Where the Civil War Ends, The United States of America Begins
Written: Apr 15, 2011 (Updated Apr 15, 2011)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Excellent biographies, military history, and far-reaching consequences of one month in American history.
The Bottom Line: A story of reunification after the worst war in American History, retold by a masterful author.
I'm a history teacher, but I have a curricular confession to make: I don't like the Civil War. Partially because of geography--in the Western U.S., I don't think we have the best understanding of what the Civil War was all about. Additionally, because the Civil War is taught at the end of the same course that teaches everything up to 1877, many teachers skim through it around Memorial Day. As a consequence, I feel like I made it through my secondary and college education without ever having an adequate course on the Civil War. As a teacher, I teach a different course (20th Century History), which means any learnin' on the Civil War is on my own time.
I just finished a book that I was assigned to read to help me out with that, Jay Winik's April 1865: The Month that Saved America. I picked it up with reluctance, but the 2001 bestseller is well-written and soon had me hooked. Winik opens with a beautiful metaphor, comparing Jefferson's Monticello, crumbling by 1860, to the state of the United States. One of Winik's main arguments is that the country, although technically united since 1787, was still a collection of shifting confederacies of states. Various states and regions had threatened to secede several times over different issues; it was only when the South succeeded in 1861 that a civil war finally commenced.
The author focuses on April 1865 as the month that was able to finally begin the unification of the country, and a new destiny as the "real" United States of America. April was the end of the Civil War, the month of Lincoln's assassination, and the beginning of the peace that would shape our country's future. Winik's 460-page book is chronological, with a long introduction that places the month in a historical context with the "big picture" of American history.
Being new to Civil War histories, just about everything in the book was new to me. The sections I liked best were short biographies of key leaders of the war--people I'd heard of, but knew woefully little about. These biographies include Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Nathan Bedford Forrest, William T. Sherman, Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth. Each gets four-to-six pages about their lives up until their entry into Winik's narrative. I knew most about Lincoln and Booth, but the others were all quite revelatory. I came away with more respect for the leaders of the Confederacy than I thought I'd have.
Winik spends more time on the military campaigns winding up the Civil War than I was prepared for, and although he makes the terminology accessible and includes maps that make things more clear, for newcomers to this conflict, it can be overwhelming. The part that was most surprising and disturbing for me was the description of the guerrilla tactics used, mostly by the South. Winik provides a short history of guerrilla warfare, and then provides a few horrific examples of what Mosby, Quantrill and others did to Union soldiers, but also to civilians, women, and children. These actions were officially sanctioned by the Confederacy, but were also disdained by much of the southern leadership.
The descriptions of the events leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are well-described, and the other issues that came because of the death of Lincoln are examined. Things like the issue of presidential succession after a death, which wasn't clearly established in the Constitution; the questionable fitness of Andrew Johnson to become president; and the change in leadership and how it would impact the peace growing out of April 1865.
More than anything, this book changed my understanding and appreciation of Robert E. Lee in the war, but more importantly in the peace. Considering all I knew about General Lee before reading this is that Bo and Luke Duke's car was named after him, it was all new to me. Instead of considering him an enemy, like I have my entire life, I see him now as an honorable leader. I enjoyed Winik's use of anecdotes about Lee after Appomattox Courthouse; instead of continuing a war he couldn't hope to win, Lee encourages his own soldiers and the other Confederate generals to go home. He doesn't dwell on the past or perceived injustices; he goes toward a future that's uncertain, but one that will move forward instead of back.
Whether you know much about the Civil War or not, there's a lot to enjoy in Winik's book. His thesis comes across as solid, and his evidence backs it up well. It's an engaging, interesting book with personal stories and examples, and is a quick read. If you're interested in the Civil War, its causes and consequences, read April 1865.
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