The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson

Oh man, I screwed up big-time you guys and owe you an apology. The great Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City, The Splendid and the Vile, In the Garden of Beasts) came out with a new book two weeks ago and I somehow missed it! I almost shrieked when I saw it on the bookstore front table yesterday.

Anyway, the book is called The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War (bookshop.org). Here’s the synopsis:

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the fluky victor in a tight race for president. The country was bitterly at odds; Southern extremists were moving ever closer to destroying the Union, with one state after another seceding and Lincoln powerless to stop them. Slavery fueled the conflict, but somehow the passions of North and South came to focus on a lonely federal fortress in Charleston Harbor: Fort Sumter.

Master storyteller Erik Larson offers a gripping account of the chaotic months between Lincoln’s election and the Confederacy’s shelling of Sumter — a period marked by tragic errors and miscommunications, enflamed egos and craven ambitions, personal tragedies and betrayals. Lincoln himself wrote that the trials of these five months were “so great that, could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them.”

With a movie out in theaters called Civil War and southern states once again agitating for “”“state’s rights”“” (I really can’t put enough exaggerated air-quotes around that phrase) in order to control bodily freedoms, The Demon of Unrest is really timely; Larson himself connects the events of the book with January 6th in a reader’s note:

I was well into my research on the saga of Fort Sumter and the advent of the American Civil War when the events of January 6, 2021, took place. As I watched the Capitol assault unfold on camera, I had the eerie feeling that present and past had merged. It is unsettling that in 1861 two of the greatest moments of national dread centered on the certification of the Electoral College vote and the presidential inauguration.

I was appalled by the attack, but also riveted. I realized that the anxiety, anger, and astonishment that I felt would certainly have been experienced in 1860-1861 by vast numbers of Americans. With this in mind, I set out to try to capture the real suspense of those long-ago months when the country lurched toward catastrophe, propelled by hubris, duplicity, false honor, and an unsatisfiable craving on the part of certain key actors for personal attention and affirmation. Many voices at the time of Sumter warned of civil war, but few had an inkling of what that might truly mean, and certainly none would have believed that any such war could take the lives of 750,000 Americans.

History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. So anyway, I’m 60+ pages in and can already recommend it — you can get The Demon of Unrest at Amazon or bookshop.org.

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