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What the 'Dawn of the Civil War' can tell us about today's acrimonious politics

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. When the country is deeply divided, and political rivals come to see each other not merely as competitors, but as enemies determined to destroy the nation, where does it take us? My guest, journalist and historian Erik Larson, has a new book closely examining the period between the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston five months later, which sparked the long and bloody Civil War between the North and South. Larson was researching the Civil War on January 6, 2021, when the assault on the U.S. Capitol occurred. He writes that he had the eerie feeling that present and past had merged. It was unsettling, he writes, that in 1861, two great moments of national dread centered on the certification of the electoral college vote and the presidential inauguration.

Larson's book focuses on key players and the drama that followed Lincoln's election, as it appeared that the long-simmering conflict over slavery in the United States might finally be headed towards a violent resolution. Erik Larson is the author of eight previous books, six of them national bestsellers. He was last on FRESH AIR to talk about his profile of Winston Churchill's leadership in World War II, titled "The Splendid And The Vile." His new book is "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak, And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War." Well, Erik Larson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ERIK LARSON: Well, thank you.

DAVIES: You know, as I mentioned in the introduction, when the assault on the Capitol occurred in 2021, there was a resonance you felt with the period you were studying, which was when the nation was approaching the Civil War. And I just wonder, as you have watched American politics unfold, as your research continued, did you find yourself thinking, oh, you know, this public figure of today reminds me of someone in the pre-Civil Warfare period or this act of extremism or compromise reminded you of something that you were researching?

LARSON: Well, what it is is that rather than any one particular individual reminding me of some character in my book - because honestly, the characters that I've chosen to represent in this book are really quite unique in their nature. What does strike me as very much a parallel is this discord, this intense discord that seems to be running through the political intercourse in this country right now. And this idea of the demon of unrest really, I think is still very much current. It's almost as if there is this demon afoot in the land, and sometimes, frankly, it's a little hard to understand exactly why.

DAVIES: Well, let's get into the story here. It begins in South Carolina. And a question you pose early is, how did South Carolina, a scantily populated state, become the fulcrum for America's greatest tragedy? Tell us something about South Carolina of 1860 and its principal city, Charleston.

LARSON: So South Carolina in 1860 was a state in decline. It was a small state, relatively primitive state. It was known throughout the South as being sort of perpetually in rebellion, perpetually cantankerous, always sort of at the leading edge of discord. And come 1860, all of that sort of coalesced with the state, on December 20, 1860, deciding to secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. So it was a series of forces that came to play. You know, political structures in South Carolina, the fact that the slave-owning patriarchy, the slavocracy, as some called it, then the chivalry, as they called themselves, held all the power, and they were absolutely reliant on slavery. There was no question of that. And they feared, they feared, perhaps irrationally, that Abraham Lincoln had plans to immediately abolish slavery, and they could not continence that. And that was really the fuel that led to their vote on December 20, 1860, to secede.

DAVIES: Right. They seceded, you know, months before Lincoln was even inaugurated.

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: There were 110,000 more enslaved Blacks in South Carolina than whites.

LARSON: Right.

DAVIES: The planters, as you call them, essentially the landholders, called themselves the chivalry. Did that have - what did that mean? Why that name?

LARSON: I found that fascinating - to actually call themselves the chivalry. But what that really spoke to was their sense of honor, this deep-seated culture of honor. And it was fascinating to me because it was fed, actually, or reinforced by - incredibly by romantic literature, by Sir Walter Scott, by Tennyson. They embraced these books. The book "Ivanhoe," you know, just on everybody's shelf. The chivalry even engaged in what was referred to as rings tournaments or actually sometimes heads and rings tournaments, where they would dress up as knights and adopt a knight persona from Sir Walter Scott or some other writer of chivalric literature. And then they would ride wildly down this course with lances, trying to pierce small hanging rings instead of jousting, of course, with each other. And then at the end of this, if it was a heads and rings tournament, the goal was to you're done. You pull out your saber, and you hack away at this inanimate figure - thankfully, inanimate figure at the end of the course. So this chivalry thing was a real phenomenon, and what it really reflected was this deep sense of honor.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, this meant you would treat other whites honorably. The enslaved Blacks who were the mainstay of the economies were treated, of course, very cruelly.

LARSON: Well, yes, of course. You know, the chivalry aspect - it's very important to understand how this whole thing came about. You know, there was, in 1800, the world began - there was this V that began to form with regard to slavery. Britain banned the international trade in slavery. The United States banned the international trade in slavery in 1802, but allowed the domestic trade to continue. But the North and the advanced states of Europe began moving more and more away from any sort of acceptance of slavery. It became repulsive and something to be reviild. As it did so in the South - the American South was one of the last holdouts with regard to slavery.

With the North hammering away at the South, you know, accusing them of all these evil things, the South developed - interestingly, began to persuade itself that slavery was actually a positive good. This was the whole pro-slavery ethos. So you had this V ever-widening, this rift ever-widening between the rest of the world, which saw slavery as an unalloyed evil, and the South, which began to convince itself, and ultimately did convince itself, that slavery was a positive good.

DAVIES: The V being plunging support for slavery everywhere else and the rise in the South. We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Erik Larson. His new book is the "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak, And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN SONG, "WHEN WAR WAS KING").

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist and historian Erik Larson. He has a new book about the events that led to the outbreak of the American Civil War, focusing on the period between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter five months later. The book is titled "The Demon Of Unrest."

So as the nation was increasingly divided over slavery, and the rhetoric was increasingly intense, the election of 1860 loomed, which put Abraham Lincoln in the White House. This was a contentious and unusual contest. I mean, it's - briefly, just explain what happened in this presidential election.

LARSON: There are four candidates running for president, Lincoln being one of them. And interestingly, in 10 Southern states, they wouldn't even put him on the ballot. They were so afraid and so angry about him being potential - being the nominee for - the Republican nominee for president. So you've got four candidates on the ballot, which pretty much assured that Abraham Lincoln would be the victor in this race. Abraham Lincoln had been very, very direct about the fact that his goal was not the abolition of slavery at all. He had no interest in that. In fact, he had interesting opinions about abolitionists. His goal was to prevent the expansion of slavery. It was fine that it existed where it was.

He even went so far as to support the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which to Northern abolitionists, Northern antislavery people, was just a horror. This was an act that allowed Southern planters to travel north to seize fugitive slaves and bring them back to the South for trial or punishment or whatever they wanted to do. This had led, in turn, in the North to the advent of so-called personal liberty laws, which then further offended the South. This was another affront to them. But anyway, so here you have Lincoln. He's proposing one thing. The South is convinced that he actually means to do something very different. And that's what happened as of November 6, 1860.

DAVIES: Right. So there's four candidates in the race. He gets about 40% of the popular vote, but gets an electoral majority. So it's kind of like modern times, there are, you know, ways to dispute what might happen. But, you know, the South saw this as a seminal moment, and despite what he'd said about slavery, believed Lincoln would put an end to it. And so, you know, South Carolina seceded within a month or so. So let's talk about Fort Sumter. I mean, it was this fort on an island in Charleston Harbor. I would say if folks have never visited Charleston, it's a great place to visit, and it's really striking to see this fort out there in the harbor. But it was one of, you know, many federal military installations around the country. Why did this particular fort become the focus of such enormous tension over the next four months?

LARSON: In Charleston Harbor, there was a significant federal presence, which had evolved mainly because of an engineering effort to build fortifications to prevent attack from foreign powers by the sea. So Charleston Harbor - a lovely spot, by the way - Charleston Harbor had a number of fortifications, Fort Sumter being one, Fort Sumter being the most prominent and, in South Carolina's view, ominous of them. A classic sea fortress surrounded by water. But there was also another fort very well armed, again, meant for the defense of America against foreign fleets, called Fort Moultrie. There was also one - another Fort Castle Pinckney, Fort Johnson, there was an arsenal and so forth. And these were under the control of the United States Army. And as South Carolina moved increasingly towards secession, they began to seem increasingly like this affront to South Carolina autonomy. It was sort of like a thorn in the eye for South Carolina. And this became a source of immense tension.

DAVIES: Right. Right. So you have this - you know, this fortress, which could, you know, if it were an issue, it could prevent, you know, ships from coming into Charleston Harbor. But it was really, in a way, an assault on the honor of the Confederates - or the Confederates to be - that this Union fortress was there. It was commanded by a guy named Major Robert Anderson, who was, you say, sympathetic to the South. Was he a Southerner himself?

LARSON: Yeah. He was a Southerner himself. He was actually a former slave owner. He was married to a woman who was from Georgia, who came from a prominent slave-owning family, Robert Anderson and his wife had sold their slaves. Anderson, while he was sympathetic to the South, his loyalty, his true loyalty, unshakable, was to the United States Army. He had made an oath to the army, and by God, he would adhere to that oath. But so here he is, he's put in charge of the federal presence in Charleston Harbor. And, you know, with the idea, undoubtedly, that he might help mollify the South.

DAVIES: So Robert Anderson, who was the Union commander of Fort Sumter and the other facilities around Charleston Harbor, in December, around Christmas time, he does something. He - without telling anybody, he kind of does it stealthily, he shuts down the other forts - the Union forces at Fort Moultrie, sets fire to the casings of the cannons, moves all of those military forces to Fort Sumter, the one that's on the island in the middle of the harbor. Now, in doing this, you know, he doesn't fire on any Southerners. He doesn't kill anybody. He just reassembles his forces into this one less vulnerable fort.

LARSON: Right.

DAVIES: This was a huge deal, right? Why?

LARSON: This was a huge deal. And I think it's important also to recognize just a little more detail on how Anderson did this. He sensed that things were coming to the point where conflict could turn to violence. And that fort that - where his headquarters were, where Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor was about as vulnerable a fort as could be because from the battlements in front, which were meant to defend against these so-called foreign invaders, it was a strong fortress, but nobody expected that they'd have to defend against Americans coming from behind. So this thing was absolutely vulnerable. He recognized this. This - and he gets this plan that he is going to move all his people to Fort Sumter and he's going - and he keeps this plan secret even from his officers. He's going to move these contingents, a skimpy contingent.

He only has 75 men when the Fort Sumter complement as designed, and should have had 650 men. But he moves the men and their families under cover of darkness. It's a very tense move, actually. It could have gone so wrong. But he moves them. And one of his goals was to take advantage of the Christmas weekend. He wanted to move them actually on the evening of Christmas day, December 25. There was - the weather was too stormy to allow the passage of these boats. So he decided they would do it the following night, and he pulls it off miraculously without conflict. The first sign of this for people in Charleston the next morning is smoke rising from Fort Moultrie, where he has ordered the gun carriages of the cannon burned and the cannon spiked.

That is, you know, some metal forced into their touch holes so that they couldn't be fired. And so this fortress, this presence that was already absolutely infuriating to South Carolina, suddenly it becomes even more so. I mean, suddenly, forces in Charleston seize all the other forts. They seize Moultrie, they seize Pinckney, they seize Fort Johnson, they seize the federal arsenal. But here still is this Fort Sumter sitting out there on this island as a perpetual rebuke to everything that now South Carolina holds holy.

DAVIES: Right. And so the question was (laughter), would the Southerners attack the fort? Would...

LARSON: Right.

DAVIES: ...People in the fort fire on Southern forces?

LARSON: Right.

DAVIES: And that tension reigned four months.

LARSON: Well, it's important to know, also at this point that in December of 1860, that Fort Sumter - while it looks incredibly imposing, it is this immense brick and earth and stone presence on a manmade atoll. But this fort, this Fort Sumter was nowhere near complete. Only a few of its guns were mounted. And so suddenly, Anderson arrives with these families and has to mount the guns, make this fort as impregnable as he possibly can with this small complement of men and some laborers imported also.

DAVIES: So if we look at the situation, as 1860 comes to an end. Abraham Lincoln has been - is the apparent winner of the election, but the vote hasn't been certified. That doesn't happen until mid February, later than it is nowadays. And so he's in Illinois. The incumbent Democratic president, pro-slavery president, James Buchanan is kind of just trying to navigate this situation in which Southern states are beginning to secede, right? I mean, it was - South Carolina seceded in December and then in January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama. So the nation is kind of beginning to come apart. And there's a lot of focus on Fort Sumter, this island fortress in the harbor of Charleston where a Union garrison is holding tight and not surrendering to Southern forces who would see that as territory they can now occupy. You got Abe Lincoln. He's in Illinois, watching all this happen. He eventually, you know, makes his way towards Washington for the inauguration. He gives many, many speeches. What does he have to say about what's going in the country? What posture does he strike?

LARSON: Well, before we get to Lincoln's really, I think, charming and amazing journey, I think it's important to note what happened in between, and I think it's a big part of the story. From November 6, when Lincoln was elected - I mean, Lincoln was enough of a lawyer to recognize he was not president yet. Even when the electoral vote was counted, yes, he'd be more president, if you will, but he would not be the president until Inauguration Day, which is March 4 in that time. And so he decides that he's not going to overtly say anything. He's not going to interfere with the political situation as it exists. Now, quietly he seeds the clouds with remarks that he wants others to give and newspaper editors and so forth. But he himself keeps silence. You know, sort of this great silence.

Simultaneously, we have James Buchanan whose lackluster - it's a nice way to put it - whose lackluster administration is coming to a close. He's not doing anything either. He's absolutely inert. All he wants, all he wants is to get out of this administration without a war on his side of the ledger. He wants to get back to his estate in Pennsylvania outside Lancaster, called Wheatlands (ph), and in the worst way. So there's nobody really addressing this crisis as things begin to intensify.

DAVIES: Lincoln does make it clear, in his remarks from time to time, that he is not seeking to immediately abolish slavery.

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: That doesn't seem to convince anybody in the South, because states continue to secede. Again, in advance of his even being inaugurated, in February, mid-February, there was the certification of the electoral votes, which would secure Lincoln's win. And he was a bit concerned about this.

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: The Army moved into Washington to ensure order. There were rumors of Southern militias that might try and disrupt it. It actually - well, what actually happened when the electors met in Washington?

LARSON: Yeah, so the electoral count took place and even more, you know, adding to the narrative tension, you know, is the fact that the vice president who was going to be counting the electoral vote, certifying the electoral vote, had been Lincoln's closest competitor in the election. So yeah, you had...

DAVIES: So he was a candidate for president.

LARSON: Yes, exactly. So you've got this thing shaping up that is very reminiscent, honestly, of January 6. 2021. But, you know, the electoral count went off just fine. Now, there were moments when there was a report of a clamoring mob trying to get in. But overall, it was a very orderly thing, Winfield Scott, the commanding general at that time, had made sure that he had forces in place to try to stem any attempt to disrupt the count. And it came off fine.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Erik Larson. His new book is "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "VAMP DOLCE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with journalist and historian Erik Larson, whose new book is a close examination of the five months leading to the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston which opened the American Civil War. He writes that the period reminds him in some ways of the deep division in current American politics that led to violence in the U.S. Capitol on the day electoral votes were certified after the 2020 election. His book is "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak, And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War."

You know, what's interesting about this period is you see everyone wanting to pursue their goals and somehow avoid war. I mean, the Southerners are going to Washington and saying, look, we don't want to fight. We want to live together in peace. Let us go our own way. And the Lincoln administration says, there's no way we're going to let that happen, but we don't want to tell them that directly because we don't want to confront them, because we don't want to start a war.

And a similar kind of thing is playing out in the harbor in Charleston, where you have this isolated garrison in Fort Sumter. I mean, they're - running low on food and ammunition and soap. And you could try and resupply them, but then would the Confederates then, who built a lot of new cannons and batteries around harbor, would they fire on the Union troops? And would - ships, would they fire on the Union ships? And then would Fort Sumter's guns open up on the Confederates? and nobody wanted it to happen. Nobody wanted to start shooting, and yet everyone wanted to hold their ground. It was really quite a standoff.

LARSON: This is something I really spent time trying to sort of get my head into it, kind of imagine myself being there, is here's Anderson. Here are his 75 soldiers, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They are in this fort. They have no instructions coming from Buchanan's administration. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing telling them how to behave, telling them what to do. They are on their own. And as they are in this fort, General Beauregard, pupil of Anderson who taught military artillery tactics at West Point...

DAVIES: The Southern commander, right?

LARSON: ...He is turning Charleston Harbor into a death trap for anybody within Fort Sumter. He is establishing gun batteries, cannon batteries, with seacoast artillery, heavy, heavy artillery on all the land spaces, you know, in sort of a broad circle around Fort Sumter. And if you can imagine this, I mean, Anderson and his men on certain - on still nights, they could hear the sound of heavy construction at some of these batteries.

They could hear these people preparing a cannon with every intention of, if necessary, blowing them out of the water, including Beauregard, his friend. He had every intention, if it came to it, to kill him and kill all his men. So here you have all these batteries. You're hearing this. I mean, it's like, you know, being a lamb tied to a stake, and you're watching the butcher sharpening his knife on a strap, you know? And this is the situation that confronted Anderson at that time.

DAVIES: Yeah. And what's interesting is that throughout all this, you know, this death-dealing preparation, there was a code of honor that they used in dealing with each other. And the Confederates would sometimes send a boat to speak to Major Anderson, the Union commander in Fort Sumter, to deal with one issue or another. And - I find this remarkable - the Confederates continued to give him mail service. He could write confidential messages to Washington, which would be picked up by the Confederates and then sent to Washington undisturbed, at least until the end, right? This is kind of remarkable.

LARSON: Yeah. Well, mail sort of sacrosanct, you know? Chivalry honors said you do not open mail - right? - which was the case until this one point in the saga that I found absolutely charming. And that is when things are really starting to devolve, and the Southerners decide, OK, we're going to suspend mail, and we're going to actually take this mail and bring it over to the headquarters - the Confederate headquarters of the governor of South Carolina there in Charleston, and they're going to read this mail.

And there are three guys there. There's the governor. One guy is Beauregard. And one guy is a former federal judge. And they're sitting there, and nobody wants to open this thing. And so it first goes to - I believe this is the order. It first goes to the federal judge, and he's like, you know, I've spent my career putting people in jail for this, so I can't do it. Then it goes to Beauregard. He's like, I can't do it. And then it goes to the governor, and he ends up having to open this thing, and they find lots of really, really terrific intelligence about what's going on at Fort Sumter.

DAVIES: Right. So things came to a head at Fort Sumter in mid-April, when - you know, the troops there at that point were so short of food that they were rationing it. I think they were completely out of soap, and they didn't have candles, so they were operating in the dark at night.

LARSON: And they had essentially no food by mid-April.

DAVIES: Right. And the Union had decided after a lot of dithering about to try and send ships to reinforce them. But they really, for various reasons, couldn't get in there, and if they got in, they would have been fired on by these Confederate batteries, and the Confederates learned that, in fact, Lincoln had decided to try and reinforce the garrison. Then they kind of treated this as an act of war and decided they were going to open fire. And they sent - Confederates sent the Union commander, Major Anderson, a note saying at 4:00 a.m. on what? - was it April 12? - they would open fire. So again, fair warning, code of honor, but it's coming at you, right? Tell us what happened in the bombardment.

LARSON: Lincoln did something that I think politically was quite brilliant. He decided, OK, he was going to reinforce this - Fort Sumter. And he understood, I think, at that point, that, you know, this was a no-win situation, and so, you know try to make it as positive as possible for the Union. So what he does is he sends a message to South Carolina's governor. And he says, I'm going to send humanitarian supplies, if - you didn't use that term at the time - but I'm going to send humanitarian supplies to the men at Fort Sumter. If they are unmolested, nothing will happen. We will exit the harbor. A will be well. He knew full well that they would be molested. This was too much for the South Carolina forces.

The bombardment begins. And so what Lincoln has gained in this is that the start of the Civil War is on the South's conscience. They started it. And that was sort of a brilliant tactic. What it ultimately gained, who knows? But that was something he felt very important. So then here comes the day of the bombardment. Again, chivalry, courtesy between Anderson and Beauregard - it was almost laughable. It was like, after you. No, after you. I wish to see you after this is all over, all this kind of stuff, when, in fact, Beauregard plans to kill him. And...

DAVIES: They're sending messages saying, you know, I hold you in the highest regard. We're going to meet again, or what?

LARSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - the closings of these messages back and forth. And so then comes, this is it, you know. They send a delegation over. Anderson - there had been talk that Anderson planned to evacuate the fort. They come over, they ask him his intentions, and it turns out that it's not quite that easy from his point of view. He will do so, but he's got various qualifications. And that's the point where they send back an ultimatum, saying, we are going to begin this bombardment at 4:20 in the morning. And this is very important because was, like, an hour later, right? So, 4:20 this bombardment is to begin, and they're all very cordial. And Anderson says goodbye and says, you know, I hope that at some point in some future time we may meet again under better circumstances, whatever.

And so 4:30 rolls around. Everybody attends. There's this scene in Charleston Harbor, you know - everybody's wildly partying, you know, This is like the last, the end days, you know? And so there is the first shot is fired, which is actually a signal shot to signal all the batteries to begin firing. So the bombardment begins. It is furious bombardment. The Confederate forces had a huge advantage over the U.S. Army contingent within the fort, you know, which had by now mounted their heavy guns. And that was that the Confederate batteries had one target to fire at. The men at Sumter had, you know, 19 batteries arrayed around the harbor.

DAVIES: Right. So they were in a bad situation. Remarkably - I mean, although Fort Sumter took many cannon balls, nobody was killed in the bombardment, which - more than 3,000 cannon shots, I believe. But - but - Is that right, yeah?

LARSON: Yeah. Nobody was killed - minor injuries, which when you imagine how this must have unfolded, is just about - is miraculous.

DAVIES: Right. But mortars that - mortar shells did set afire the wooden structures inside...

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...The fort, which would in the end spread to the powder magazines and created an untenable situation. And so Anderson did essentially have to surrender and did this under terms in which they would be given an honorable departure to Union ships...

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...And a 100-gun salute and the like. But in a way, it was over. I mean, this had been resolved, and it had been resolved with war.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah. So Anderson recognized that he had no choice but to surrender. But again, honor comes to play. Anderson is - he's not just going to surrender. He needs to do this in an honorable way. He insists on being able to him and his troops being able to salute their flag and with a 100-gun salute and then to march out, you know, to a waiting ship. And so the great irony here is that in this quest for honor, the first two deaths of the Civil War occur because the salute is being fired - comes to the 47th cannon is fired. There is a misfire, catastrophic misfire. One soldier's arm is blown off. He's killed instantly. Another is killed - another actually dies later. And all because of the quest for honor.

DAVIES: Yeah. There were accidental deaths. There's a great description in the book of 19th century cannon fire, by the way. A lot of wonderful details are in here. So, fire has been exchanged between the two sides. Lincoln's reaction is to issue a proclamation.

LARSON: Yes.

DAVIES: Meaning what?

LARSON: So Lincoln, the day after, and I have to believe that he knew that this would be the ultimate outcome of this. He uses a proclamation calling for military forces, volunteer military regiments from all states, including the seceded states, by the way, he was an equal opportunity requester. So he asked for militia forces from all states to prepare for this coming conflict. And that's the thing that finally sends the South - finally. I mean it sends the rest of the Southern states into the arms of the Confederacy.

DAVIES: We'll take another break here. We are speaking with Erik Larson. His new book is "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP SONG, "IOWA TAKEN").

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest today is journalist and historian Erik Larson. He has a new book about the events that led to the outbreak of the Civil War, focusing on the period between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter five months later. The book is titled "The Demon Of Unrest."

You know, one way of looking at these events is that, you know, America blundered into war because people miscalculated or did dumb things. You know, another is that war was inevitable. I mean, I know as I read this, and you see these two sides trying to achieve their aims without war. I mean, you know, Southerners want acceptance without war, succession, the North wants to keep them in the Union, but not provoke an armed conflict. And as we read it now, we know that the war was going to come, but I'm wondering, do you think - you know, were there things that could have avoided war?

LARSON: So speculative history is one of the things that I don't do. But having said that, I have to wonder what would have been the outcome if there had been an effectual president in office during that antebellum period instead of James Buchanan. I have to wonder how that could have shaped things. As one character from the moment said, you know, the times called for Jackson, being Andrew Jackson, but Buchanan was no Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson being somebody who - a president who suppressed an earlier -forcefully, not with arms, but with threats - forcefully suppressed a previous rebellious effort by South Carolina, the so-called nullification movement to nullify the active federal laws within the state of South Carolina. And Jackson moved very assertively against that. But here's Buchanan who is allowing this slide, who does does nothing at the point of when South Carolina declares secession, and you know, the secession in, you know, December 20 of 1860, at a point when there were no artillery batteries surrounding Fort Sumter, when the fort could have been readily reinforced. And actually, the harbor - very likely the harbor could have been seized by federal forces. Now, that's just me speaking, you know, completely not my territory, but the fact is Buchanan did nothing. In fact, he gives a speech to Congress - very important speech - in which he basically gives up. He basically says, there's nothing I can do. It is up to Congress.

DAVIES: Up to Congress. Right, right, right. Punt.

LARSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. One of the other things that occurred to me - that there's a difference between the deep political conflict the nation is experiencing now and that which - experienced in 1860, which is that the lines, the issues of division are less clear now. I mean, in 1860, it was - there was this fundamental question, you know, can we keep the institution of that commits African Americans to lives of bondage and treating humans as property - can that continue? And now, it's just less clear. I think, you know, it's - there are all kinds of wild theories about this and that. There's, you know, the rich dominating the poor and populism, and some see fascism, and some see socialist extremism. But the media environment is so much more diffuse. People hate each other, but I'm not sure that the reasons are as clear as they were in 1860.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah. You know, a friend of mine - you know, I was kind of moved by it - asked me in an email. He said, well, do you think you think there's going to be a civil war? And, you know, I I answered. I said, you know, I don't think there's going to be a civil war, at least not in the sense that there was, you know, back in 1860, you know, with masses of troops marching over marching over the farmland of Pennsylvania to confront each other at Gettysburg again. But, you know, the potential for violence is very - is there.

I mean, I was struck by reading a story - I believe it was in The New York Times - about how the domestic intelligence apparatus in the United States has grown very concerned about a particular subgroup of fringe folks referred to as accelerationists, who want to do things to bring to a head some crisis that would then blow things up and allow the rebuilding of the country or whatever. I don't know what their vision is, but that's something that apparently the FBI and so forth is very concerned about. So that kind of isolated one-on-one, you know, Oklahoma courthouse kind of violence could easily happen. I mean, the pressures seem to be there.

DAVIES: Well, Erik Larson, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

LARSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Erik Larson's new book about the months preceding the outbreak of the American Civil War is "The Demon Of Unrest: A Saga Of Hubris, Heartbreak, And Heroism At The Dawn Of The Civil War." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new Hulu series, "The Veil," starring Elisabeth Moss as a British spy befriending a suspected terrorist. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER NORTON'S "SWING OUT SISTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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