There are a few books that belong on the shelf of every Civil War buff: James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom
, one of the better Abraham Lincoln biographies, something on Robert E. Lee, perhaps Shelby Foote's massive trilogy The Civil War
. Add Jay Winik's wonderful April 1865
to the list. This is one of those rare, shining books that takes a new look at an old subject and changes the way we think about it. Winik shows that there was nothing inevitable about the end of the Civil War, from the fall of Richmond to the surrender at Appomattox to the murder of Lincoln. It all happened so quickly, in what "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."
Things might have been rather different, too. "What emerges from the panorama of April 1865 is that the whole of our national history could have been altered but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate, a sudden shift in luck." When Lee abandoned Richmond, for instance, his soldiers rendezvoused at a nearby town called Amelia Court House. There, the general expected to find boxcars full of food for his hungry troops. But "a mere administrative mix-up" left his army empty-handed and may have limited Lee's options in the days to come. Or what if Lee had decided not to surrender at all, but to turn his resourceful army into an outfit of guerrilla fighters who would harass federal officials? National reconciliation might have become impossible as the whole South turned into a region plagued with violence and terrorism. For the Union, "there would be no real rest, no real respite, no true amity, nor, for that matter, any real sense of victory--only an amorphous state of neither war nor peace, raging like a low-level fever." One of Lee's officers actually proposed this scenario to his commander in those final hours; America is fortunate Lee didn't choose this path.
Winik is an exceptionally good storyteller. April 1865 is full of memorable images and you-are-there writing. Readers will come away with a new appreciation for that momentous month and a sharpened understanding of why and how the Civil War was fought. Let it be said plainly: April 1865 is a magnificent work, surely the best book on the Civil War to be published in some time. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
Though the primary focus of this book is the last month of the Civil War, it opens in the 18th century with a view of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Winik (whose previous book, On the Brink, was an account of the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War) offers not just a study of four weeks of war, but a panoramic assessment of America and its contradictions. The opening Jeffersonian question is: does the good of the country take precedence over that of the individual states? The question of civil union or civil war is the central question of this new work. Winik goes on to describe how a series of events that occurred during a matter of weeks in April 1865 (the fall of Richmond; Lee's graceful surrender to Grant at Appomattox, and Grant's equally distinguished handling of his foe; Lincoln's assassination), none of them inevitable, would solve Jefferson's riddle: while a loose federation of states entered the war, what emerged from war and Reconstruction was a much stronger nation; the Union had decisively triumphed over the wishes of individual states. Winik's sense of the dramatic and his vivid writing bring a fitting flourish to his thesis that April 1865 marked a turning point in American history: "So, after April 1865, when the blood had clotted and dried, when the cadavers had been removed and the graves filled in, what America was asking for, at war's end, was in fact something quite unique: a special exemption from the cruel edicts of history." Winik's ability to see the big picture in the close-up (and vice versa), and to compose riveting narrative, is masterful. This book is a triumph. (Apr. 4) Forecast: Popular history at its best, this book should appeal widely to readers beyond the usual Civil War crowd. Strong endorsements from a group of noted historians, including James M. McPherson and Douglas Brinkley, along with a 10-city author tour, should also help both review coverage and sales.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.