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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

Going Down in a Blaze of Glory

In which we find out why a war was fought

Demon Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War

by Erik Larson

Stars: 3

So sometimes you want an in-depth, focused, academic historic tome on a subject and then sometimes you want the popular history version. Erik Larson has always succeeded in providing excellent narrative histories of events and I’ve enjoyed his books since I read Devil in the White City. His last few books had focused on the twentieth century and World Wars, all of which I would highly recommend, especially Dead Wake about the sinking of the  Lusitania. So this book, which focused on the run up to the beginning of the Civil War and the battle of Fort Sumter, was a bit unexpected. And maybe because I have been listening to the excellent podcast, the Civil War & Reconstruction, this work just fell a bit flat for me. 

Larson provides a chronological examination of the events that led up to the first battle of the Civil War, the increasing tensions in the nation as the Southern states tried to ensure that slavery could move into the new territories while the Northern states advocated to make sure that the “peculiar institution” remained only in the places it was already established.  Since South Carolina was the first state to secede and Sumter was in Charleston, Larson focuses most of his attention for the first half of the book there, specifically on James Hammond and the chivalry culture that was prevalent throughout the South. Larson also follows Edwin Ruffin, an Virginia planter who was a strong proponent for secession. 

While I understand the need to examine how the U.S. got to the point of accivil war, the time and attention spent on these two specific individuals just threw me for some reason. Larson quotes heavily from Mary Boykin Chestnut, as many historians of the period do since her diary, kept throughout the war, provides a first hand account of the Southern planter culture’s thoughts. Hammond and Ruffin are both fairly despicable characters, one a vainglorious blowhard that raped four of his underage nieces and the other a strident racist who cherished his ability to fire the first cannon of the war and cheered the death of Northern soliders at the Battle of Manassas. The South was full of people like these two for sure but there is also a very real economic discussion for why the South chose to fight. I am not sure why Larson focused on them and the culture of the Duel Chivalry; did he think that it would ensure the reader saw the Southern planter culture as ridiculous (which really it was)? If so, the writing somehow misses the mark and the reader is left feeling a little bit uneasy by all the attention lavished on these people who subjected and abused a whole class of people for their own comfort and gain. 

Finally, when it came to the battle itself, Larson goes back and forth between the powers that be in Washington, the commanders at the forts outside Charleston, and the government of the Confederacy, in a somewhat jarring fashion and it was hard to follow the narrative. It might have worked to have just followed Captain Anderson at the Fort and then provided a detailed analysis of what was going on behind the scenes once Larson had described the battle.  

Overall, this wasn’t a bad book, but I don’t think it was Larson’s finest. Taking on the Civil War, an area of history that has been written about by some of the greatest historians of the last fifty years, is a tough task;  I am not sure that there was much added to the canon. If you are someone with just a passing interest in the Civil War and are looking for a good place to start reading about it, this might not be a bad place to start but I think there are just so many other books that provide excellent insight into this first stage of the war.

Also, I need to give a shout out to The Civil War & Reconstruction podcast, it took them almost 35 episodes to get to the first battle of the war so that should tell you what a thorough job they are doing! 

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