'April 1865': the republic prevailed

April 15, 2001|By Ray Jenkins | By Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

"April 1865: The Month That Saved America," by Jay Winik. HarperCollins. 461 pages. $32.50.

Search the library catalog at any good university under the topic of "Civil War," and you will find around 7,000 titles. Since this means that, on average, one new book has appeared every week since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9,1865, it's understandable that weary readers might groan, "can there be anything left to say?"

The answer is, not a great deal. And in fact, there's not much new information in this highly focused book. But that said, University of Maryland historian Jay Winik more than meets the tests of vigorous narrative and fresh analysis requisite for any new work in the glutted field.

From the perspective of 136 years, 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. True, the Union armies, with overwhelming superiority in men and arms, were on the march, but right up to the moment that Lee and Grant met face-to-face at Appomattox, President Lincoln and his commanders desperately feared that the Confederates would simply take to the hills, hollows and plains to carry on a permanent guerrilla war which would grind down Union resolve much as did the Viet Cong a century later. That is precisely the course Jefferson Davis urged, even as the Confederate president was on the run.

But Lee had has his fill of folly, and his immense popularity and influence ultimately rallied even the most obdurate Confederate generals to follow his counsel rather than Davis'. A nation that had lost 620,000 precious lives at least would be spared more years of low-level war, if not outright gotterdammerung.

The other imponderable during this epochal month was the assassination of Lincoln, barely a week after Lee's surrender. The ensuing national emotional chaos threatened to overwhelm such untested processes as presidential succession -- especially when the successor was so widely viewed as a feckless inebriate. It was not beyond question that the grieving nation might simply chuck the Constitution. Indeed, Winik plausibly hints that the fanatical Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, was poised to become a military dictator bent on vengeance against a prostrate South.

But again it was the generals -- chiefly Grant and Sherman -- who rose to the rescue by clearly acting outside their authority in giving the defeated South the conciliatory terms they believed Lincoln would have extended.

There is a poignant anecdote at the conclusion of the book which superbly captures the enormity of Lee's influence. The time was late spring 1965, and the setting was St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where Richmond's ruined aristocracy still gathered to worship. When the minister called for Holy Communion, a tall, well-dressed black man rose from the section reserved for his race, made his way to the altar, and knelt as the communicants gazed in stunned silence. So, the Richmonders thought, it had come to this: Not only was slavery forever banished, but the former slaves actually considered themselves equals before God Himself.

The terrible tension broke when a careworn but dignified white man strode slowly down to kneel alongside the black man at the chancel rail. That man was Robert E. Lee. Slowly the other congregants followed, "going forward to the altar, and, with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future."

Ray Jenkins began in 1951 as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. He won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun and was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun. His book, "Blind Vengeance," was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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