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Mary Swanson

History 151/010
Book Review
May 13, 2008

In April 1865 - The Month That Saved America, author Jay Winik examines the
crucial, final days of the Civil War. In order to properly summarize the final
thirty days of the lengthy, complicated war, Winik masterfully and succinctly
guides the reader through the political firestorm that preceded it, as well as
provides insight into the historic figures who shaped the war and its eventual
outcome. The war, which had lasted far longer than either the North or the South
had ever anticipated, had reached something of a crescendo in the final month.
General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Army of the Potomac had doggedly struggled in
vain to box in the dwindled forces of the Confederacy commanded by the brilliant
military strategist, General Robert E. Lee. After months of failed attempts,
Grant’s numerically superior forces had closed in on Lee’s elusive, rag-tag army
and the realization of the capture of the capital of the Confederacy (Richmond,
Virginia) finally seemed attainable. But even as the end of the war loomed at
hand, President Abraham Lincoln was haunted day and night with the problems
connected to reuniting the two separate political, social, and cultural entities
that had become bitter enemies during the protracted and destructive war. And of
course, on the fateful night at Ford’s Theater, five days after Lee’s surrender to
Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln’s burdens were abruptly ended with the first-ever
assassination of an American president
In his book, Winik explores the tenuous, twist-and-turn nature of the Civil War
which was rife with critical turning points in the days preceding Appomattox,
“each of which could have shattered a fragile, war-torn America.. . . .Time and
again, things might have gone altogether differently.” (Winik, xiii) Winik
reflects on how vulnerable and embryonic the United States really was at this
juncture in history; he also considers how outcomes of more recent civil wars
(republics of the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and the two-century (if not longer)
long conflict in Ireland, to name just a few) all ended rather badly and “[begot]
a vicious circle of more civil war and more violence, death, and instability.”
(xvi) Amazingly, America avoided the fates that beset so many other countries in
recent years and prior centuries.
As Winik points out in the early chapters of April 1865, secession was a
recurrent issue from the earliest days of the country’s inception throughout the
early decades of the 19th Century: “From 1820 onward throughout the next forty
years, the country lurched from one tense confrontation to another. The
compromises of 1820, 1833, and 1850, the prelude of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of
1854 and of the Wilmot Debates, the firebell of Nat Turner’s rebellion and the
Dred Scott decision. . . Congress would became, in many ways, little more than a
Union-saving body, that and nothing more.” (21) In the shadow cast by the enormity
of the Civil War, it is often overlooked that, for instance, New Jersey “for its
own parochial reasons” also considered seceding from the Union; as did Oregon,
California; even New York periodically contemplated independence as well as
“confederation with the South”. (22) And despite the dreary examples rendered by
war-ravaged South America and the twenty-two separate nations that resulted from
the respective military conflicts fought in Latin America for independence, as
well as the violent throes of the comparatively recent French Revolution, Winik
maintains (as do most historians) that the rupture between the states was
inevitable: “Indeed, in retrospect, it is little wonder that the country didn’t
break up earlier.” (24)
As the United States contemplated the long-brewing issue of secession of the
southern states, newcomer-to-the-national-stage, Winik provides an in-depth view
of the newcomer-to-the-national stage, the “green” Abraham Lincoln, who rapidly
evolved into a nagging concern for the North. As Winik points out, Lincoln’s
preparedness for the presidency itself, let alone during wartime, was in serious
doubt and as the country faced the inevitability of war, many correctly questioned
his readiness to oversee the command of the Union army. Unlike his predecessors
such as George Washington or Andrew Jackson, Lincoln had never commanded a
victorious army, indeed he had never even served in actual combat. Seemingly
foreshadowing the difficulties Lincoln would later experience commanding respect
from military commanders and/or members of his own cabinet, as Winik states: “his
[Lincoln] sole military experience consisted of a paltry eighty days in the Black
Hawk War. After he was “elected” captain of his volunteer company, the first time
he ever gave an order, the soldier snapped back, “Go to Hell”. (241) Drastically
contrasting the West Point-educated Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was severely lacking
in formal education and seemingly conscious of his inferiority, Lincoln fervently
put himself through a “rigid crash course” on the “science and strategy of war”
lugging books on these subjects back to the White House from the Library of
Congress in a desperate quest to place himself on a level playing field with his
peers, as well as subordinates. (244)
Winik also discusses the ups and downs (mostly downs) Lincoln encountered with the
veritable parade of generals Lincoln installed and removed until appointing Hiram
Ulysses Grant to brigadier general of volunteers. Grant, who through a clerical
error at West Point (that Grant inexplicably never corrected) was known as Ulysses
Simpson, was a virtual unknown when he made his rapid ascent to general. In stark
contrast to the established and respected military greatness of General Robert
“Bobby” E. Lee, Grant’s induction into the Federal army was unimpressive After
several failed attempts at requesting a commission in the Union army, one of which
General George McClellan personally repudiated, deeming “himself much too busy and
important to even see him [Grant]. Finally his [Grant’s] own governor appointed
him as a colonel in a volunteer regiment–“the worst in Illinois.” Grant never
looked back.” (171) Winik considers Grant’s seemingly instinctive political savvy
while at the same time appearing to avoid the political limelight and states “But
for all of his unpretentiousness, he also shrewdly reinvented his persona, smartly
trimming his beard, giving up his pipe for his trademark cigar, and calmly
whittled on a stick, while battles were in progress. And he had retained his old
innate genius for reading maps.” (177)
Winik writes late in the war, in March of 1865, Lee “had felt Grant out over
the general issue of peace,” whereupon Lincoln sent Grant a terse but clear,
uncompromising order:”I will deal with political questions and negotiate for
peace. Your job is to fight.”(181) Nevertheless, Winik maintains that at
Appomattox the real responsibility fell to Grant to “evince a deft political and
diplomatic touch, even as he appeared apolitical. Hindsight should not obscure
the potential minefield that Grant was walking into” as Lee’s surrender was at
hand. Whatever fears tormented Lee on the morning of his surrender in connection
with Grant’s terms, “the Union general’s first gesture was astonishingly
conciliatory–and farsighted. Having defeated the gallant Army of Northern
Virginia, U.S. Grant was letting his vaunted foe, Robert E. Lee chose the time and
place of his surrender.” (181) It was Grant, rather than Lee, who was known to
later confess that he was “rather nervous about finally meeting Lee.”
Understandably, Lee was of a considerably different frame of mind; exhausted,
hungry, and having been awake since well before dawn on April 9th, Lee’s spirits
were depressed as he faced “the worst ordeal of his life but [feeling] a solemn
obligation to perform it just the same.” (183)
At the tidy, brick McLean house, the two generals finally saw each other
face-to-face and interestingly as Winik writes that, once again, it was Grant who
was anxious, uneasy, and a bit in awe of Lee. However, Grant, in an effort to put
Lee “at ease” nervously stated: “I met you once before, General Lee, while we were
serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit
Garland’s brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your
appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” (184) Lee
acknowledged recollection of the same occasion, but did not recall Grant
personally and responded coolly, stating: “[I have] tried many times to recollect
how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.” (185)
Winik carefully examines the final battles of the Civil War by comparing and
contrasting the respective mind sets of the two respective armies with that of the
nerve-wrecked Abraham Lincoln who purportedly did not sleep for four days straight
as the Battle of the Wilderness raged. Winik also explores Lincoln’s commitment
to preserve the Union as the author questions whether or not Lincoln truly
comprehended what war meant. Clearly, Lincoln did not expect the war to last long
if anything can be inferred by his first call for a mere 75,000 volunteers;
Lincoln likewise had more than a fair share of blind spots in connection with
underestimating the resolve of the Confederacy as well as not understanding the
hard-edged dynamics of war that “raise passions and harden sides.” (320) Winik
also questions the fact that Lincoln stubbornly ignored assassination threats and
cautionary advice of bodyguards and even proceeded to Ford’s Theater on the night
of April 14th, likening Lincoln’s seemingly reckless abandon to “a man hurling
toward his destiny, without fear or hesitation.” (252) April
1865 is a concise thorough account not only of the critical final days of the
Civil War, including the Lincoln assassination, but of the entire war. Winik
illustrates how the war-wearied country viewed Lee’s surrender with a sigh of
relief, only to be faced a few days later with the horror of Lincoln’s
assassination. Incredibly, from this dark moment in American history came
something of a solemn resolve or sense of unification that helped propel Americans
(with varying political sentiments and views) forward from the memories of the
bloody war years to a period of healing with a pressing, hopeful need to move
toward the future. Winik’s succinct writing style and thorough research makes it
possible for him to compress a plethora of information, rich in important details
concerning both sides of the Civil War into a comparatively short book (388 total
pages) that flows effortlessly and conveys a veritable storehouse of American
history.

Winik, Jay. April 1865 The Month That Saved America. New York: Harper Collins,
2002. Xiii-320.