Sunday, March 2, 2008

Lankford: "Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861"

[Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861by Nelson D. Lankford. (Viking, 2007; pb ed. Penguin, Dec. 2007). Photos, illustrations, 4 maps, notes, bibliography. (Pp. 276, HB ISBN: 978-0-670-03821-3, $27.95); (Pp. 320, PB ISBN: 978-0143112792, $17)]

With his new book Cry Havoc!, Nelson D. Lankford imbues his narrative of the lead-in to Civil War with immediacy, reminding readers at every turn that decisions have highly uncertain outcomes. No single person has control of events and nothing is inevitable. While most overviews of the ‘secession winter’ period focus intensely on the Charleston-Montgomery-Washington D.C. nexus of people and events, the author of Cry Havoc! has taken a fresh approach. With the complex diplomatic interaction surrounding the Fort Sumter crisis ably deciphered in recent works by Maury Klein and David Detzer, Lankford centers of his attention on the conflict between secessionists and unionists from the states of the upper south.

Drawing from eyewitness accounts as much as possible, the author ably creates a picture of the divided political loyalties of the citizens of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Perhaps not surprisingly given his own background, Lankford’s attention throughout gravitates toward Virginia. Historically neglected Virginia unionist leaders such as John Janney and John Baldwin are given their due. On the other hand, some readers may take issue with the Virginia-centrism of the narrative. The story only briefly ventures west of the Alleghenies, covering similarly complex divisions in the political landscapes of the western upper south states of Tennessee and Arkansas with only a few sentences. While individuals north and south (then as today) recognize Virginia’s leadership position, perhaps a wider geographical examination would have been appropriate.

Mr. Lankford writes gracefully, masterfully evoking the stress and uncertainty of the period, and his critical analysis of the actions of the principal actors is calmly evenhanded. His deep appreciation of the concept of contingency in relation to the decisions made at critical moments over places like Fort Sumter, Gosport Naval Yard, Harper’s Ferry, Baltimore, and Annapolis is thought provoking and sure to inspire discussion among readers. Thankfully, the author does not use the opportunity to engage in manufacturing a detailed counterfactual history.

However appropriate the metaphor, the crooked road and the straight one both lead to the same end. The valuable service Nelson Lankford provides is his sharp eye for the important side roads. The final destination of these pathways can be debated endlessly, but will always remain impossible to predict with any degree of certainty. What we do know is that the alternative routes leading to an irrevocably different historical end can often be indistinguishable from the main road—just as easily taken as passed by.

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