April 1865: The Month That Saved America

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By Jay Winik. New York: HarperCollins, 2001 461 pages. $32.50.

Jay Winik skillfully employs all the insights he has gained as a governmental, journalistic, and scholarly observer of modern crises of civil war and disorder to write dramatically about the closing events of the American Civil War. April 1865 will grip the reader's attention with a series of expertly detailed set-piece depictions of the most critical moments among those events: the fears and pathos of the Confederate evacuation of Richmond, the quick transition to a mood of rejoicing among the city's African Americans as Abraham Lincoln himself walked among them, another rapid transition to a night of horror when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln down, and Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward escaping assassination, Seward surviving only with terrible wounds. Winik adds well-drawn biographical and character sketches of the principal actors. For the military reader he also offers crisp narratives of the final campaigns, not only in Virginia but wherever the war still smoldered on, and challenging appraisals of generalship.

For all the pleasures that its best features offer, nevertheless, April 1865 is a deeply disappointing book. Winik was not satisfied to allow the considerable drama inherent in the climactic events of the Civil War to speak for itself. Instead, he succumbed to one of the most troublesome temptations of the writer of popular history, to convert every semblance of a turning point in the course of events into a full-blown crisis on which he can claim the whole future of the United States depended. The book is emotionally overwrought.

The thesis is summed up by the subtitle, The Month That Saved America. "April 1865," Winik says, "is a month that could have unraveled he American nation. Instead it saved it." This reviewer simply cannot accept such a judgment. With Abraham Lincoln and his party safely reelected, and his Republican Party firmly in power in Washington even if an alternative course of history had also included his assassination, there was no way in which the badly defeated Confederacy could have held out for another four years in hopes of the arrival of a more friendly Union government, not even by Winik's favorite scenario of guerrilla war. Even if one does not accept this reviewer's doubts about the Confederate will to win in the first place, by April 1865 the Confederacy was beaten. Winik makes much of the idea of historical contingency, that history unfolds in an open process because subsequent events are always contingent upon how any one critical incident turns out. But history is not that open. The Confederacy was probably foredoomed at its birth. It was certainly beyond hope by April 865.

And there was little possibility that its demise might have been accompanied by a larger chaos encompassing the North as well, however much Winik tries to frighten us with such a prospect. Throughout his book he continually makes every flaw in the American fabric of self-government seem as stark and threatening as possible. He leads up to his portrayal of April 1865 as a time of possibilities for chaos by reciting all the tremors that had wracked the American Republic at one time or another since the Revolution--the Whiskey Rebellion, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, the nullification uproar, and all the rest. …