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A house very divided

BOOKS | Telling the suspenseful story that led to the Civil War


Erik Larson Brittainy Newman / The New York Times / Redux

A house very divided
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AT THE CLOSE of his newest book The Demon of Unrest (Crown 2024), bestselling author Erik Larson describes his process of writing: He discovers an “inherently suspenseful story” and then treats that story like a Christmas tree, “finding and hanging the shiny ornaments, the revealing details hidden deep within archives, diaries, and memoirs.” Larson previously focused his incisive eye on true crime at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair (The Devil in the White City, 2003) and on the Nazis in Berlin before the start of World War II (In the Garden of Beasts, 2011). This time his inherently suspenseful subject is America’s descent into civil war, with Fort Sumter the common thread weaving through the political, military, and social storylines.

In short, punchy chapters, Larson tells of a former congressman from Illinois named Abe Lincoln, a pugilistic and philandering U.S. senator from South Carolina named James Henry Hammond, a wild-eyed secessionist named Edward Ruffin, and a hapless and exhausted President James Buchanan. Lincoln is elected president in November 1860, but does not take office until March 1861. In the interim, fearing the forthcoming Republican administration, South Carolina moves to secede from the union and begins ringing its harbor with cannon batteries, the guns pointed at the federal garrison on the impregnable island redoubt, Fort Sumter.

Lincoln begins his journey eastward to his inauguration on a special train, with Pinkerton detectives to protect him from rumored assassins. The bodyguards could not allay the other fear: that he and his team were not up to the job. As Lincoln settled into Washington, Jefferson Davis and other Confederates were launching their new government and feeling out their own way. For both, the question of Fort Sumter loomed large: Would the federal government resupply the besieged base? Would the Confederates force the issue by firing first?

As Lincoln vacillated, the men inside the fort held their own through privation and isolation. And when George Washington’s birthday arrived on Feb. 22, 1861, Maj. Robert Anderson ordered his men to fire off a salute in honor of the first president’s birthday: 34 guns, one for every state, whether so-called seceded or not.

As Larson tells his story, he hangs magnificent ornaments in his text.

Meanwhile, for Confederate leaders, “Fort Sumter was an evil that had to be dealt with, and quickly.” Larson has a strong subtext about the South’s addiction to notions of chivalry and dignity and the North’s “naivete about the crisis and in particular about the power of honor in shaping Southern attitudes.” The crisis reached a head when Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the first guns to fire, and over three thousand mortar shells and cannonballs rained down on the fort with nary a casualty among the hundred or so men who held her ramparts.

As Larson tells his story, he hangs magnificent ornaments in his text, like a New York diarist who denounced Lincoln’s lack of resolve by writing, “The bird of our country is a debilitated chicken, disguised in eagle feathers.” Such gems from the archives are matched by Larson’s own prose: “Lincoln on a sofa was like a ship’s mast on a barstool, poised in an uneasy equilibrium between relaxation and structural collapse.” Buchanan’s secretary of state, Jeremiah Black, was “a former Supreme Court justice whose most salient physical features were eyebrows that resembled cumulonimbus clouds.”

When Lincoln’s inaugural train stopped in Tolono, Ill., he told the crowd: “Let us believe, as some poet has expressed it: ‘Behind the clouds the sun is still shining.’” The clouds of war would hang over America for four bloody years, and the skies stayed overcast for years after.

But eventually the sunshine did break through, and today tourists visit Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. They would be well served to read Larson’s book to fully appreciate the history.


Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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