Book Review: April 1865 by Jay Winik

At long last, I was able to finish a book!  I’ve had a lot taking up all my time lately – work, helping out family, half marathon training, the deck and sometimes just vegging out in front of the TV.  But it feels like this one has been a long time coming.

The book is April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik.  And true to its title, it is a non-fiction exploration into the events of… April 1865!  The April 1865 when the Civil War ended (mostly) and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  Prior to becoming an author, Winik had a distinguished government career in foreign policy (working in Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cambodia during their civil wars).  His experience on the ground during these conflicts gives him a unique perspective.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

The book examines in detail the events that occurred that month, beginning with the lead up to Lee’s surrender on April 9th, continuing with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, Joe Johnston’s surrender on April 26th, and John Wilkes Booth capture and death, also on April 26th.  Winik discusses events candidly and without bias.  He describes the respectful way that Grant treated Lee and the Army of Virginia and the grace in which Lee returned to his civilian life and provided a role model to Southerners.  Lee’s way of encouraging soldiers and civilians alike to set aside the differences of the last four years in order to make a lasting peace must have made a huge difference in the days after the war.

Winik details an incident in a church, where a black man goes to receive communion in Richmond, VA, and does not wait until whites have finished.  The congregation is stunned, and while the minister to trying to decide what to do, Lee stands up and quietly kneels to accept communion with the man.  I never knew this before, but it fits with everything I have read about Lee.  Although he was a defeated General, his character was unequaled.

Lincoln’s assassination will be old news for most readers; there really isn’t anything new there.  But Winik doesn’t gloss over the rage that overwhelmed the public sentiment, and President Johnson’s shortcomings with the reconstruction process.  The reader certainly picks up on the impression that Winik conveys; the aftermath of the war and the reunification of the nation would have been dramatically different had Lincoln lived.  We will never know quite how, but the struggles that blacks faced during slavery and the black codes of reconstruction still have an impact to this day.

Joe Johnston’s surrender and Jefferson Davis’ retreat through confederate territory are also well documented in the book.  While Davis was on the run from Union officials, going deeper and deeper into the South, he had given orders to his Generals to prepare for a guerrilla war.  Thankfully, Johnston defied Davis’s orders and surrendered to Sherman.  After hearing of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a genius of guerilla warfare, also chose to surrender.  The outcome could have been very different if these two Confederate Generals had decided to continue to wage war from the woods and swamps of the South.

I have to admit, parts of the book are a bit slow – that probably has something to do with why it took me so long to finish it.  Winik’s style can be a bit disjointed – each time he introduced a new character, he would stop and introduce the character with several pages of biography.  While it is helpful to have the background, it really interrupts the flow of the book.  It would have been better to weave those details into the narrative.  But overall it is a well-written perspective on a small slice of American history.  It will be too focused for people who aren’t very interested in the Civil War, but Civil War enthusiasts should appreciate it.

Have you read it?  What did you think?

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