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April 1865: The Month That Saved America

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Jay Winik

There are a few books that belong on the shelf of every Civil War buff: James M. McPherson'sBattle Cry of Freedom, one of the better Abraham Lincoln biographies, something on Robert E. Lee, perhaps Shelby Foote's massive trilogyThe Civil War. Add Jay … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Jay Winik
Genre: History
Publisher: Harper Perennial
1 review about April 1865: The Month That Saved America

An April to remember

  • Mar 9, 2008
Rating:
+5
Winik's account of April 1864 could serve as a textbook example of how to write narrative history. He uses the events of the month as a framework within which to draw together the great historical threads that he posits were resolved that fateful month:

--The conception of America as one nation, the transition to "the United States" as a singular, not plural noun.

--The long history of threatened secession from all geographical and political quarters of the country in its brief history, and the locus of patriotic feeling in the states and not the country up to that time. As Winik reminds us, most states had a history, a political existence, and a citizenry who had demonstrated their loyalty well before they were part of the union of states that was seen as a federation of more (Lincoln's great thought) or less (the states rights position) binding power.

--The problem of Presidential succession after the death of a President, a Constitutional gray area that Winik examines to pull out the interesting insight that Chief Justice Salmon Chase also reviewed the Constitution and the slim precedents available to him in the tense hours after Lincoln's death.

--The real risk of the dissolution of the Civil War into a shadow country's guerrilla warfare carried on by the 100,000 Confederate soldiers still under arms even after Lee's surrender. Winik uses his sources and well-written arguments to remove the reader from the perfect hindsight of settled history back to the time when some Confederate politicians (Jefferson Davis among them), journalists, and (surprisingly few) military leaders counseled this very path. He shows how the actions and words of Lincoln, Lee, Grant, and Sherman were directed toward the prevention of this never-ending nightmare, and how Joseph Johnston's willingness to ignore the order of Jefferson Davis to withdraw to Texas to continue the fight as a guerrilla leader may have been the key piece palliative to this waking dream of horror.

Winik writes novelistic narrative to frame the subject and drive the action to a crisis in April 1865, then freeze-frames the present and draws the camera back and away to the broader landscape and scope of his thesis. These flashbacks actually constitute the meat of the book, but Winik never forgets the framework, or the reader's emotional suspension at the point of crisis, so he zooms back into the freeze-frame and completes the action in a way that keeps the reader's mind and emotions fully engaged.

Next, I will read and review Winik's newest narrative The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, with larger scope and more pages. Look for my review to follow there in about two weeks.

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