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The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson

The Demon of Unrest

by Erik Larson

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Quick take

Expertly researched and gripping, this epic Civil War history from Erik Larson illuminates a dark American chapter.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues


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.”

At the heart of this suspense-filled narrative are Major Robert Anderson, Sumter’s commander and a former slave owner sympathetic to the South but loyal to the Union; Edmund Ruffin, a vain and bloodthirsty radical who stirs secessionist ardor at every opportunity; and Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a prominent planter, conflicted over both marriage and slavery and seeing parallels between them. In the middle of it all is the overwhelmed Lincoln, battling with his duplicitous secretary of state, William Seward, as he tries desperately to avert a war that he fears is inevitable—one that will eventually kill 750,000 Americans.

Drawing on diaries, secret communiques, slave ledgers, and plantation records, Larson gives us a political horror story that captures the forces that led America to the brink—a dark reminder that we often don’t see a cataclysm coming until it’s too late.

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The Demon of Unrest

A Boat in the Dark

The oars were audible before the boat came into view, this despite a noisy wind that coarsened the waters of the bay. It was very late on a black night. The rain, according to one account, “fell in torrents, and the wind howled weird-like and drearily.” In recent weeks the weather had been erratic: seductively vernal one day, bone-wrackingly cold the next. One morning there was snow. For a week a strong gale had scoured the coast. The four enslaved men rowing the boat made steady progress despite the wind and chop, and hauled their cargo—three white Confederate officers—with seeming ease. They covered the distance from Charleston to the fortress in about forty-five minutes. Until recently, a big lantern incorporating the latest in Fresnel lenses had capped the fort’s lighthouse, but in preparing for war, Army engineers had moved it. Now the lantern stood elevated on trestles at the center of the enclosed grounds, the “parade,” where it lit the interior faces of the surrounding fifty-foot walls and the rumps of giant cannon facing out through ground-level casemates. From afar, at night, in the mist, the light transformed the fortress into an immense cauldron steaming with pale smoke. The boat reached its wharf at twelve forty-five A.m., Friday, April 12, 1861, destined to be the single-most consequential day in American history.

Over the last 113 days, the fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, and his garrison of U.S. Army regulars, along with a cadre of men under Capt. John G. Foster of the Army Corps of Engineers, had transformed it from a cluttered relic into an edifice of death and destruction. It was still drastically undermanned. Designed to be staffed by 650 soldiers, it now had only seventy-five, including officers, enlisted men, engineers, and members of the regimental band. But its guns were ready, nested within and atop its walls. Also, five large cannon had been mounted on makeshift platforms in the parade and pointed skyward to serve as mortars, these capable of throwing explosive shells into Charleston itself.

In those 113 days, this fortress, named for Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero, had become a profoundly dangerous place to invade and could have resisted attack quite possibly forever, but for one fatal flaw: It was staffed by men, and men had to eat. The food supply, cut off by Confederate authorities, had dwindled to nearly nothing.

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Why I love it

Erik Larson is one of those authors whose name on a book cover triggers an automatic neural response that forces me to auto-buy. A consummate craftsman who works wonders with unexpected anecdotes from the archives, each of his books makes me feel a rare sense of coming to know the world around me better. The Demon of Unrest is no exception. I will never look at the Civil War the same way again.

In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was narrowly elected to the presidency of the United States. Teetering on the precipice of war, the nation was simmering with tensions, loyalties were being tested daily, and political egos were hideously inflated. As only he can, Larson excavates surprising primary materials and uncovers forgotten figures and decidedly pivotal minor moments. Out of these materials, he spins a political horror story with plenty to teach us in the present. At the center of the story is Fort Sumter and the mystery of how backwater South Carolina came to pitch the nation into such a dark spiral. You’ll have to add a copy to your box to get answers to that mystery for yourself....

If you want to look under the hood and truly understand perhaps the most important period in American history, look no further. The Demon of Unrest is an authoritative recounting, but not at all dry—quite entertaining, in fact. Prepare to be swept up in this powerful and unique historical account.

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