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April 1865-The Month that Saved the Union
Jay Winik
Atlanta had been overwhelmed. Columbia had been surrendered and burned. Charleston had been abandoned.
The peace conference at Hampton Roads had been fruitless. And the British and the French had refused to intervene.
The Army of Northern Virginia, after striking its own harsh blows against the Union in the six bloodiest weeks of the
war, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, had wriggled free of the enemy's clutches and fallen back, converging in a
defensive position around Petersburg and Richmond.
Across the slim divide of the battered landscape lay Grant's swelling Army of the Potomac. It was the
Confederacy's direst crisis since the start of the war, vaster than the fall of Vicksburg, more terrible than the failure at
Gettysburg, and more traumatic than the toll of Sharpsburg. This time, the South stood irrevocably alone. But as smoky
light filtered off the James River below Richmond, a strange emotion prevailed throughout much of the Confederacy. It
was, Southerners knew, not the first time in history that defenders had been pitifully whittled down into pieces by
attacking legions, cut in half, starved, demoralized, enervated, and yet somehow had found the will to prevail. They still
had four armies in the field, and man for man some of the finest fighting men in all of the history of warfare. Their
guerrilla fighters and cavalry were second to none. Their lineage, they reminded themselves, was impeccable,
stretching from the Jamestown colonists of 1607 to the Founding Fathers of 1776, and included George Washington
himself. This kindled and rekindled their dwindling resolve. So did their prayers. And so did their own spirit, however
waning. And so fervent were they in their desire to earn their independence that after an extensive, protracted debate,
they had even held out the promise of freedom to any black man who would fight for their cause.
Now, confronted by the dreaded prospect of losing all, they looked to their leadership, for another George
Washington, a figure who could rescue the South, In these desperate times, after all the suffering and death, after the
multitude of exhaustion and despair, such a man-or such men-was the Confederacy's final chance.
In the trenches of Petersburg, there was such a man, and across the Confederacy, there were such men. As a
weary Abraham Lincoln, who had braced the Union when the blood was thick and victory seemed lost, so deeply
feared, Robert F. Lee and the generals who looked to him for leadership, and a good many of the Confederate citizens
who looked to him for guidance, were as aggressive as ever: not ready to give up, to give in, or to relinquish their
Confederate identity burnished in the fires of war. This war was not over. Not by a long shot. And the implications for
the peace to follow were profound.
It is the eve of April 1865.
Even today, what followed in the remaining days of the Civil War seems almost miraculous. 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.
Too often, it is at a small red brick house in Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865-Robert F. Lee's fateful
meeting with U. S. Grant-that the story of the Civil War stops. Yet this is a mistake. For one thing, the war was still not
over; it could have lasted several more hard months, even years. For another, no period was more harrowing, or had so
great an impact upon this country, as the days that followed Lee's surrender. Within six days, Abraham Lincoln was
dead, the first-ever assassination of an American president. Never before or since in the life of this nation has the
country been so tested as in this one week alone. Nor have so many tales of human drama and so many remarkable
events-surrender and assassination but two among them-occurred with such breathtaking simultaneity and far-reaching
consequences, within a simple span of some thirty or 50 days.
Indeed, the whole of 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. Consider a few unforgettable images: this one month witnessed the poignant, frenzied fall of the rebel
capital at Richmond and its government on the run; Lincoln's unprecedented walk through Richmond the next
afternoon, as the city still smoldered and burned and its newly freed blacks brushed him with their hands; one of the
most savage battles of the war, fought along Sayler's Creek, and the daring-and daunting-prospect of the South forming
guerrilla groups to press the conflict and bleed the North, with grave, long-term consequences. It saw Lee's defiant
efforts to head south and reunify with General Joe Johnston, while fervently proclaiming "we must all determine to die
at our posts"; the Army of Northern Virginia force-marching in a labored, hurried retreat, an unduly complicated effort
marked by heart-breaking mistakes, remarkable stoicism, and near split-second decisions with cataclysmic results;
Lee's reluctant yet dignified surrender to Grant at Appomattox, accompanied by Grant's equally dignified, and largely
unprecedented, handling of his fallen foe, a masterful act that set the tone for the rest of the war and the peace to come.
It glimpsed Lincoln's eerie premonitions of death just days before his own assassination, followed by the successful
plot to kill the president and a near-successful plot-foiled only at the last moment-to decapitate the entire Union
government, threatening the revival of more ruinous war. And while sporadic fighting continued in the South, the
Union was plunged into near chaos as the first-ever presidential transfer of power in a crisis commenced, amid
widespread hysteria and rage, with the inauguration of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, an illiterate until age twentyone, who had met with Lincoln only once since the inauguration. This one month also beheld an angry nationwide
search for John Wilkes Booth, while intensive on-again, off-again negotiations were waged over a ten-day span to
produce General Johnston's eventual surrender to William Tecumseh Sherman-as other rebel generals and would-be
guerrillas in the Deep South, in the backwoods, and in the Far West watched, waited, and pondered their next steps.
And, of course, it ushered in the start of the nation's reunification,
But even as the war climaxed to a close, there remained the most significant question of all-one that had
consumed Abraham Lincoln, haunted him, kept him awake at night, and etched lines of worry deep in his face: not
simply how to subjugate the Confederacy by force of arms, but, more importantly, how to reunite two separate
political, social, and cultural entities that had been bitter military enemies just days before. There is "no greater task
before us," Lincoln bluntly told his cabinet, or for that matter, before "any future Cabinet." In truth, this was the
foremost challenge of April 1865. This accomplishment-two nations becoming one-perhaps among the most
momentous of all time, makes the story of April 1865 not just the tale of the war's denouement but, in countless ways,
the story of the making of our nation.
For historians, it is axiomatic that there are dates on which history turns, and that themselves become packed
with meaning. For the English, it is 1066, the bittersweet year of the Norman Conquest and the beginning of the most
widely spoken language across the globe today. For the French, there is the powerful symbol of 1789, marking the
dawn of liberty and equality, and, just as accurately, the stunning transition between the old order and modern French
society. For Americans, one magic number is, of course, 1492, the year marking the discovery of America, which is to
say its Europeanization, or 1776, the American Declaration of Independence. But April 1865 is another such pivotal
It was not inevitable that the American Civil War would end as it did, or for that matter, that it would end at all
well. Indeed, what emerges from the panorama of April 1865 is that the whole of our national history could have been
altered but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate, a sudden shift in luck. Throughout this period, there were critical turning
points, each of which could have shattered a fragile, war-torn America, thrusting the new nation back into renewed war,
or, even worse, into a protracted, ugly, low-level North-South conflict, or toward a far harsher, more violent, and
volatile peace, with unpredictable results. Time and again, things might have gone altogether differently. For instance,
we are sorely mistaken if we believe that Lee had no options after the fall of Richmond or if we assume that his final
retreat could have ended only in wholesale capitulation. Or, as opposed to what 200 years of smooth constitutional
government may lead us to think, we would be equally mistaken if we believe that the constitutional provisions guiding
the Union cabinet-as it prepared to hand power over to Andrew Johnson-were anything but awkward, uncertain, and
exasperatingly unclear.
In truth, one cannot understand how the nation came together without seeing the element of choice and
uncertainty, or what historians often call "contingency," that hung over every dramatic event in April: from the final
military battles to the diplomatic meetings, from the weighty political decisions to the tense presidential succession,
from the deep and drastic social dislocations in the South to the raw nerves and excitement in the North. History is not
a random sequence of events, and never more so than here. In a sense, the story of April 1865 is not just one of
decisions made, but also one of decisions rejected. Lee's decision concerning guerrilla warfare, with immense if not
unforeseen ramifications, was one such decisive moment; Grant's choice to be magnanimous at Appomattox was
another; and then, of course, there is the first-ever assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, itself an unthinkable
event. In light of the panic and chaos that followed, crucial questions remained. Would Southern leaders seek to take
advantage of this moment of fleeting weakness? Or find new spirit in the North's woes?
And would Northerners now flirt with government by cabinet, as they had when John Tyler succeeded
William Henry Harrison? Or inch toward military or autocratic rule, as some, cabinet members included, feared? Or
would they impose far harsher terms upon the South and the remaining Confederate soldiers? And finally, there are the
subtle but powerful efforts not just of Lincoln, whose wisdom and foresight shine in these days as vividly as at any
other time in his career, but al50 of high ranking military men, North and South, to resist what one historian has labeled
the "hoarse cry of vengeance," and instead do their part in peace, to help heal the country.
Ever since the founding of the republican experiment in 1776, the United States was still very much a fragile
entity, and each generation was fearful of its prospects for survival. They knew that most republics throughout history
had been overthrown by revolution, or had collapsed into dictatorship or civil war, or had succumbed to uncontrollable
anarchy. The same fate, they feared, could be theirs. And their fears were hardly unfounded; history, then and now, is
littered with bad endings. As Lincoln said, the Civil War was a time of "great testing." In many ways, never were the
temptations or threats for an imperfect peace, or a time of unbridled enmity, or a protracted low-grade North-South
conflict, or even the allure of dictatorship, greater than in the final month, Whatever may have followed later, in these
most crucial of days, none of this happened. How this came about is an important, and neglected, story of America.
In the end, only after each such concatenation draws into focus does April 1865 come to be seen as not simply
a crucial and coherent period of the Civil War in its own right, but as an essential cornerstone in the events that
ultimately brought America together. To understand this is to grasp something precious: it is to see our country anew.
This work is, of sorts, a labor of love, and a culmination of some two decades of reflection. I nearly wrote my
doctoral dissertation at Yale, under the tutelage of Professor Bruce Russett, on a topic closely akin to this book. In the
years that followed, my career was largely focused on thinking about war, military strategy, and U.S. national security
policy, not simply in academic settings but in government, as an adviser to congressmen, senators, and two secretaries
of defense. In contemplating contemporary U.S. policies and possible strategies for the future, I invariably sought
lessons and guideposts from the past. However, what always struck me as the most vexing question was not simply the
phenomenon of war itself, but of civil war, that most difficult of all wars, and the most formidable of all tasks: how to
bring peace to countries in the wake of a civil war's bloody aftermath.
Some of my earliest-and greatest-impressions about civil war occurred firsthand. While a longtime adviser to
the late congressman and defense secretary Les Aspin, and while a senior staff member with the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, I had the chance to witness up close a number of civil wars around the globe: Cambodia, the
former Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, El Salvador. I walked in the Nicaraguan jungles; I rode in armored cars through the
bloodstained streets of El Salvador; but perhaps most formative of my informal training about civil war, and still quite
fresh, was what I saw in the strife-torn cities and refugee camps of Cambodia, the home of the Killing Fields and quite
likely the worst example of civil war in the twentieth century. I spent much of 1989 and 1990 working to help quell a
renewed Cambodian conflict, and our painstaking efforts produced tentative success: the civil war burned itself out, the
dreaded bloodbath was avoided, and a genuine, albeit still frail, national reconciliation began.
And over the last decade, it is with a sense of sorrow that I have watched the outbreak or renewal of other civil
wars across the globe, from Indonesia to the African continent, from Afghanistan to the republics of the former Soviet
Union. Yet one should not mistake the malignancy of civil war as being simply a Third World phenomenon. The
recurrence of bloody conflict in the Balkans, for decades an island of stability and economic activity in Eastern Europe,
is vivid testimony to that fact, as is the lingering "Irish question;' which has eluded resolution not simply for four years,
but for a good two centuries. Such events tragically highlight an enduring rhythm of history. Far too many civil wars
end quite badly, and beget a vicious circle of more civil war and more violence, death, and instability.
But these civil wars are not ours; ours, ultimately, was quite different indeed. Why? That question, and
perhaps the lesson for the rest of the world, and certainly for us, is how a young and still embryonic America avoided
the terrible and tragic fate that has beset so many other countries wracked by civil conflict, in this and previous
centuries. Why this is so-and how-is also at the center of this book, and what further impelled me to write it.
Jay Winik
Chevy Chase, Maryland