April 1865: The Month That Saved America

April 1865: The Month That Saved America

4.4 76
by Jay Winik
     
 

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One month in 1865 witnessed the frenzied fall of Richmond, a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare, Lee's harrowing retreat, and then, Appomattox. It saw Lincoln's assassination just five days later and a near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued

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Overview

One month in 1865 witnessed the frenzied fall of Richmond, a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare, Lee's harrowing retreat, and then, Appomattox. It saw Lincoln's assassination just five days later and a near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued bloodshed in the South, and finally, the start of national reconciliation.

In the end, April 1865 emerged as not just the tale of the war's denouement, but the story of the making of our nation.

Jay Winik offers a brilliant new look at the Civil War's final days that will forever change the way we see the war's end and the nation's new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history and filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

Terry Eastland
Winik's command of the war makes the book compelling: an engrossing narrative history, a valuable refresher on how the war ended.
Weekly Standard
San Francisco Chronicle
[A] comprehensive, essential volume ..[the] interviews are like keys to the many rooms of [Ginsberg's] expansive consciousness.
Baltimore Sun
Winik more than meets the tests of vigorous narrative and fresh analysis ... It is easy today to assume that the outcome of the Civil War was inevitable. But as Winik makes clear, no such certitude existed at the beginning of the fateful month of April 1865.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. (Apr. 4) 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 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
April 1865 saw the evacuation of the Confederate capital at Richmond, the surrender of the Confederacy's two major remaining field armies, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. These events (and more) are brought to life in Winik's (public affairs, Univ. of Maryland; On the Brink) provocative narrative of the end of the Civil War. All of the major characters, from Lincoln and Ulysses Grant to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, are here, as are numerous other figures. Sometimes the prose is a little too breezy and breathless, and there are the occasional (minor) factual slips that will cause the veteran reader of Civil War narratives to wince. Nevertheless, it is Winik's willingness to embrace contingency, to ponder alternatives, and to raise thoughtful questions about what did (and did not) happen that raise this account above the typical and increasingly tiresome renditions of the conflict's climax. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Originally published in 2001, Winik's history of the last days of the Civil War emphasizes the implications of one month's events for America's development<-->then and now. He discusses Lee's retreat, Southern plans for guerrilla war, Appomattox, Lincoln's assassination, Northern fears of a coup, and the beginning of national reconciliation. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062029201
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
11/16/2010
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
38,941
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Dilemma

The bells rang that day in Washington. Wherever there were brick bell towers and whitewashed churches, wherever rows of bells hung in ascending niches, wherever the common people could crowd belfries to take turns pulling the ropes, the bells sang. Bells were part of the American tradition. Cast in iron, bronze, copper, and sometimes silver, they rang with a hundred messages: summoning Americans to Sunday services, marking the harvest and holidays, signaling the prosperity of planting, tolling the sadness of death, chiming the happiness of marriage, clanging warnings of fire or flood, or booming out the celebration of victory. Today, they rang with the hint of promise. It was March 4, 1865. Inauguration Day in the Union.

Abraham Lincoln had been at the Capitol since midmorning, forgoing a traditional celebratory carriage ride up Pennsylvania Avenue to sign a stack of bills passed in the waning hours of the lame-duck Congress. He was determined to make his own mark on them before the vice presidential swearing in, scheduled for noon. Cloistered in the Senate wing, tracing and retracing the letters of his name, Lincoln remained the very picture of exhaustion. His face was heavily lined, his cheeks were sunken, and he had lost thirty pounds in recent months. Though only fifty-six, he could easily pass for a very old man. He was sick, dispirited, and even his hands were routinely cold and clammy. And today, the weather itself seemed to be colluding with his foul and melancholy mood. That morning, heavy clouds moved over Washington, as they had the day before and the day before that, whipping thecapital with blasts of rain and wind. Even when the rain let up, the ground didn't. The streets were a sea of mud at least ten inches deep. Still, the people came.

On the following Monday, the inauguration rush would include a grand ball for 4,000: they would waltz and polka to the beat of a military band; feast on an elegant medley of beef, veal, poultry, game, smoked meats, terrapin oysters, and salads; finish with an astounding wartime array of ices, tarts, cakes, fruits, and nuts; and then retire for the evening with steaming coffee and good rich chocolate. But that was for official Washington, for Lincoln's loyalists and Republican Party functionaries. This Saturday was a day for all the Union. And like a great herd, the people were seemingly everywhere.

Their wagons ground to a halt underneath thickets of trees in the distance, and the thud and swish of their feet could be heard along Pierre L'Enfant's wide, radiating avenues. All along Pennsylvania Avenue, they converged, where the crowd stood at least six and eight deep on the crude sidewalks, around Fifteenth Street past the Treasury, where the stars and stripes hung from second-story windows, past Kirkland House and Tenth Street and the National Hotel, where a clutch of handkerchiefs fluttered and gawkers hung out their balconies, and up the steep slope to the Capitol, past the greening swatch of emerald lawns. At street intersections, military patrols formed a watchful guard. So did the Capitol police. Reporters and photographers crowded the stoops, ready to record the event for posterity. Flags waved; people cheered; and the band played. But mostly, the vast throng jostled for position by the east facade of the Capitol, newly capped by its gleaming dome and the towering bronze statue of Freedom, to be near, even to catch a glimpse of the president himself.

Finally, the presidential party moved from the Senate chamber out onto the platform. A roar of applause rose from the crowd as Lincoln made his way to his seat. It dipped and then mounted again as the sergeant-at-arms beckoned, and Lincoln stood, towering over the other men, and made his way to the podium.

As Lincoln rose and moved forward, a blazing sun broke through the gray haze and flooded the entire gathering with brilliant light. Above and below, the collective pulse quickened. ("Did you notice that sunburst?" the president later said. "It made my heart jump.") But whatever ominous portent that moment may have held, it was overshadowed by the more powerful drama of Lincoln's speech. Succinct, only 703 words, eloquent, and memorable, it was reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address, and at this crucial stage of the war, every bit as important. Summoning his waning energies, Lincoln began to read.

As he rode into Richmond, Virginia, on that very same March morning, Robert E. Lee was met with none of the same fanfare. Slipping north from the trench lines ringing Petersburg, he must have felt that, on this particular day, Union troops would be loath to undertake any action. But he had a far more specific reason for journeying to the Confederate capital. Today, he harbored a single, daring plan to reignite the waning fortunes of the Confederacy, to somehow push the eleven states toward eventual independence. And he had come to confer with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the insomniac head of the Southern government, who liked to wage war from his dining room, with maps unfurled and instruments scattered across the table.

Lee's ultimate calculation was as bold as it was simple: abandon Richmond and take his forces south to meet up with General Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Leave U. S. Grant, snugly ensconced in his City Point camp, holding the bag, minus the string. From there, they could continue the war indefinitely.

In the early, predawn hours, Lee had already vetted his options with General John B. Gordon, a shrewd, able warrior and one of his most trusted lieutenants. That meeting had proved to be an eye-opener. A Confederate courier, sent by Lee, had roused Gordon sometime around midnight, and it took the thirty-three-year-old two hours of hard riding in a bitter chill to reach the commanding general at his Edge Hill headquarters, outside Petersburg.

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What People are saying about this

James M. McPherson
Jay Winik's April 1865 captures all the drama and significance in a fast-paced narrative full of larger-than-life characters: Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee, Sherman and Johnston—and John Wilkes Booth. Here is a book that fully measures up to the importance of its subject.
—(James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom)

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