THIS APRIL we mark the 150th anniversary of the ending of the American Civil War. The Confederate surrender on the ninth day of that month followed a week of desperate maneuvering by the remaining Rebel army in Virginia to evade the Union forces that were closing in on Richmond. With the fall of Petersburg, Rebels fed their capital city after setting much of it ablaze. It would still take a catastrophic defeat at Sailor’s Creek followed by a failed last-ditch fight at Appomattox Station to finally convince Confederate general Robert E. Lee that all was lost, that it was time to quit the battlefield.

The nation that had been conceived in liberty and that won its independence just 150 miles east of Appomattox with the British surrender at Yorktown 84 years earlier would remain as one—but only after four years of brutal warfare that left staggering losses in lives and treasure. The ending at Appomattox, however, left poisonous wounds, whose depth and malevolence were manifested by the unthinkable assassination days later of the victorious President Lincoln. April 1865 ended the darkness of war. It brought light to a people—black and white, North and South—by freeing them from the shackles of the shameful and barbaric betrayal of their founding creed. But that light quickly dimmed as the nation, still chained to ingrained racism and nurtured by unapologetic remnants of a defeated ideology, began another war within itself. It would take a century of struggle to finally realize what had ostensibly been won in April 1865. Our look back on that fateful month of hope and anguish begins on page 50.

Another war’s ending 80 years and one month after Appomattox saw Americans rejoicing with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. This time it was a united America that went to battle, engaged in history’s greatest global enterprise to defeat an evil ideology that threatened world domination. Even though Americans would continue to fight for months in the Pacific, V-E Day unleashed joy and fostered hope. Two letters penned at the end of the war (page 58) poignantly reflect on the cost of the fight and the optimism raised by victory in Europe. Few people at the time, however, realized that embedded in that victory were the seeds of yet another long season of conflicts, hot and cold, that would shape our future for decades to come. We have these stories and much more in our interactive iPad edition, available on the iTunes newsstand, including a gem from the American History vault. It’s a captivating piece by Alex Haley, published in February 1974, that describes his ongoing genealogical research and discoveries in the United States and Africa that would result in his groundbreaking book Roots.

—Roger L. Vance

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.