and miscalculations, of swollen vanity and wishful thinking. It was the actions of individuals in spring 1861 before uniformed armies took the field…that finally let slip the dogs of war.

Lankford has a palpable and completely non-disguised contempt for the radicals on both sides of the conflict and decries both as responsible for the carnage of the war that ensued, lamenting that Abraham Lincoln obstinately chose to attempt the reinforcement of Fort Sumter despite the objections of the majority of his cabinet that such a course would lead to war, but also blaming Jefferson Davis for assuming that such a course demanded a militant response. He writes:

Either president could still have stood down and avoided a clash, but the one who did would have paid a high political price. Both men feared to be seen as weak in the face of what each chose to define as a mortal threat. Both therefore shared the blame for moving the crisis across the clear and dangerous threshold from standoff to violent confrontation.

What is particularly noteworthy is the extent to which he details how all these events affected the delegates at the Virginia secession convention, which was in session throughout the crisis. Great care is taken to show that those who opposed secession (although he notes that this was as a practical concern as “…if pressed, they would have acknowledged the theoretical right of secession”) had almost complete control of the convention prior to Sumter as a vote on an ordinance of secession on April 4th had failed by a margin of two to one.

That all changed after the events at Fort Sumter, especially in the wake of Lincoln’s call for militia, which was issued on April 15th. Writing of the Southern reaction to Lincoln’s proclamation he says:

War did not come to America in a vacuum. It came after decades of slowly building anxiety, mistrust, and animosity between North and South. But when the crisis did come, it ignited that accumulated fund of hatred with a thunderous explosion of emotion. The lower South and, after April 15, a large swath of the upper South could see only a hostile, hateful, aggressive North attempting to impose its will and destroy their way of life.

Indeed, after Lincoln’s call for troops, there was nothing that unionists could do to stem the tide of secessionist sympathy. He writes, “…that reality was the incontrovertible fact that in the countryside throughout Virginia…the white populace increasingly embraced secession not just as an abstract right but…as a practical duty and necessity.” That change in sentiment described not just the populace, but many of the unionist delegates themselves, such as Jubal A. Early, who had denounced secession with vehement zeal prior to April 15th.

Over the course of the rest of the book Lankford describes how the Virginia State troops seized the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and the Gosport Naval Yard in Norfolk. He then shifts his focus to the events in Maryland after federal troops began mobilizing in response to Lincoln’s call, including the Pratt Street Riot, which is described in great detail. He contends that the decision by Baltimore city officials to destroy the train tracks and burn the bridges leading into Baltimore in order to prevent more federal troops from being transported through the city in the wake of the earlier violence was vital in preventing an even greater conflagration that inevitably would have resulted in Maryland’s secession. No mention is made of Lincoln imprisoning State legislators in order to prevent just such a vote.

Although the situations in Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware are only very briefly mentioned, Lankford argues that it was the events in Virginia and Maryland that held the greatest significance. The differing reaction in those two States set the stage for the variance of action in the others. To Lankford the split in sentiments among the States of the upper South was one of the greatest tragedies of all. He contends:

One by one, however, the previously loyal slave states were compelled to choose sides. If all eight of them had seceded, the Confederacy likely would have been too strong to be defeated. If none had left, it would have been too weak to last. The tragedy for the country was that the upper South split roughly down the middle. It was the outcome most likely to prolong the conflict, and it was strongly influenced by what happened in Virginia and Maryland with the divergent paths they chose.

Although quite nationalist in tone, Lankford is certainly not an enemy of the Southern tradition. Although he states frankly that slavery was a primary factor in the sectional dispute, he does not impute sinister motives to the South, nor grant northerners underserved virtue in regards to race, writing “…it was a mark of the limitations of white southerners’ imaginations that they could not envision a South without slavery. But then, in April 1861, neither could most people in the North.” Indeed, the entire message of the book is summed up in the Epilogue where Lankford writes, “The story did not have to turn out the way it did.”

Ultimately, Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 presents the reader with a series of what-ifs where different decisions by the historical actors involved would have produced profoundly different results. While the what-ifs presented offer an intriguing intellectual exercise to the contemplative reader, the real value of the book is in the sober presentation of the fact that there were indeed other alternatives to war, a suggestion that caused the establishment media to collectively lose its mind when presented by President Donald Trump recently. This book provides absolute proof that their narrative is false. For that reason alone I highly recommend it.

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