Jim's Reviews > April 1865: The Month That Saved America

April 1865 by Jay Winik
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's review
Sep 22, 2008

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bookshelves: history, non-fiction
Read in October, 2008

This book had its moments, but more than a few times I felt like puttiing it aside. I had some strong reservations, which I detail below.

Jay Winik's book is an account of the final month of the Civil War and the significance of those events in US history, particularly regarding ideas of national identity. Winik contends that the United Sates, at its founding, was something of an artificial creation. It was not a nation in the European sense, one that developed organically, based in a common ethnicity and culture. Instead, it was based on a set of ideas, which were open to interpretation and argument. Basically, Winik sees the period covered in his book as a watershed, in which the very fate of the Republic was decided. More particularly, he contends that events of that time created a united nation.

He opens his book with an examination of the theoretical meaning of America, as propounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and his idealization of the yeoman farmer. The major flaw in Jefferson's "Empire of Liberty" was slavery. The irony was that Jefferson was a slaveholder who also abhored the institution of slavery. Indeed, Jefferson saw it as a real danger, perhaps the main danger, to the development of American society.

As Shelby Foote has pointed out, the Civil War was not about state's rights, as such, rather it was about one right in partictular: slavery. There had been secessionist agitation prior to the Confederacy. Southern secession was the most serious version, but New England, the Pacific coast states, the Old Northwest had all argued for separation at one time or another. As Foote has argued, however, all of the inter-regional conflicts that fell within the rubric of state's rights were resolved in compromise. Slavery was the one issue that the country could not resolve. It permeated and poisoned everything else, making true national unity impossible.

In his narrative, Winik focuses on several major historical actors: the opposing presidents Lincoln and Davis, as well as the generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Johnston. Abraham Lincoln's desire to rebuild the nation, and not to punish the South, is the emphasis of Winik's narrative. Preservation of the Union was Lincoln's primary concern; however, as the war went on, he came to believe that Jeffersonian ideals of liberty and equality were the only reliable bases for continued nationhood. The logic of this position meant that slavery had to be abolished.

As the Civil War entered its fourth year, the fear of many in the North was that Southern forces, unable to defeat Northern armies in the field, would shift to guerrilla warfare. Winik uses the example of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to illustrate potential Southern capabilities in that endeavor. Rather than restoring the Union, the United States would be compelled to impose martial law on Southern states indefinitely and wage a long, bitter anti-guerrilla war. Indeed, this was Jefferson Davis's hope for perserving some sort of Confederate independence.

The author details how Grant and Sherman sought to carry out the wishes of their commander-in-chief by giving generous terms to their adversaries, in exchange for surrender. Robert E. Lee's attitude was crucial in this process. Uniquely, among Confederate leaders, he had the moral authority to convince his compatriots to give up the fight and to absolve them of guilt and shame for their surrender. His example led even firebrand Nathan Bedford Forrest to follow suit. In an impressive life, Lee's actions at war's end were his most noble.

Winik's book has some weaknesses in style and historical analysis. In terms of style, he has tendency to overuse metaphors and similes, stringing one after another, a legion of metaphors, marching across the page, an Army of the Potomoc, a veritable column of marching symbolisms, like Hannibal's advance through the Alps of historical narrative...(You get the idea.) He also likes to string lists of analogous names or events together, for example, comparing a Civil War general's leadership to a list of past commanders, without doing anything more than name dropping. I found this annoying and skipped over it.

For the most part, Winik's book is readable and his conclusions are sound, although not especially original. (Most of this can be found in the works of other historians.) My main problem was the way Winik skewed evidence to fit his central argument, especially with the way he handled the issue of slavery.

First, let me state that Winik is not offering a justification for the slave system. He joins many other historians in showing that slavery was a political, social, and moral issue so intractible that the framers of the Constitution were forced to make strained, untenable compromises to balance the interests of pro- and anti-slave positions. Slavery was tied up in rights of states to order their internal affairs and in rights of property. It was such a pernicious problem that it took the upheaval of war to create a situation in which it could be dealt with effectively.

Where Winik goes wrong, I think, is that he mainly deals with slaveholding as a theoretical abstraction. When he deals with the on-the-ground reality of slavery, he seems to soften the image of it. Throughout the book, he persists in using the old Southern term servants instead of slaves. Calling them "servants" was a way Southerners rationalized and denied the true nature of their social system.

Winik also makes much of the movement in the South, that emerged during the war, to offer slaves emancipation in exchange for military service. While he mentions the widespread Southern opposition to this idea, most of his cited quotes are from people who prioritized Confederate independence over a continuation of the slave system. The emphasis is on Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, who argued in favor of raising black troops, rather than those against.

Lastly, Winik portrays the relations between slaveholders and slaves in an unbalanced way. He makes much of the paternally benevolent attitude held by some slaveowners. Jefferson Davis, for example, treated his slaves with respect, refrained from physical punishment, and maintained a higher than normal quality of life for his slaves. Winik makes much of this, as well as the devotion many slaves had for their masters. While he mentions that these attitudes and practices were exceptional, he never presents the inhumanity of slavery with any detail.

As I stated earlier, Winik is not trying to give the slaveholding South a pass. Unlike Southern apologists, he does not argue that slavery was tangential and that the war was really about states rights. Winik has mainly done what a lot of writers do; that is, he has squeezed and subverted his facts to better fit his main theme: that the events of the war crystalized in such a way that the two sections emerged as a unified country. As such, he wants to emphasize points of agreement, rather than continued division. As such, he downplays the violence perpetrated by white Southerners during the postwar period and after, as well as the majority Southern opinion that supported it.

Still, Winik's book is a decent, accessible account of an important point in US history, packed with a lot of interesting information. His contribution is to remind us that events were not inevitable even if, in hindsight, we view the South as all but defeated in April, 1865. Winik shows how events were not destined to occur as they did, but were brought about as the result of choices made in the context of a confusing, complicated situation.
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Noah Klein Excellent review. You have perfectly delineated my concerns with this book. The problem with skewed histories like this is that while they are generally correct, they tend to portray an image that is not accurate and which pervades the public's mind.

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