Maybe Erik Larson Should Have Left the Civil War Alone

THE DEMON OF UNREST: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, by Erik Larson

The Civil War is one hell of a drug. It’s plentiful and Main Street-legal, but can induce hallucinatory visions when mixed with inflammatory substances. “I’m so attracted to seeing it,” former President Donald J. Trump confessed at a rally this past Jan. 6, three years after his “Big Lie” inspired followers to storm the Capitol — a feat the Southern Confederacy and its campaign to preserve slavery were unable to accomplish, even as the effort left more than 600,000 people dead in its wake.

In “The Demon of Unrest,” Erik Larson recounts being “appalled” but also “riveted” by Jan. 6 and by “today’s political discord, which, incredibly, has led some benighted Americans to whisper of secession and civil war.”

When Larson, the reigning king of Dad History, drops a new book on the Civil War a month and a half before Father’s Day in a pivotal election year, he knows what he’s doing. Sort of. “The Demon of Unrestis Larson’s first book on the Civil War. And his green horns show.

Ostensibly, it mirrors his best-selling books — among them, “The Splendid and the Vile” and “The Devil in the White City” — with the same pulpy, black-and-white cover treatment and bulky page count, satisfying the collect-them-all, size-matters kind of reader.

The drama unfolds between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the following April, when Confederate troops in Charleston, S.C., shelled Fort Sumter and started the Civil War. During those tense five months, Lincoln hoped, despite a pro-slavery mob’s attempt to stop Congress from tallying the vote and decades of physical violence within the Senate and House chambers, that the war might narrowly be avoided.

At the start the outgoing president, James Buchanan, is maddeningly passive in the face of cabinet resignations and seceding states, including South Carolina, where Confederates would see federal forces arriving at Fort Sumter as nothing short of a foreign incursion. “They ought to hang him,” an astonished Lincoln privately remarks, bewildered by Buchanan’s talk of surrendering federal forts.

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