Tuesday, January 19, 2010

April 1865:The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

I remember reading the review for "April 1865:The Month That Saved America" by Jay Winik when it first came out in 2001 and wanting to read the book. When I spied it on the library shelf three weeks ago, I couldn't remember whether I had read it before or not. Not remembering if I had read it is not quite as damning as it might sound since I typically read 2-3 books a year about the Civil War or its dramatis personae. As it turns out, I had read it before but that's okay -- it is a stunning book, with a strong premise meticulously realized while vividly written.

The premise is almost simple on the surface; wise decisions by 5 major players and several smaller ones set the United States on a path that allowed it stay together despite the trauma and errors of Reconstruction and its Jim Crow aftermath. These decisions laid the groundwork for the U. S. to slowly move towards its potential as the great beacon of freedom. Had some or all of the decisions not been made, the United States, if it existed at all, would be very different than it is today.

Winik does a masterful job of propelling the story linearly while delving liberally into the background of the South and the North as well as the major characters. The reader learns that the United States was hardly a country in some ways, such that when people formally talked about their country they used the plural form, "these" United States. People thought of themselves as citizens of their states first, country second, if they even indeed ever thought of the latter. This feeling was especially prevalent in the South, where the great John C. Calhoun had been a South Carolinian, thank you and South Carolina should be able to nullify any federal law if it so chose and could secede whenever it wanted. Robert E. Lee was a Virginian, so much so that even though he was against secession, he turned down the Union command 5 days before accepting the command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even the New England states flirted with secession during the War of 1812.

Naturally the author delves into the raison d'ĂȘtre of the war, slavery, which was the major failure1 of our otherwise farseeing Founding Fathers. Wise as they were, they had no solution for the great question of slavery. They left that for another "day", which came approximately "four score and seven years ago" later.

The great players as seen by the author are first and foremost, Abraham Lincoln, whose unerring belief in the Union and the need to preserve and restore it, was the foundation upon which he based all his actions, including the slow pace which he took to end slavery. His belief in a peaceful peace, without retribution, without vengeance, without labeling even Confederate President Jefferson Davis a traitor, set in motion a quick joining of North and South, that while tenuous, was cemented enough to hold once the real problems of the post-war set in. Lincoln was careful to instill this spirit in his 2 mighty warriors, Grant and Sherman. And as brutal as they were in war, no matter how Hun-like as they were viewed by Southerners, neither wanted any more carnage. Their treatment of their vanquished foes set the tone of a peaceful surrender and feelings of mutual good will between the fighters on both sides.

Jefferson Davis is not one of the great five. Davis was also a complex man and was the one man who came the closest to causing the war to drag on for years after it did. Davis only gave up after his armies had all done so, spending the month after Lee's surrender as a president on the run. He commanded Lee and General Joseph Johnston, head of the Confederate Army of the East, to take to the hills and fight a guerilla war. Lee disobeyed first, primarily driven by starvation (his men were already dying and his last ditch effort to get supplies was botched) but also understanding that enough was enough. If he continued fighting, Lee could only see deprivation for little real gain. He no longer had the heart to ask his men to do any more. It was time to return to family.

Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox was hardly the end of the war. Joseph Johnston still commanded the Army of the East and was ordered by Davis to head west and take to the hills. He decided to meet with his opposite, Sherman, and when given the most generous terms, decided to surrender. It took a number of days, mainly due to some modifications required by the Union Senate and during the second subsequent meeting, Johnston agreed to the still generous Sherman terms. Johnston saw the same issues as Lee, minus the starvation in Johnston's case, but since Lee had laid down his sword, Johnston could take comfort from emulating the lead of the great hero of the South.

Several other characters had somewhat more minor roles but played against form for a brief moment helping the return to union. The dreaded guerilla Nathaniel Bedford Forrest also capitulated to generous terms; his army could have survived indefinitely in the hills or in Texas. Those terms however did not mellow Forrest, and while he abided by the surrender, he reached even greater infamy by starting the Ku Klux Klan. And the new President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, had his one brief shining moment when he stood up to Congress, which wanted to impose onerous penalties on the South.

The final chapter, Reconciliation, discusses the immediate aftermath of the war. Stunningly, with all the hatred burning red hot, people North and South begin to use the word "nation" as though they were lurched into a new world where country trumped state. "The" United States replaced "these" United States in everyday usage. Touchingly, the last few paragraphs of that chapter tell the tale of a first stirring of the possibility of a southern white accepting a black person with a level of equality. "The black man slowly lowered his body, kneeling, while the rest of the congregation tensed in their pews" is the evocative introduction to a story that will move you. This vignette closes the narrative and only then, knowing that I had been so moved before, was I 100% confident that I had indeed read the book before.

The book closes with an Epilogue of two parts: rapid fire comments about the end-of-war status of the movers and shakers of the last third of 19th century America, followed by a "true" epilogue, a summation of the author's conclusions. While understanding where Carnegie, Rockefeller, Henry Ford, et al stood in April, 1865 is interesting, it doesn't add to the conclusion. That is my sole quibble with the book -- it has an extraneous interesting half chapter. Not too shabby.

While I would suggest a rudimentary knowledge of the American Civil War before tackling this book, if you know nothing about the war I think that Winik gives you enough background to allow you to enjoy the book and understand the author's intent.

P. S. For those of you who still subscribe to the Sunday paper, AND whose paper carries the Parade Magazine, AND the name "Winik" looks vaguely familiar, it's because the author's wife contributes to the magazine under her unique appelation, "Lyric Wallwork Winik".

1 I would also posit that a more clearly written 2nd amendment would have been helpful, but its legacy pales when compared to perpetuating, nay, encouraging slavery.

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