The co-op bookstore for avid readers

'The Demon of Unrest' by Erik Larson | An Excerpt

Erik Larson •
Apr 1st, 2024

Over and over again, Erik Larson has earned his stripes as a master storyteller of history's most haunting tales. From a serial killer at the World's Fair to the sinking of the Lusitania (AKA the "Other Titanic") to the blitz of WWII, he takes the reader's hand and walks back in time through unputdownable narrative histories.

This month, he is releasing The Demon of Unrest, an account of the months building up to the American Civil War, moving from Lincoln’s election to the Battle of Fort Sumter – which signaled the war’s inception. One of the most anticipated books of the year, the book is filled to the brim with meticulously drawn portraits of lesser known figures, including the fort’s commander, who was both a slaveowner and a staunch unionist. Beyond “a welcome addition to any Civil War buff’s library” (Kirkus), Larson makes a chronicle of a historical crisis highly relatable in the modern era. Enjoy this short note from the author and excerpt.

Preorder the book now at 20% off with code DEMON at checkout.

Dark Magic

A Note to Readers

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.

At the heart of the story is a mystery that still confounds: How on earth did South Carolina, a primitive, scantily populated state in economic decline, become the fulcrum for America’s greatest tragedy? And even more bewildering, what malignant magic brought Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line to the point where they could actually imagine the wholesale killing of one another?

This is a work of nonfiction. As always, anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document; likewise, any reference to a gesture, smile, or other physical action comes from an account by one who made it or witnessed it. In places I have corrected anachronistic spelling, capitalization, and punctuation to conform with modern usage. For example, I turned “&” into “and,” but only where that meaning was obvious. Lincoln’s charming misspellings remain unaltered.

I invite you now to step into the past, to that time of fear and dissension, and experience the passion, heroism, and heartbreak—even humor—as if you were living in that day and did not know how the story would end. I suspect your sense of dread will be all the more pronounced in light of today’s political discord, which, incredibly, has led some benighted Americans to whisper once again of secession and civil war.

—Erik Larson, New York 2023

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…

Excerpted from The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson Copyright © 2024 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Like what you've read? Check out The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson.

What to read next:
What to read next: