Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cry Havoc Book Review

Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War 1861 by Nelson D. Lankford

When this book first came out I had wanted to get it but somehow I never picked up a copy. Then a few months ago the publisher, Penguin, sent me a review copy of the paperback edition. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It covers a period of time that normally isn't dealt with in such detail. Basically the focus is the period from the inauguration through the end of April, with most of the action taking place in Virginia and Maryland. That was my only complaint, that events in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, etc were not discussed in much detail at all, in fact they are barely mentioned. I understand that this is because Virginia's secession convention was a leader, however that state went would influence what other states did. If Virginia had gone the route of neutrality then perhaps Tennessee and others would have followed a similar path leaving us with a neutral upper South that might help bring about a compromise solution to the impending war. So focusing on what Virginia was doing probably was the best way to tell the story of this brief time early in the conflict.

One thing that bothered me, and I've seen some commentary about it online in other reviews, is that on the cover is a quote from the New York Times that says, "Nelson D. Lankford ... disturbs the time-honored march of history with a series of what-ifs." I don't think that is what Lankford really did. There are several times when he points out that if a particular decision had been made, or not made, that the course of events would likely have changed. I don't think this really qualifies as a what-if. This is the way I was taught history. When you research and present your findings, in a book or oral presentation, you need to show all the various options the decision maker had at the time. You also need to clarify what they knew so that while in hindsight we can see a decision as foolhardy it may have been the best option at the time. And along those lines you need to show the logical immediate outcomes of those options; basically put yourself back into the position the decision make was in at the time. This works for generals in battle or politicians trying to lead their country through a difficult period.

This is exactly what Lankford does, in my mind that is not giving what-ifs, its showing the reader the logical options and outcomes to be had at various steps along the path. Only then can you understand why they made the decisions they made. I think Lankford did a good job of this. Too often when I read about battles it ends up being more of a blow by blow account than the author thinking critically about why certain decisions were made. In the case of a battle book it would have to be done well so that it does not clog the flow of the action. In Cry Havoc Lankford handled this well and provided a very readable and enjoyable book.

Here is some measure of how well I liked this book. Usually when I receive a review copy I pass it along to a friend or donate it to the roundtable book raffle when I'm done with my review. A few I've kept. This is one I'm keeping. I think I will end up using it again as a source and also just to read again for entertainment.

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