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April 1865: The Month That Saved America (2001)

by Jay Winik

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1,400219,450 (4.14)48
April 1865 was a month that could have unraveled the nation. Instead, it saved it. Here Jay Winik offers a brilliant new look at the Civil War's final days that will forever change the way we see the war's end and the nation's new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history, filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States. It was not inevitable that the Civil War would end as it did, or that it would end at all well. Indeed, it almost didn't. Time and again, critical moments could have plunged the nation back into war or fashioned a far harsher, more violent, and volatile peace. Now, in a superbly told story, Winik captures the epic images and extraordinary history as never before. This one month witnessed the frenzied fall of Richmond; a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare; Lee's harrowing retreat; and then Appomattox. It saw Lincoln's assassination just five days later, and a near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued bloodshed in the South, and finally, the start of national reconciliation. In the end, April 1865 emerges as not just the tale of the war's denouement, but the story of the making of our nation. Provocative, bold, exquisitely rendered, and stunningly original, April 1865 is the first major reassessment of the Civil War's close and is destined to become one of the great stories of American history.… (more)
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One thing we history buffs love is a big, thick book on a subject we love, the kind of deep dive that requires us to plow through hundreds upon hundreds of pages. APRIL 1865, THE MONTH THAT SAVED AMERICA by Jay Winik, is not that kind of history book, and that is just fine. Coming in at just under 400 pages, this is the kind of read that people who can’t manage detailed descriptions of troop movements, battlefield strategy, and lots of exposition will enjoy, while at the same time, satisfy those who have exhausted Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, but still can’t resist going back to the American Civil War one more time. As per the title, Winik’s book deals with the last month of the war, which saw the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s assassination, the capitulation of the last major Confederate forces in North Carolina, and the first halting steps toward a national reconciliation after four years of endless bloodshed, and furious rancor. In the popular imagination, the Civil War ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant in the parlor of the McLean house in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9th, 1865; the rest of the Confederate armies followed Lee’s example, disbanding, with everyone going home, resolving to be one nation again, one filled with good Americans. But Winik sets out to prove this a gross simplification, and that if things had gone just a little different, if revenge and retribution had triumphed in the hearts of the North, or resistance and defiance had steeled the backs of the South, then American history would have been much different.

The book makes the case that by April of 1865, the Confederacy was on its knees, with Grant’s army at the gates of Richmond, and Sherman’s forces marching into North Carolina, but that it was far from beaten, and years of guerrilla warfare, and a bitter resistance to Federal occupation, was a very real option for the Confederate forces still in the field. This kind of war, which would have resulted in unimaginable destruction and loss of life, did hold the possibility of victory for the South, if the North could ultimately be convinced that the price was too great to keep on fighting year after year. Whether this would happen or not, rested not only in the hands of Lee and Grant, but also Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston, and even disreputable characters like Nathan Bedford Forrest, and downright evil ones, like John Wilkes Booth. Winik labors hard to tell us who they were, what brought them to be where they were, and to hold such responsibility at that place and that time, and why what they did matters so much, even after more than a century and a half.

I think Winik makes his points well, giving us not only the who and the where, but very much the why, specifically why the reconciliation that occurred, bitter and grudging on behalf of some, in the final month of the war came about. That these men who fought each other so hard, so long, both Confederate and Union, were sick and tired of war, Winik makes plain, that in their hearts, their fondest desire was to go home to their families, and never again hear a gun fired in anger. And upon this desire to be done with the bloody business of slavery and secession, a new sense of nationhood took root in the United States. That is far from an original conclusion, but I have not seen it better asserted than in Winik’s book.
This book is as much a civics lesson as it is a recounting of history. One can easily quarrel with Winik’s conclusions, as some reviewers have over his handling of slavery, and the challenges of Reconstruction are given only a quick pass, as others have also pointed out, many feeling that this is the real story. These are contentious subjects, and button pushers for many, proving yet again, as William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”
Jay Winik wrote APRIL 1865 twenty years ago now, when America was still enjoying the aftermath of the Cold War; and for me, the cheery conclusion of the book reads like something written before 9/11, the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, before the ferocious tribalism of 21st Century politics. These days we live in virtuous times, where the compromises and hard fought decisions of the past are disdained and dismissed. The complexities and paradoxes of the Civil War have no place in the public square or popular culture. Men who lived and died, and gave their last full measure for a country they loved as much as anyone alive today are found wanting by a modern morality, and judged harshly. APRIL 1865, whatever its faults, is a book that tries to make us understand a very difficult piece of American history, the kind of understanding that leads to common ground, something earlier generations of Americans knew and shared with one another; something forgotten, but perhaps yet remembered. ( )
  wb4ever1 | Jan 24, 2020 |
Why didn't the Civil War turn the US into a gaggle of petty republics? The author recounts the many ways the US could have disintegrated during April 1865, and examines why it didn't. The best book I've read all year. ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
A snapshot of the end of the grand struggle. The maps don't amount to much, but if you're looking for a quick refresher, much tilted towards the south, you will find this book interesting. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Sep 20, 2017 |
An interesting concept for a book, and one that seemed to be a refreshing take on the end of the Civil War. Does a good job at illustrating the circumstances around the Civil War, and provides good mini-biographies of many of the major players.

However, the author has made some egregious factual errors (two general Longstreets?), which detract from the book as a whole. Some interpretations of events are also suspect.

Not a bad book, but one that could use some revision and improvements. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
This is an excellent review of the status of the Civil War at its very end. Winik covers the political as well as the military aspects of the period and describes the rather unique path America took to uniting the states into a nation. ( )
  addunn3 | Nov 24, 2012 |
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For Lyric, my North and South, and East and West
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Atlanta had been overwhelmed. (introduction)
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April 1865 was a month that could have unraveled the nation. Instead, it saved it. Here Jay Winik offers a brilliant new look at the Civil War's final days that will forever change the way we see the war's end and the nation's new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history, filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States. It was not inevitable that the Civil War would end as it did, or that it would end at all well. Indeed, it almost didn't. Time and again, critical moments could have plunged the nation back into war or fashioned a far harsher, more violent, and volatile peace. Now, in a superbly told story, Winik captures the epic images and extraordinary history as never before. This one month witnessed the frenzied fall of Richmond; a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare; Lee's harrowing retreat; and then Appomattox. It saw Lincoln's assassination just five days later, and a near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued bloodshed in the South, and finally, the start of national reconciliation. In the end, April 1865 emerges as not just the tale of the war's denouement, but the story of the making of our nation. Provocative, bold, exquisitely rendered, and stunningly original, April 1865 is the first major reassessment of the Civil War's close and is destined to become one of the great stories of American history.

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