April 1865 & Civil War Trivia – Reviews

Jay Winik. April 1865: The Month that Saved America. New York: Harper, 2001. Print.

Webb Garrison. Civil War Trivia and Fact Book. Nashville: Nelson, 1992. Print.

I had heard about April 1865—the book, that is—for some time. I came across a copy and picked it up. It is well worth reading.

It does pretty much focus on the major events of April 1865 which settled the American Civil War and set a rough direction for reunion. Nearly half the book deals with the events that lead to the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses Grant and the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox. The book emphasizes that if a few minor details had been different, there might not have been any surrender at this time.

We get fairly detailed back stories on both Lee and Grant, and though they were different in background and temperament, they were both men of honor. Grant had been instructed by President Lincoln to be magnanimous. Lee understood that he could have kept a guerrilla war going for years in the remote areas of the Confederacy, but it would have led to greater hostility and needless bloodshed.

Winik reminds us the most civil wars do not end in such a manner. Usually the losing side is found guilty of treason and the principals are exterminated. Any remaining guerrillas brutalize their victims. As Lenin is to have said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.”

April 1865 reminds us of the hopes that Lincoln expressed in his Second Inaugural Speech the month before: “With malice toward none and charity toward all.” It looked like that was going to be happening.

Of course, Lincoln could not see his vision fulfilled because on April 14 he was shot. Winik reminds us that the Constitution was somewhat vague on actual succession, and when William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841, there was some controversy over what should happen next. Fortunately, a precedent had been set when Tyler took over back then, so that in 1865 there was little dispute that Andrew Johnson should be the new president. (The current succession system only came about with the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967.)

We get some interesting background on Johnson as well. He was a career politician and a true Jacksonian. That helped him get elected, but it made him unpalatable to many of the Northern elites. Still, he was the only senator from a seceding state that stuck with the Union, and he made an effective if unusual running mate for Lincoln in 1864.

Meanwhile, the other main Confederate Army in the Carolinas led by Joe Johnston was still very active. Sherman was running him down, but Jefferson Davis was telling Johnston to hold out and not surrender under any terms. Sherman offered terms similar to those Grant offered Lee, but the new administration said the terms were too generous. Finally, by the third round, Johnston surrendered. His men, too, were disarmed but allowed to return home without consequences.

Johnston and Lee were of like minds when it came to the idea of a guerrilla force. Davis was not. Indeed, Johnston had in fact directly disobeyed Davis’s instructions. But at that point Davis was on the run and there was little he could do about it.

With the surrender of the two largest Confederate armies, the other army leaders of the South would follow suit. Winik provides evidence that Nathan B. Forrest, for example, would have been willing to keep fighting, but when he saw what was happening, he did the same. No, it did not mean that North and South would hold hands and sing Kumbyah, there was still a lot of mistrust and animosity, but the United States was set in a new direction.

One story Winik recounts perhaps reveals the sense of the new direction. The large Episcopal Church in Richmond had a priest who supported the Confederacy. Blacks were members of the congregation, but they had to sit separately from the white people and could not take communion until the whites were done. After Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, the first person to go forward for communion was black. For a noticeable time, no one else joined him. The priest looked upset but said nothing. Finally a well-known white visitor to the church went forward to join his black brother. It was Robert E. Lee. After that, there was no more segregated communion. It also demonstrates Lee’s willingness to acknowledge the new realities.

Winik points out that Lincoln very deliberately spoke of the United States as a nation. Till this time, that was not the way even most Americans saw themselves. The word nation implies a common culture and history and tradition. Most writers and speakers prior to the war would speak of the United States in the plural as “the United States are.” Since the war, we speak of it in the singular, as I did in the previous paragraph, “the United States was,” not “were.”

We get a little background of John Wilkes Booth and the members of his plot. Booth had some hope that assassinating the leaders of the government would force the Union to set the Confederate States free. Clearly that did not happen because there was still something of a national identity. It also is true that most of the South had been devastated by the war in a way that the North had not.

At times the language of April 1865 gets a bit florid. Each time Colonel George Custer is mentioned we are told about his long yellow hair. Still, that is a minor distraction.

The last chapter summarizes the book eloquently. It is one of the finest essays on the American Civil War. If the reader were just to read the last chapter, the book will have been well worth picking up.

Civil War Trivia is what it says it is. The entire book is written in catechetical or question-answer format. For “farbs” like me, it was interesting and fairly light.

There are many curious details here. There were at least two sets of brothers who were generals on opposing sides. The Confederacy so intently advocated states’ rights that the Governor of Georgia did not have the state militia join the war until 1864 and attempted to broker a separate peace settlement with the Union. Two future presidents served in the same Ohio regiment (Hayes and McKinley). And so on.

Civil War Trivia contains a pretty extensive index. That makes it good for keeping on hand as a reference tool. Not only are there many names, but numerous helpful and simple descriptions of weapons and supplies. As a teacher of Civil War literature, I will probably keep this on hand to refer to when either my students or I have questions.

P.S. Just a few days after posting this, I found the following essay online which details part of the Appomattox surrender and looks at the contemporary political situation in the United States: http://www.nationalreview.com/node/448689/print.

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