Book Report on Cry Havoc! by Nelson Lankford

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by Jerry

17 April 2018

Cry Havoc! by Nelson Lankford is a book that illustrates the events that preceded the 1861 Civil War in the United States. The author focuses on the chain of events that led to the conflict among Americans. The book is mostly based on the events that took place in the period between the beginning of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of an armed struggle between the new Confederacy and the Union. According to Lankford, the 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry and the subsequent election of Abraham Lincoln as the president was a critical moment in the history of the United States. Contrary to the views of many historians, Lankford clearly states that election of Abraham Lincoln into the office negated many possible options that could have led to a peaceful settlement of a conflict and instead polarized the country.  Furthermore, Lankford believes that activities of some powerful people exacerbated the situation and significantly contributed to the escalation of a conflict in 1861. The author maintains that available evidence from speeches, diaries, and other documents clearly point out that violence could have been avoided if both sides acted differently (Lankford 24).

Right from his inauguration, Lincoln outlined categorically that the biggest challenge to the sectional crisis in the United States was that some people mostly in southern states under slavery were worried that Lincoln was likely to interfere with the institution of slavery. Lincoln took the opportunity during his inauguration to assure southerners that he would respect the status quo and that he had neither intentions nor the rights to overhaul the institution of slavery. Lincoln also pledged to use the constitutional convention to address the problem of sectional crisis. Furthermore, he acknowledged to the southerners that the federal government had failed to address the fugitive slavery act. Lankford describes the situation in the United States at that time as delicate but manageable. According to him, the South, in general, was not unanimous in its quest for secession. Lankford continues to claim that the South was sharply divided into two camps.

Lincoln continued to respond differently to many issues that bothered slave states. He cleverly alluded to John Brown’s infamous raid to Harpers Ferry. To the thinking of many, Lincoln was not keen on the demands raised by the southerners concerning slavery; instead, he was committed to ensuring that fugitive slave enjoyed due process of the law.

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The author seems to believe that lower southern states that formed the Confederacy including Florida, Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas favored the idea of secession, while the upper states consisting of Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia Maryland, and South Carolina were not interested in secession. The author reckons that based on this scenario, Lincoln had numerous choices he could make to avert the conflict. The upper states were willing to cede ground and join the rest of the United States if some of their requirements such as the end of slavery and equal treatment to all were met.

However, Lincoln failed to seize this opportunity and, instead, focused on the application of other military tactics to seize control of the southern states. Lankford believes that Lincoln mishandled the situation in Maryland and Virginia by opting for a military action against Fort Sumter instead of negotiating for a safe evacuation. The use of force and inclusion of the military to suppress the rebellion in Maryland provoked chaos in the region. The author believes that if Lincoln had used diplomatic tactics to win the battle, the result could have been different. The use of force and involvement of military angered Maryland and complicated the situation in upper South (Lankford 47).


I have a different opinion regarding the issue of Sumter ferry and Maryland in general. Although the author believes that Lincoln was not keen on a peaceful solution, this may not be entirely correct. There is evidence to support the fact that, indeed, Lincoln went out of his way in trying to establish lasting peace in the entire South. I believe that his efforts were greatly hampered by the difficulty of the situation in the entire South. The population was highly polarized in that no side trusted the other. Efforts to make both sides negotiate for an amicable solution were heavily negated by suspicion and lack of trust from both parties. A critical review of the situation in the South reveals that Lincoln extended an olive branch and ceded substantial grounds in order to appease those calling for secession. A number of compromises such as an end to slavery were made, but the South was still determined to go a separate way.

According to historians, Lincoln decided to resupply Fort Sumter because of a number of reasons. Some historians claim that Lincoln took a tough stance against Fort Sumter because he did not want to give in to the demands of rebels. He wanted to provoke the army so that he could have an excuse to fire back. After all, Lincoln knew clearly that he had the leverage over rebels and there were high chances that he would get more support in case rebels attacked him.

Lankford also believes that the federal government under Lincoln did not properly strategize its plan to rescue Gosport Navy Yard, a crucial shipbuilding facility in Virginia. However, this is not entirely correct. Based on other evidence, the timing of the event did not favor federal administration. Confederate generals created a scheme prior to destroying the navy building yard.
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I believe that the idea of secession in some states like Maryland and Arkansas was propagated by few selfish individuals who acted in their vested interests at the expense of the population. This fact was clearly exemplified when the population resoundingly rejected a call for secession in a referendum. I think that Lankford focuses more on the miniature of the polarization between both sides and the failure of Lincoln to maintain the United States in peace. I fully agree with Lankford that Lincoln might have underestimated the situation in the entire South. It was apparent from the outset that any military gesture against the seven states that were agitating for secession would spark violence in the rest of the region including Maryland, West Virginia, Missouri, East Tennessee, and other Virginia areas that were against slavery. Conflicting interests between different states in the South made it difficult for Lincoln to secure a union.

The author believes that Lincoln was proud of the military might and overlooked many opportunities to negotiate a peaceful solution and, instead, focused on the use of force to suppress opposition. I believe the author misunderstood the situation. Most historians reckon that Lincoln made significant efforts and compromises, and it was the other side who failed to reciprocate to his overtures. This was clearly demonstrated when Seward undermined Lincoln’s efforts in Fort Sumter. Furthermore, South Carolina reacted angrily to Lincolns efforts in Fort Sumpter and viciously attacked the island leaving behind massive destructions. In my opinion, Lincoln was left with no option by to use all means at his disposal including the military to suppress North Carolina and end the provocation. Nevertheless, Lankford believes that Lincoln used North Carolina’s provocation as a lucrative opportunity to appease the South and, therefore, gain control over it (Lankford 52).

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I agree with the author and, indeed, many historians believe that Lincoln could have seized this opportunity to negotiate a peaceful solution. This could have had a positive effect on most southern states and could have helped to avoid the escalation of the violent conflict. Lincoln’s decision to react aggressively to the provocation in Fort Sumpter was the only possible way to stop the violence and avert the spread of the conflict to other states. Lincoln requested allied states to join the rest of the United States in the fight for what he termed as “the common enemy”. As a result, massive military presence was established in Fort Sumpter. This decision did not go down well with many southerners. As a result, Unionist support significantly decreased in North Carolina and Virginia. These states together with Tennessee and Arkansas decided to join the Confederacy to strengthen their leverage over the Union states. On the other hand, states like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri disintegrated significantly.

Lankford blames Lincoln for failing to secure the union of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. According to him, these states played a significant role and gave the rest of Unionists the enviable advantage that the Confederacy lacked. The author believes that Lincoln could have directed his efforts to these states because it was crucial to the political dynamics of that time. The author believes that the 1861 Civil War was not inevitable, but it was a result of the failure of people in key places to make good choices. The author uses all documents that were available at the time including newspapers, speeches, and other historical records to give a detailed account of the events from the swearing in of Lincoln to the date of the Civil War break out. His views about this period are intriguing to most people because most historians deliberately ignore these dramatic events in the American history. Instead, they focus on portraying Lincoln as the founding father of the nation, who did his best to secure a united America.

In conclusion, I think that the author did his best to present the events as they happened from the moment of Lincoln’s inauguration to the moment leading to the conflict. In general, the book is fair, although, some texts are somewhat incoherent. Political details in the book are not properly presented. The author based most of his writings on newspaper articles and speeches, which he extensively quoted in his book. This lowers the credibility of facts in general. Most historians reckon that, unlike today, most newspapers in the past represented the views of the public. In other words, newspapers in the 1860s were used as a means of airing public views. Chances are that the information found in these newspapers may not be factual and, therefore, it does not accurately depict what happened. Moreover, I think that Lankford analyzed the events from the contemporary perspective. Most historians would agree that, in some cases, it is difficult to analyze events and give a true account of what really happened unless one was a part of the generation that existed at that time. Therefore, the big part of the book was based on author’s personal views and analyzes of the situation, which may not be necessarily true. Therefore, it is not prudent for Lankford to conclude that 1861 Civil War was avoidable.

Work Cited:

  1. Lankford, Nelson. Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861. New York: Viking Adult.2007. Print.