Book Review: April 1865

April 1865: The Month That Saved America is the first Civil War book I've read since high school. It's a great book -- part history, part biographical sketches of the key personalities, but mostly a thoughtful essay on why America turned out the way it did.

Jay Winik uses a counterfactual approach, exploring alternate Americas that might have been. He's particularly interested in how we narrowly avoided decades of lingering guerilla warfare in the South. According to Winik, it was the foresight and character of Lincoln, Grant and Lee who together enabled a reconciliation that was as graceful as possible -- far from perfect, but better than the alternatives.

Winik spends a lot of time rehabilitating Robert E. Lee. I'm afraid I didn't pay enough attention to Civil War history to remember how Lee is remembered. Since he was a principal defender of the Confederacy in general and slavery in particular, I suppose I've had always had a dim view of him. Winik's depiction of Lee is more nuanced: according to Winik, Lee was opposed to slavery but driven by a sense of duty to defend his state; he was a genius in battle but graceful in defeat; he lacked political ambition but was willing to use his political clout to restore the Union.

There are many wonderful anecdotes in April 1865, but my favorite is this one:
As [Lee] shook hands with Grant's military secretary, Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared for a moment at Parker's dark features and finally said, "I am glad to see one real American here." If this account is true, Parker responded to the general, "We are all Americans."
Parker's marvelous reply summarizes the theme of the book: even before the Civil War's last shots were fired, we wanted to believe that reconciliation was possible. We wanted to believe that our union can be perfected.