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There are a few books that belong on the shelf of every Civil War buff: James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the better Abraham Lincoln biographies, something on Robert E. Lee, perhaps Shelby Foote's massive trilogy The Civil War. Add Jay Winik's wonderful April 1865 to the list. This is one of those rare, shining books that takes a new look at an old subject and changes the way we think about it. Winik shows that there was nothing inevitable about the end of the Civil War, from the fall of Richmond to the surrender at Appomattox to the murder of Lincoln. It all happened so quickly, in what "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."
Things might have been rather different, too. "What emerges from the panorama of April 1865 is that the whole of our national history could have been altered but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate, a sudden shift in luck." When Lee abandoned Richmond, for instance, his soldiers rendezvoused at a nearby town called Amelia Court House. There, the general expected to find boxcars full of food for his hungry troops. But "a mere administrative mix-up" left his army empty-handed and may have limited Lee's options in the days to come. Or what if Lee had decided not to surrender at all, but to turn his resourceful army into an outfit of guerrilla fighters who would harass federal officials? National reconciliation might have become impossible as the whole South turned into a region plagued with violence and terrorism. For the Union, "there would be no real rest, no real respite, no true amity, nor, for that matter, any real sense of victory--only an amorphous state of neither war nor peace, raging like a low-level fever." One of Lee's officers actually proposed this scenario to his commander in those final hours; America is fortunate Lee didn't choose this path.
Winik is an exceptionally good storyteller. April 1865 is full of memorable images and you-are-there writing. Readers will come away with a new appreciation for that momentous month and a sharpened understanding of why and how the Civil War was fought. Let it be said plainly: April 1865 is a magnificent work, surely the best book on the Civil War to be published in some time. --John J. Miller [via]