April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik, HarperCollins, New York, 520 pages, $30.
Historians, in their efforts to offer fresh and exciting interpretations, sometimes handle evidence like trial lawyers. They are so determined to win a case that they downplay conflicting testimony or oversimplify source material to prove an argument, usually at the expense of complexities. Jay Winik, who writes with the elegance of Bruce Catton, unfortunately stretches the evidence past the breaking point in offering a bold interpretation about the ending of the Civil War. In April 1865: The Month that Saved America, he forces himself into a corner by repeatedly claiming that April 1865 stood as the most crucial time of the war. With typical hyperbole, he writes that “April 1865 is a month that could have unraveled the American nation. Instead, it saved it. It is a month as dramatic and as devastating as any ever faced in American history–and it proved to be perhaps the most moving and decisive month not simply of the Civil War, but indeed, quite likely in the life of the United States.”
While the author is certainly entitled to his opinion, his case quickly unravels because he does not appreciate the complex forces that brought the Confederacy to the brink of collapse by the spring of 1865. His inability to see past the facade of Southern unity largely explains why he believes the South could have achieved independence at a time when even the most devoted Confederates recognized that the end was near. With Lincoln’s reelection in the fall of 1864, coupled with the North’s devastating policy of exhaustion, Confederate morale plummeted and the South followed an irreversible decline to military capitulation. The author’s assertion that Confederate citizens were “as aggressive as ever” in April 1865 does not ring true. The existing sources for that period reveal a people badly fractured by war, depleted, demoralized, and hanging together largely because of their faith in Robert E. Lee.
A more sophisticated understanding of Confederate dissent would have led the author to a realistic assessment of Confederate chances leading up to Appomattox–an assessment that would have included a more detailed discussion of civilian cries for relief, the dramatic rise in desertion, and the growing disaffection of non-slaveholders. Winik deserves tremendous credit for capturing how slaves resisted the Confederacy and embraced freedom. But if he had connected all these problems on the Southern home front to the Confederacy’s dismal military picture, the author would have reached a more reasonable but less dramatic conclusion about the final month of the war, a month that merely confirmed what most contemporary observers saw as the inevitable fall of the Confederacy.
Winik tells more than the familiar story of the war’s final month. He wants the reader to see how April 1865 witnessed the resolution of larger historical issues about the nature of the country, about republicanism, race, and regional identity versus national authority. He correctly argues that the conclusion of the Civil War brought revolutionary change, that it unleashed powerful forces that turned the United States into a modern nation-state. War established the supremacy of the federal government while destroying slavery, a political, economic, and social system that supported a distinct ruling class in the South. While this is not a new argument, Winik makes a more compelling case than previous historians because he places the entire Civil War within an international setting, showing that other countries around the world were also becoming modern nations during the same period. Like the United States, they became nation-states through war, not by some neat and tidy legislative act or treaty.
The author’s global approach offers the seasoned Civil War student a fresh perspective in a field dominated by narrowly focused studies that never consider the conflict from a national standpoint, let alone an international one. In breaking away from this provincial view, Winik draws from his vast experience as a senior staff member with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and uses his firsthand knowledge to explain why so many 20th-century civil wars followed a cycle of endless bloodshed. In the case of the United States, the author found a surprising spirit of reconciliation that appeared immediately after Appomattox. Although he acknowledges that bitter, often violent political fights continued during Reconstruction–particularly over the status of freed blacks–Winik believes that Abraham Lincoln’s plea for compassion and forgiveness in his second inaugural address, Ulysses S. Grant’s and William T. Sherman’s generous surrender terms, and Robert E. Lee’s refusal to use guerilla warfare created an atmosphere that ultimately led to a lasting peace.
While Winik is correct that these magnanimous gestures make the American experience exceptional, the final month of the war did not make the nation whole. Not until the Federal government returned home rule to the white South in the 1870s and the United States became involved in the Spanish-American War did Northerners and Southerners come together as Americans. But before that unification occurred, the reconstruction of the nation was filled with violence, political fraud, and economic exploitation, not unlike the tortuous road traveled by other nations wracked by civil war.
Peter S. Carmichael
University of North Carolina at Greensboro