April 1865: The Month that Saved America

 

by Jay Winik (HarperCollins)

 

An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

 

by William C. Davis (Harcourt)

 

(This column was first published in the April , 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

Here are two books published in the same year (2001) that complement each other perfectly. Jay Winik's APRIL 1865 describes the end of the Civil War largely from the point of view of the North -- and, of course, the subsequent reunited nation in which we now live -- while William C. Davis's An Honorable Defeat follows the trail of the losing Southerners through that same time.

 

And clearly that April month 137 years ago was critical to the rebuilding of the United States from the terrible war that had taken so many thousands of lives. The important point made by both books is that Lee's surrender to Grant early that month, although critical, did not end the war and that the fighting could continue in even worse forms.

 

Winik tells us, "One stubborn fact still clung fast: the war was not quite over; two state capitals remained in Confederate hands. Lee had surrendered only a fraction of the Southern soldiers under arms, and daunting obstacles remained, Even Mary Custis Lee had this to say: 'The end is not yet. Richmond is not the Confederacy. General Lee is not the Confederacy.' In truth, there was still Joe Johnston's army in North Carolina that had to be subdued, and a host of other extant smaller armies: Richard Taylor's, spread across Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana; E. Kirby Smith's, just west of the Mississippi; the forces of Colonel John S. 'Rest-in-Peace' Ford, in Texas; and the Indian armies in the far West, under Brigadier General Stand Watie. And there were still John Mosby in Virginia and Nathan Bedford Forrest, his men scattered across Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, and an array of other smaller guerrilla groups. And of course, there was the Confederate government on the run. In a sense, Lincoln knew that final victory would come in a matter of time. But then, time could be a bitter enemy as well as a good friend. How much longer would it be? One week? Three? A month? Six months? Throughout history, such brief time spans have been long enough to form military alliances, declare and win wars, unseat dynasties, plunge countries into unmitigated chaos, or abruptly shift the momentum of entire conflicts themselves. Indeed, there was one more sobering fact: the grim aphorism that in matters of war and peace, the actions of one man alone could radically alter the whole constellation of events, that history could abruptly shift and turn, that the euphoria and inevitability of one day could dissolve into tragedy and disaster by the next.

 

"Which was precisely what would happen."

 

Just five days after Lee's surrender on April 9, Lincoln was assassinated and the fat was back in the fire.

 

Only through the intercession of heroes like Generals Grant and Sherman on the Northern side; Generals Lee, Johnston, Breckenridge (who was also CSA Secretary of War) and (remarkably) Forrest on the Southern side was guerrilla warfare averted. They had to fight off or more often circumvent the desire for vengeance in the North led by newly inaugurated United States President Andrew Johnson and the desire to continue the war in the South led by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

 

Lee's role was the keystone. Before he surrendered he was urged by one of his generals to continue the war. Winik tells us he responded, "'Suppose,' he told Porter Alexander, that 'I should take your suggestion. The men would be without rations and under no control of officers... They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become.., bands of marauders, and the enemy's cavalry would... overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit.

 

"'No,' said the old commander. 'We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.'

 

"He continued his counsel to Alexander: 'Then, general, you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us.' We must, he stressed, 'consider its effect on the country as a whole:' Finally, Lee said, 'And as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.'

 

"Thus did Robert E. Lee, so revered for his leadership in war, make his most historic contribution -- to peace. By this one momentous decision, he spared the country the divisive guerrilla warfare that surely would have followed, a vile and poisonous conflict that would not only have delayed any true national reconciliation for many years to come, but in all probability would have fractured the country for decades into warring military pockets, or as Tom Wicker has deftly put it, ensured, 'the Vietnamization of America.' Nor is it idle to speculate that even at such a late date such a mode of warfare might well have accomplished what four years of conventional war had failed to do: cleave North from South."

 

But Lee went still further. He urged Davis to quit. Winik again: "His last letter to the Confederate president, though cloaked in the guise of military analysis, was a supremely political act, even if he would have denied it as such. And an act of humanity. Lee took dead aim at Davis's proposed 'new phase' of warfare. 'A partisan war may be continued,' he wrote, and 'the hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country.' But, he continued, 'I see no prospect by that means of achieving independence.' Knowing that Davis was calling for a guerrilla war if all else failed, he in effect told Davis to think long and hard about his actions: 'To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for the suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.' Lee could be a shrewd political operator when he so chose; he well knew that word of his letter would seep out into the rest of the Confederacy, for all to see."

 

And Lee's actions affected his troops as well. "One young man, upon taking the loyalty oath, was upbraided by his patriotic Southern father: 'You have disgraced the family!' The son noted that General Lee advised him to do it. 'Oh,' the father sighed, 'that alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is all right.'"

 

Meanwhile, Davis tells how within the Southern administration now fleeing south, Breckinridge and Johnston were counseling Davis to quit while maneuvering around him to end the war.

 

Despite obstacles set in place by Washington, Johnston finally surrendered to Sherman on April 26, Taylor's surrender to Canby following on May 4. But the most unexpected capitulation was Forrest's on May 9. This most feared Southern cavalry leader followed Lee's lead. Winik tells us: "He acknowledged rather candidly that 'Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge:' To which he sharply counseled: 'It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and...to cultivate feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested and...so widely but honestly differed.'

 

"Then Forrest took one final step that would long surprise many in the North, including his old adversary, Sherman. Echoing the sentiments of Lee before him, in places almost word for word, he added: 'I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself, nor would I advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.'"

 

I came away from these two books with a heightened appreciation for our nation's heroes and with full agreement with Winik's claim that April 1865 was indeed a month that saved America.