April 1865 : the month that saved America

by Jay Winik

Paper Book, 2001




New York, NY : Perennial, 2002, c2001.


April 1865 was a month that could have unraveled the nation. Instead, it saved it. Here 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, 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. It was not inevitable that the Civil War would end as it did, or that it would end at all well. Indeed, it almost didn't. Time and again, critical moments could have plunged the nation back into war or fashioned a far harsher, more violent, and volatile peace. Now, in a superbly told story, Winik captures the epic images and extraordinary history as never before. This one month 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 emerges as not just the tale of the war's denouement, but the story of the making of our nation. Provocative, bold, exquisitely rendered, and stunningly original, April 1865 is the first major reassessment of the Civil War's close and is destined to become one of the great stories of American history.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cyderry
At the end of the Civil War, it is startling that so much occurred in the "final" month. The Confederate Army, led by Robert E. Lee, made one last ditch effort to elude the Union forces of Ulysses Grant but on April 9, 1865 surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln lies dead, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and Andrew Johnson is the new President. Confederate General Johnston disobeyed Jefferson Davis' orders to fight on and surrendered to Sherman.

The end of hostilities came in 1865 and possibly, Lincoln would have agreed with Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General, when he said "You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous."

This book relates the details of these events as well as the background that brought about these results. However, IMHO, it is not well written. If this book is to be constituted as a book of historical fact, then it needs to be severely edited. There are far too many personal observations and conclusions interspersed throughout as well as a jumpy writing style. The author frequently leaves one thought process hanging moving on to another and then jumps back to where he left off. I have no doubt that Professor Winik has researched his topic diligently, however, I believe that this book of 606 pages with another 101 of footnotes could have been more concise if the author's opinions had been eliminated and the conclusions left to be evaluated by the reader with just the facts stated.
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LibraryThing member boeflak
Incredible achievement. Makes one almost wish for a time machine to experience such an extraordinary month. Broadens the spotlight on Lincoln's assassination, showing that it was far more extensive and had other victims. Wilkes' plan was to decapitate the entire U.S. government in a single evening - and he nearly succeeded.
LibraryThing member jerryL
Excellent, Excellent, Excellent.
If you don't think history can turn on a dime, this book will change your mind. One of the best I've ever read on the subject...and I'm a bit of a buff, so I do not say that lightly.
LibraryThing member Nodosaurus
April 1865 is about the end of the Civil War. It describes the history that lead to the particular events that occurred, starting with the constitution and continuing through the final surrender. At every step, the lecturer discusses what it means to the nation, as a whole.

Jay Winik, the author and lecturer, is a professor of history and has served in national security. His work has involved him in numerous civil wars around the globe.

I wasn't sure what to make of this, I picked it up at Barnes and Noble during one of their 75%-off sales. My first impression wasn't strong, the lecturer was almost monotonic and the content seemed weak. But that impression was quickly replaced when he provided, not just the historical facts, but full background and motivations; then he made it all sound interesting!

Jay Winik builds the story mostly chronologically, discussing each of a large number of major characters. For each, he provides a background, discusses strengths and weaknesses, and his position in the power and political pictures of the period. He made the people come to life, they were no longer names in a book, but real people. He brought the struggles, defined the relationships between the different people, and build their personalities.

There is so much information that we never learned, I strongly recommend this lecture series for anyone interested in history. For any US Civil War buffs, it is a must.
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LibraryThing member 1967mustangman
Great book. Reviews the events of April 1865. Lots of amaizing interesting stories. Possible Gorrila Warfare. Amzaing cirtumstances that if only one had been different could have swing the outcome of the war.
LibraryThing member bookworm12
It’s unbelievable how much hangs on the simplest details. An error in a shipping order, an individual’s mood, these things can affect the fate of a nation. In April 1865 we’re given an in-depth look at the final days of the Civil War and the resonating effect they had on the USA.

One of the things that stood out to me was how vital the character of the leaders was. If Grant or Lee or some of the others had wanted the war to continue they could have made very different choices. They men on both sides truly wanted peace in the end and their magnanimous actions prevented further bloodshed.

Before reading this I had a pretty good grasp of both Lincoln and Lee’s personal histories, but I knew very little about Grant’s background. This book expanded my knowledge on all three men and gave me a much better understanding of the parts they all played. It also taught me just how controversial some of their decisions were.

Winik’s voice worked well for me. He balanced the details and the big picture, giving just enough of both. He focused on individual’s motivations, not just outcomes. He delved farther back, into the creation of our nation and Jefferson’s role in that, to set the stage for the Civil War. If you want to learn more about the Civil War and America’s history, this book does a wonderful job.
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LibraryThing member Schneider
A fast paced bio-history of the month that altered the course not only of American history, but of world history.
In "April 1865: The Month That Saved America", author Jay Winik breaks down the aforementioned month into the events that took places and the central characters that participated in each event during the month. The entire book is not all about what took place during the fourth month of ’65; the author gives the reader history of a particular subject when needed or required. I found Winik's writing style is very readable and unrelenting. He keeps the imagination fully engaged with the what-ifs, what could have beens, and what was.
I consider this to be a must for any American Civil War enthusiast, history buff, or those who just enjoy a good book.
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LibraryThing member bookchewer
Overwritten and overwrought.
LibraryThing member addunn3
This is an excellent review of the status of the Civil War at its very end. Winik covers the political as well as the military aspects of the period and describes the rather unique path America took to uniting the states into a nation.
LibraryThing member vguy
vivid incidents and portraits of the leading players. colourful occasionally purple writing but insightful too. Intriguing points: The frequency of earlier secession threats by various States before the big one; the Civil War brought that to an end. J Davis was a poor political leader while Lincoln was great one; Lee might well have fought for the North; The risk of continuing partisan warfare after the defeat of the South. The South effectively emancipated their slaves towards war's end - so what were they really fighting for?… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
An interesting concept for a book, and one that seemed to be a refreshing take on the end of the Civil War. Does a good job at illustrating the circumstances around the Civil War, and provides good mini-biographies of many of the major players.

However, the author has made some egregious factual errors (two general Longstreets?), which detract from the book as a whole. Some interpretations of events are also suspect.

Not a bad book, but one that could use some revision and improvements.
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LibraryThing member wb4ever1
One thing we history buffs love is a big, thick book on a subject we love, the kind of deep dive that requires us to plow through hundreds upon hundreds of pages. APRIL 1865, THE MONTH THAT SAVED AMERICA by Jay Winik, is not that kind of history book, and that is just fine. Coming in at just under 400 pages, this is the kind of read that people who can’t manage detailed descriptions of troop movements, battlefield strategy, and lots of exposition will enjoy, while at the same time, satisfy those who have exhausted Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, but still can’t resist going back to the American Civil War one more time. As per the title, Winik’s book deals with the last month of the war, which saw the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s assassination, the capitulation of the last major Confederate forces in North Carolina, and the first halting steps toward a national reconciliation after four years of endless bloodshed, and furious rancor. In the popular imagination, the Civil War ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant in the parlor of the McLean house in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9th, 1865; the rest of the Confederate armies followed Lee’s example, disbanding, with everyone going home, resolving to be one nation again, one filled with good Americans. But Winik sets out to prove this a gross simplification, and that if things had gone just a little different, if revenge and retribution had triumphed in the hearts of the North, or resistance and defiance had steeled the backs of the South, then American history would have been much different.

The book makes the case that by April of 1865, the Confederacy was on its knees, with Grant’s army at the gates of Richmond, and Sherman’s forces marching into North Carolina, but that it was far from beaten, and years of guerrilla warfare, and a bitter resistance to Federal occupation, was a very real option for the Confederate forces still in the field. This kind of war, which would have resulted in unimaginable destruction and loss of life, did hold the possibility of victory for the South, if the North could ultimately be convinced that the price was too great to keep on fighting year after year. Whether this would happen or not, rested not only in the hands of Lee and Grant, but also Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston, and even disreputable characters like Nathan Bedford Forrest, and downright evil ones, like John Wilkes Booth. Winik labors hard to tell us who they were, what brought them to be where they were, and to hold such responsibility at that place and that time, and why what they did matters so much, even after more than a century and a half.

I think Winik makes his points well, giving us not only the who and the where, but very much the why, specifically why the reconciliation that occurred, bitter and grudging on behalf of some, in the final month of the war came about. That these men who fought each other so hard, so long, both Confederate and Union, were sick and tired of war, Winik makes plain, that in their hearts, their fondest desire was to go home to their families, and never again hear a gun fired in anger. And upon this desire to be done with the bloody business of slavery and secession, a new sense of nationhood took root in the United States. That is far from an original conclusion, but I have not seen it better asserted than in Winik’s book.
This book is as much a civics lesson as it is a recounting of history. One can easily quarrel with Winik’s conclusions, as some reviewers have over his handling of slavery, and the challenges of Reconstruction are given only a quick pass, as others have also pointed out, many feeling that this is the real story. These are contentious subjects, and button pushers for many, proving yet again, as William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”
Jay Winik wrote APRIL 1865 twenty years ago now, when America was still enjoying the aftermath of the Cold War; and for me, the cheery conclusion of the book reads like something written before 9/11, the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, before the ferocious tribalism of 21st Century politics. These days we live in virtuous times, where the compromises and hard fought decisions of the past are disdained and dismissed. The complexities and paradoxes of the Civil War have no place in the public square or popular culture. Men who lived and died, and gave their last full measure for a country they loved as much as anyone alive today are found wanting by a modern morality, and judged harshly. APRIL 1865, whatever its faults, is a book that tries to make us understand a very difficult piece of American history, the kind of understanding that leads to common ground, something earlier generations of Americans knew and shared with one another; something forgotten, but perhaps yet remembered.
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
A snapshot of the end of the grand struggle. The maps don't amount to much, but if you're looking for a quick refresher, much tilted towards the south, you will find this book interesting.
LibraryThing member Randyflycaster
APRIL 1865 is a one of the best history book I ever read.

Through detail and imagery Jay Winik brings events and characters to life; and tells an emotionally moving story, partly because he he able to see things from different perspectives and show that there is not always black or white.

In addition, Winik clearly has a take on the forces that drive history. (His book, therefore, has a message. I won't give it away.)… (more)


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