A Review of April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, 2007, All Rights Reserved

Every once in awhile, a Civil War book makes it to the bestseller lists, appealing to a broader audience than history fans. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was one such book, in its day. So was Shelby Foote’s magnificent trilogy, The Civil War. And so, too, is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s book was on The New York Times bestseller list for quite awhile, and President Bush was seen with it tucked under his arm not long after 9-11.

However, I come not to praise Winik, but to bury him. April 1865 just isn’t a very good book. The author has neither the writing skills nor the commitment to historical accuracy, unfortunately, to craft a good book about that momentous month.

Winik, a college professor and former congressional and Pentagon staffer, describes the last month of the Civil War as “the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.” He writes, “April 1865 is a month that could have unraveled the American nation. Instead, it saved it. It is a month as dramatic and as devastating as any ever faced in American history – and it proved to be perhaps the most moving and decisive month not simply of the Civil War, but indeed, quite likely, in the life of the United States.” Winik retells all the familiar stories of the last days of the war, arguing that the decisions made by President Abraham Lincoln, Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, and John Wilkes Booth, had a tremendous impact on the immediate postwar era and in all the years since.

From Lincoln’s policy of “letting ’em up easy” and not imposing harsh Reconstruction terms on the states of the defeated Confederacy, to Grant’s pursuing that policy at Appomattox, to Lee’s decision not to wage guerilla warfare despite the urging of many around him, to Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln when the Confederate cause otherwise seemed all but lost, the decisions of these men shaped the country in which we now live. Winik notes how easily things could have gone differently, and how much worse the aftermath of the Civil War might have been, with endless guerilla warfare, reprisals, persecution, and civil strife fatally wounding the young republic. He’ll get no argument from me there, although it’s hardly an original hypothesis.

Unfortunately, Winik is a poor writer, with an often hyperbolic and overwrought style. He makes every point with a sledgehammer. Twice in two pages he tells us that Lincoln was the “first ever” assassinated president. He writes that the war “climaxed to a close,” that the U.S. Constitution was “quite unique,” that Lincoln was “rather unique,” and that the Framers were (take a deep breath now) “boldly obliged to repudiate a political axiom that had behind it the domineering authority” of Montesquieu. Whew. Everything about which Winik writes seems to be the biggest, most important, most earth-shattering, most significant…whatever. Sometimes it seems that every other sentence should end with an exclamation point. Winik also has several irritating writing tics, such as using “Unionists” and “Union troops” synonymously.

The author also commits serious errors of historical judgment and emphasis. He’s overly critical of Sherman and his policy of total war, making Sherman and his men seem little better than Visigoths and (other than in his endnotes) overlooking much recent scholarship on how carefully calibrated and measured Sherman’s waging of war actually was. Sherman’s men did not, for instance, “massacre able-bodied males” in Atlanta or send “the city library and archives…up in flames, for the sheer naked joy of it.” Winik is also far too sympathetic to the Southern view of secession and its consequences. Did secessionism have earlier antecedents in New England than in the South? Certainly. Would an objective historian find that the U.S. Constitution “appeared to be largely on [the South’s] side,” and that Confederate secession was “but one more thread of a very long, even honorable rope in American…history”? Hardly. Winik consistently downplays the significance of slavery as a root cause of the war, and grossly overstates the Confederate leadership’s willingness to free and arm slaves.

He also makes factual errors, both large and small. The Jamestown settlers’ ship in 1607 was the Susan Constant, not the Sarah Constant. John Brown was not “summarily executed,” as Winik writes, but was convicted after a trial (whose outcome was, to be sure, almost preordained). Simon Cameron was Lincoln’s first secretary of war, not of the treasury. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had not been awarded the Medal of Honor by the time of the surrender at Appomattox, and he was not a brigadier general then, but a brevet major general. Benjamin Wade was a U.S. Senator and not a Congressman throughout the Civil War. Salmon P. Chase, as Chief Justice, was not a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet. Winik misspells the names of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Secretary of State William Seward, and Confederate Senator Robert Toombs. In his acknowledgements the author thanks five people, by name, for proofreading his manuscript, but errors like these make me wonder what else he got wrong that I didn’t even notice. Did Lincoln drop in on General George Pickett’s astonished wife and infant while visiting Richmond? Did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton actually tender his resignation to Lincoln in the last days of the war? Winik says they did, but I’ve never read these things anywhere else, and I have little confidence in the author’s ability to get such details right.

In his celebration of Southern heroes like Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Lee, Winik ignores those Southerners like David Farragut, George Thomas, Sam Houston, and Andrew Johnson who remained loyal to the Union. He quotes Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Lincoln to good effect, however. During the Feb. 3, 1865 Hampton Roads conference aboard the steamer River Queen, Stephens said, “Mr. President, if I understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman,” to which Lincoln replied, “Yes…that is about the size of it.” Fortunately, the better angels of Lincoln’s nature led him away from any bloodthirsty retribution. The author draws on his personal familiarity with the aftermath of far too many Third World civil wars to show just how lucky we were that our own ended as well as it did.

To give him his due, Winik writes interesting, concise, and largely accurate portraits of the major figures of the war, and has a thoughtful chapter on those innovative figures of postwar American society – Sam Clemens, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and others – whose lives might have been cut short, or wastefully diverted, had the war descended into a fratricidal guerilla war. He explores the evolution of the law on presidential succession, correctly noting that Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s assumption of power had the potential, under the circumstances of the times, to lead to a debilitating constitutional crisis. Winik writes in true Dickensian style, “April 1865 was marked by tumult and bloodshed, heroism and desperation, freedom and defeat, military prowess and diplomatic magnanimity, jubilation and sorrow, and, finally, by individual and national agony and joy.”

This is some of his best writing, and his essential point is sound: April 1865 was a key month in American history, when the national die was cast for many years to come. For a far better exploration of the subject, however, I recommend Noah Andre Trudeau’s Out of the Storm.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

From Publishers Weekly: Though the primary focus of this book is the last month of the Civil War, it opens in the 18th century with a view of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Winik (whose previous book, On the Brink, was an account of the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War) offers not just a study of four weeks of war, but a panoramic assessment of America and its contradictions. The opening Jeffersonian question is: does the good of the country take precedence over that of the individual states? The question of civil union or civil war is the central question of this new work. Winik goes on to describe how a series of events that occurred during a matter of weeks in April 1865 (the fall of Richmond; Lee’s graceful surrender to Grant at Appomattox, and Grant’s equally distinguished handling of his foe; Lincoln’s assassination), none of them inevitable, would solve Jefferson’s riddle: while a loose federation of states entered the war, what emerged from war and Reconstruction was a much stronger nation; the Union had decisively triumphed over the wishes of individual states. Winik’s sense of the dramatic and his vivid writing bring a fitting flourish to his thesis that April 1865 marked a turning point in American history: “So, after April 1865, when the blood had clotted and dried, when the cadavers had been removed and the graves filled in, what America was asking for, at war’s end, was in fact something quite unique: a special exemption from the cruel edicts of history.” Winik’s ability to see the big picture in the close-up (and vice versa), and to compose riveting narrative, is masterful. This book is a triumph. Forecast: Popular history at its best, this book should appeal widely to readers beyond the usual Civil War crowd. Strong endorsements from a group of noted historians, including James M. McPherson and Douglas Brinkley, along with a 10-city author tour, should also help both review coverage and sales. (Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.)

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.