April 1865: The Month That Saved America

Written by Jay Winik
Review by Meredith Campbell

April, 1865 saw the burning of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, Lincoln assassinated, Northern chaos, a South economically and socially devastated, failed negotiations, continued bloodshed, and a daring, last-ditch southern strategy for guerrilla warfare. April also saw a movement away from saying “the United States are…” to saying instead, “the United States is.” That such unification occurred was “almost miraculous,” says Jay Winik, former consultant on foreign affairs and now a senior scholar at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs. The month proved to be “perhaps the most moving and decisive month not simply of the Civil War, but indeed, quite likely, in the life of the United States.”

Winik proves this thesis in riveting prose that is anything but dry. Readers will become enthralled in what seems to be a novel’s fast-paced plot or well-delineated biography. Uniquely set within worldwide events, the writing is vivid, fraught with meticulous research. The narrative liberally peppered with dialogue taken from actual diaries and letters, readers feel Robert E. Lee’s emotional anguish, in his lament over the death of “…gallant men…causes me to weep tears of blood and wish I never heard the sound of a gun again.” The best story telling occurs at Ford’s Theatre, the night Lincoln is shot. At a breath holding pace Winik takes readers from the poignant mundane — Mary Lincoln whispering to her husband, “What will Mrs. Harris think of my hanging on to you so?”– to abject horror as Booth gets off the the fatal shot, a “muffled sound of an otherwise loud noise, like a violent clap of hands, or the crack of wood, or perhaps a firecracker.”

Jay Winik not only writes accurate history but also a rollicking good story. Read it. This book just may change the way you see the war’s end and America’s new beginning.