Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861

by Nelson D. Lankford, Viking Press, 2007, 320 pages, $27.95.

In Cry Havoc! historian Nelson Lankford meticulously examines the crucial days of March and April 1861, a time when fateful decisions about war, peace, union and secession were made. Lankford’s goal, which he achieves with exhaustive research and an appealing, deeply considered counterfactual perspective, is to allow us to look open-mindedly at decisions made on all sides in those critical weeks. Lankford makes us see with fresh eyes that none of these decisions were preordained, and that the events they triggered could have turned out differently—and thus history could have turned out differently. Cry Havoc! makes for provocative reading.

The Richmond, Va.-based Lankford, who edits the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, centers his narrative in the Upper South, especially Virginia and Maryland. In the weeks before hostilities began at Fort Sumter, neither state had joined the Confederacy. Lankford points out that Virginia was largely controlled by unionists, even in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Fort Sumter on April 14.

Lankford presents evidence showing the possibility of compromise regarding Fort Sumter in March 1861. Backed by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, the compromise might have kept Virginia in the Union in exchange for federal evacuation of Fort Sumter. The president, however, decided otherwise, launching a naval expedition to reprovision the fort that he knew would probably trigger war. Jefferson Davis, Lankford shows, was equally ready for a fight come April 12.

Seward and Lincoln had also differed on the tone of the president’s first inaugural address, delivered in early March, with Lincoln wanting to firmly condemn secession and Seward seeking a more conciliatory tone toward the South. In the end, Lankford notes, Lincoln’s speech created some confusion by containing both elements.

Lankford makes it clear that Virginia unionists hoped to forge a last-ditch political compromise that might preserve both the Union and slavery in the South, along lines advocated by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden. But events moved so quickly in March and April that the “middle ground” of proslavery unionism became increasingly untenable. Moreover, these dramatic events also pulled the rug out from under those seeking a “middle way,” an Upper South confederacy answerable to neither Lincoln nor Davis. April would be a time of decision.

Nobody was killed during the shelling of Fort Sumter, and after the federal garrison had surrendered, Virginia unionists still held out slight hope for a political compromise. Then a thunderbolt arrived from Washington. On April 15, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 soldiers to defeat the Confederacy. Lincoln sent his demand for troops to state governors, including governors in the wavering Upper South. The Upper South governors, understandably not wanting to supply troops to conquer their Southern brethren, rejected Lincoln’s demand for an army of invasion. As Lankford wisely notes, they chose home and hearth over political abstractions.

After passionate debate, much of it led by the tireless Henry Wise, a Virginia state convention voted for secession on April 17. Wise would quickly organize the armed seizure of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The Rubicon had been crossed—and Richmond would soon be home to the Confederate government.

Lankford next looks at events in closely divided Maryland. In April a Massachusetts regiment passing through Baltimore was assaulted by a secessionist mob, resulting in 15 dead. Maryland’s governor later authorized the destruction of railroad bridges into Baltimore, effectively keeping in-transit Union troops out of the secessionist powder keg that was the state’s largest city. As Lankford sagely points out, the destruction of these bridges, widely viewed as treasonous in the North, probably kept Maryland in the Union by forestalling additional violence that might have pushed the state into the secessionist camp.

Lankford possesses an impressive historical imagination, the ability to see clearly how decisions and events might have played out differently. Cry Havoc! is an important, well-researched and boldly argued look at both what actually happened in those early months of 1861 and how it could have happened differently.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here