April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik
This book has been on my radar to read for a long time. I am no stranger to reading books or pondering about the end of the Civil War  and the importance of that gracious ending on the well-being of the United States. Not only that, but this book is one that is frequently held up as a particularly excellent book, and one well worth reading. People have been encouraging or nagging me to read this book for a long time, for quite a few years in fact, and at length the time came for me to read it in my personal queue of books and I can only say that the book disappointed me. Perhaps it would be most fair for me to say that if you only want to read one book on the winding down of the Civil War and the decision of the generals of the South to surrender to the Union rather than fight a guerrilla war, this is a good book to read, but if you have read many of the books this author cites somewhat casually, one will enjoy it a lot less because one will already have the same context as the author when it comes to the relevant history, and will therefore learn a lot less from it.
In terms of its contents, this book takes a largely chronological view of the last days of the Civil War. With very short chapter titles, the author begins with the context of Lincoln in Washington at his second inaugural and then Lee seeking to escape Petersburg and save his suffering army, and the dilemmas they are facing in order to achieve very different goals. The story of the Appomattox campaign is then told in a somewhat florid style, with the drama built up to the meeting between Lee and Grant and the decision to graciously allow a surrender that preserves the honor and dignity of the defeated rebel soldiers. At this point, though, we are only about halfway done with the story, before the book takes a dark look at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and its effect on the surrender of Johnson’s army to Sherman at Bennett Farm in North Carolina. The author maintains a tone of high drama throughout and shows that while Jefferson Davis desired to encourage guerrilla warfare that one by one the various leaders of rebel armed forces stood down and accepted the gracious surrender terms by their Union counterparts. All of this takes nearly 400 pages of writing, where the author not only wishes to tell the tale of the ending of the Civil War in a great deal of complexity but also wishes to provide the context of the lives of the various people involved. This means that whenever someone is mentioned at a key moment, the author then steps out of the narrative flow and gives a lengthy mini-biography of that person to help explain their thinking process and behavior, all of which makes this book far longer than it had to be, or would be if it was aiming at an audience of people knowledgeable about 19th century American history.
This is not a book that is bad as much as it is a bit oversold. The threat of guerrilla warfare was real, but it was ultimately a road not taken by rebels in April 1865 for a variety of reasons, one of which was that they valued their elite status more than they valued independent nationhood. Where the book sticks closely to its sources, it is not particularly original, and where it departs from these sources, it makes soaring over-generalizations and makes a dramatic novelization of the history of the time. Moreover, the book abounds with tragic irony. Some of this is intentional on the part of the author, wishing to contrast the graciousness of the wounds being bound up of the nation with the loss of Abraham Lincoln to assassination, but some of it is unintentional. The author belatedly and only partly recognizes the essentially tragic element of the national reconciliation forged in April 1865 that he praises so stoutly, and that was that the reconciliation of rebels, reconstructed or otherwise, with the reformed Union was largely done so on the backs of the blacks who had been previously enslaved and would continue to be held in a status of second class citizenship for the next century, whatever the Constitution may say about it. Jay Winik says in this book that the United States was a rare example of a nation that escaped the hostility of civil wars throughout history, but in reality the only reason this is so is because the terms ultimately required of reunion were at minimal cost to the traitors and rebels who had started the war in the beginning, and thus surrender and reunion were made acceptable from a defeat that was viewed in such a way as to give them great honor even at cost to their power within the nation as a whole. This book, ironically, contributes to that desire of Southerners to view their own behavior with a sense of pride even in defeat.
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