April 1865: The Month That Saved America

Article excerpt

APRIL 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik, HarperCollins, NY, 2001, 461 pages, $32.50.

Jay Winik rightly argues that April 1865 was an essential cornerstone in American history. With maybe a touch of hyperbole, he asserts that April was "perhaps the most . . . crucial month . . . in the life of the United States." Civil War scholars certainly would agree that the events of that April were essential, but whether they could be considered the most decisive in the history of the Republic is another matter. Historians could reasonably argue that July 1776, October 1781 (the surrender at Yorktown), or even July 1863 with Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg were as decisive as April 1865.

Winik bases his contention on General Robert E. Lee's decision not to disperse the Army of Northern Virginia and conduct a guerrilla campaign, the fall of Richmond, the surrender at Appomattox, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the transfer of power to Vice President Andrew Johnson. Certainly such a campaign would have had dire consequences not only for the South, but also for the Nation as a whole. These contentions are strong points in his favor. Had any of these events turned out differently, history might have been changed.

Other strengths are Winik's analysis of the Constitution and whether states actually had the right to secede; an extensive discussion about arming slaves; Lincoln's views of giving blacks the right to vote; and the precedents for presidential succession, particularly John Tyler's succeeding William Henry Harrison in 1841; and the consequences of the surrender of Confederate General Joe Johnston's Army of Tennessee to Union General William T. Sherman after Lincoln's murder.

There are several areas that detract from Winik's work. The first is his tendency to go off on tangents. For example, he attempts to compare and contrast Lee's march westward from Appomattox with the 1942 Bataan Death March, and he devotes 12 pages to Lincoln's background while admitting that "nothing . …


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