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April 1865: The Month That Saved America (P.S.) Paperback – August 15, 2006
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
While the eleven states that formed the Confederate States of America were the only states to secede in American history, Winik notes that the generations of antebellum Americans had always viewed the unity of the nation as fragile and that secession movements, not all of them Southern, were plotted from the earliest days of the Republic.
As April approached in 1865, the Confederacy was in increasingly desperate straits, so much so that many Southerners voiced what four years earlier had been unthinkable--giving blacks freedom in return for military service in the Confederate Army. That measure was taken too late to save the Confederacy, though, and after Richmond fell Lee attempted to join up with Johnston's troops in North Carolina. Within days, however, Lee's army was surrounded, and Winik rightly lauds the general for making the pivotal decision to surrender rather than attempt guerilla warfare.
Winik's portrait of the surrender at Appomattox and its aftermath is superb. Lincoln and Grant were wise enough to know that knitting North and South back together into one nation called for magnanimity and the refusal to destroy the dignity of the South and Southerners. Most know that the South was devastated as a result of the war, but the author's assessment of the total extent of that devastation is truly arresting.
Even with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, the war was not quite over and there were a few remaining anxious moments for all who hoped for peace, and Winik describes the surrender of the rest of the Confederate forces.
Five days after Lee's surrender, President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, and this volume tells the story of that tragedy in great detail. Winik notes that precedents for the transfer of power were still not robust in the 1860s and recalls how Andrew Johnson became Lincoln's successor, with the attendant effects on postwar politics.
"April 1865" also offers biographical sketches of Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, and other figures who played key roles during that month. This volume as much as any other I have ever read is a refutation of the Marxist doctrine of determinism and control of history by impersonal forces--Lincoln, Grant, and Lee especially show how much individuals and the decisions that they make (as well as fate and good or bad luck) can turn history on a dime and have effects that last generations if not centuries.
This book has a great picture section, and it was enjoyable to read and elegantly written, challenging the vocabulary of even serious readers. For those history buffs who love reading about the Civil War and who want to gain a deeper understanding of key figures of the war and of the importance of the conflict coming to a close in the manner that it did, I cannot recommend "April 1865" more highly.
The country could well have gone in that direction but for the wisdom and magnanimity of many players, and several in particular. Abraham Lincoln, for one, after having evolved to the point of abolishing slavery forever from the US, was also notable for his determination to welcome the Confederate states back into the Union without subjecting them to abject punishment -- for which reason his assassination was mourned by many in the South as well as the North. Andrew Johnson, unlike Lincoln, threatened a fierce and punitive stance toward the South. The one question that seems unanswered in APRIL 1865 is how and why, under Johnson, this was not the course the government pursued -- was it thanks to the overall forgiving mood of others, or because the country was just too tired of violence?
Winik's book features a number of captivating biographical profiles -- notably those of Jefferson Davis and the highly principled Robert E. Lee. Lee came from a distinguished line of patriots and also abhorred slavery, so he struggled greatly with the decision of whether or not to support secession; he turned down a commission to lead the Union forces because he could not fight against his own state. In the end, he made the critical decision to surrender to Grant at Appomattox, in opposition to Jefferson Davis' wishes. Lee and Grant together set the honorable tone for further surrenders: General Joe Johnston surrendered to Sherman; others followed suit, again in opposition to Davis. It was well that surrender did take place: Davis and some Confederates would have favored disappearing into the forests to continue the conflict as a guerrilla war, as had become the norm in Missouri. But Missouri itself, technically a Union state, gave a horrendous example of the reality of guerrilla warfare. When confronted with the decision, Lee opted to surrender because he knew that a widespread guerrilla war would further ruin the South and turn the whole region into a living hell. Jefferson Davis was the absolute hold-out on surrender, up to the point when he was finally captured by Union soldiers. He had his strengths but was not an effective President of the Confederacy. Interestingly though -- notwithstanding the very abomination of slavery itself -- in relative terms, Davis comes across as a "benevolent" slaveholder.
This reviewer often finds details of battle strategies to be supremely tedious, but somehow Winik manages to pull this off brilliantly -- his story of Lee's retreat from the Richmond-Petersburg area, and the chase by Grant's forces, reads like a suspense story: we wonder how and when they will actually reach the point of surrender at Appomattox. This is one book that really does not have any dull parts!
A real tragedy of the Civil War was the assassination of Lincoln and the resultant downgrading of two leaders who might have lead a more successful reconstruction. They were Sherman and Lee in my opinion. This intense review of one month of history seems to prove that. Lee might have gained stature as a national leader and Sherman held on to and improved his stature to the benefit of successful reconstruction. All was lost with the sweeping desire for vengeance that followed Lincoln's death.
Highly recommended for both Civil War buffs and lovers of our country.