April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik.
HarperCollins, 496 pages, $32.50
In January 1913, the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation, Dudley Miles, a professor at Columbia University, published an
essay titled "The Civil War as Unifier." The "true significance" of the war, Miles
wrote, was how quickly sectional reconciliation had been achieved. Unlike civil
wars and separatist conflicts in other parts of the world, the American Civil War
"deepened and spread the sense of nationality" throughout the country. Miles made
no mention of slavery. Nor did he discuss the lynch mobs rampaging through the
South attempting to enforce Jim Crow. Focusing on white Americans, Miles saw only
a nation reconciled, the wounds of war healed.
Miles wrote at the height of the Progressive Era, when pragmatic
reformers appealed to the language of romantic nationalism--celebrating "the
great fighting qualities of our race," as Theodore Roosevelt put it--to transcend
the radical egalitarianism of the Reconstruction era and the bitter class warfare
of the late nineteenth century. Amid the flourishing of sentimental patriotism,
people were newly fascinated with the Civil War, the event that marked the "birth
of the nation."
Led by William A. Dunning and John Burgess, the first generation of academic
historians of the Civil War and its aftermath argued that the war was provoked by
a defense of regional identity, not slavery, and that the North fought for the
noble project of national reunion. But the goal of forging the nation was briefly
thwarted during Reconstruction. The Southerners were not to blame; the villains
were the Northern radicals. Blinded by moralistic fervor, these ideologues broke
with Abraham Lincoln's wise statesmanship and demanded that the freed slaves be
included in the civic and political life of the nation. In the eyes of the
Dunning school, giving blacks the right to vote and other basic civil rights was
harsh punishment for the South, a sign of the vengeful nature of the radicals.
Prior to the 1960s, historians challenging the racist history of the
Dunning school were at odds with a profession in thrall to its celebratory myths.
But after the civil rights movement, more historians came to believe that slavery
was the central cause of the Civil War, that it was the defining institution of
Southern society, and that it determined how the war was fought. During
Reconstruction, the nation strove to live up to the promise of emancipation and
to incorporate black Americans into the body politic. This effort ended
tragically, as white supremacist violence swept the South, Reconstruction
governments were upended, and the federal government turned its back on African
Americans. Reconstruction now stands as an "unfinished revolution," in Eric
Foner's phrase, a brief window of interracial democracy before the long night of
segregation and Jim Crow.
In April 1865, Jay Winik, a popular historian with a background in
international relations, has written an account of the Civil War era that revives
many of the Dunning school's tropes about the causes and effects of the Civil
War. As its title suggests, the book tells the story of the tumultuous month that
saw both Appomattox and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Far from being vanquished
in April 1865, says Winik, the South was prepared to go on fighting
guerrilla-style warfare against the North. But Southern military leaders steered
the war to a gentle close. What we should be most proud of about the Civil War,
says Winik, is how it ended. Looking across the Atlantic to the former
Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and other European regions racked by civil war and national
collapse, and to long-simmering conflicts in the Middle East and Northern
Ireland, Winik, echoing Dudley Miles, writes: "Far too many civil wars end quite
badly, and beget a vicious cycle of more civil war and more violence, death and
instability. But these civil wars were not ours; ours, ultimately, was quite
Slavery, for Winik, was not, at heart, what either the war or the peace was
about; nationalism was. Winik acknowledges that slavery was the "primary wedge"
dividing North and South (and it should be noted that one of the better sections
of the book is a description of the fall of Richmond, where freed slaves thronged
the streets to meet Abraham Lincoln). But he is quick to argue that it was not
the only one. Citing the Confederate decision, in the last weeks of the war, to
free slaves in return for their military service, he maintains that independence
was ultimately more important to the Confederates than preserving slavery was. In
Winik's mythic history, the Confederacy was "a separate nation, sharing not
simply a common language but a common culture, heritage, identity," and the
Confederates were "lively, hotheaded, hot-blooded, vivacious, [and]...proud of
their eccentricities, of their fanciful customs and ingrained sense of tradition,
of their antique etiquette and equally antique honor."
In classic Lost Cause style, the Confederate leaders are the heroes of the war
here. Robert E. Lee is compared to King Arthur, El Cid, and Richard the
Lionheart; Jefferson Davis to Martin Luther, Galileo, Magellan, and Napoleon.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, an antebellum slave trader and Confederate general whose
principal claim to fame is that he led the Fort Pillow massacre of black
prisoners of war, is described as a "daring rebel cavalryman," even though Winik
is well aware of his war crimes. In Forrest, he writes, "the proudest and darkest
sides of the Confederacy walked ... boldly and comfortably hand in hand."
The radical republicans, by contrast, were rigid ideologues in
Winik's view. He distinguishes between Lincoln's flexibility regarding
Reconstruction--"a word that more adequately captures his spirit is
reconciliation"--and that of the radical Republicans, who would brook no
compromise regarding "black suffrage, black civil rights, or a harsh treatment of
the South." For Winik, "the moral fervor over slave emancipation" collided with
"the urgent practicality of quickly healing the nation." He suggests that "the
radicals wanted to recast the entire social structure of the South, while Lincoln
was principally looking to reincorporate the rebellious states back into the
Union fold, absent slavery."
Winik devotes a few paragraphs in his conclusion to the 100 years
of "terrible brutality, horrific violence, and often unspeakable racial
repression" that followed the end of Reconstruction, "on which," he notes, "the
strands of reconciliation often rested." But even though he is aware of this, he
does not think that these unpleasant events "vitiate" the "central fact":
National reunion created "a diverse and democratic country, inspiring quests for
freedom around the globe." The narrative section of the book closes with the
saintly Lee kneeling to take Communion next to a black man. "The other
communicants slowly followed in his path, going forward to the altar, and, with a
mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future."
The outcome of the Civil War, the story suggests, was a unified nation, in which
blacks and whites would ultimately come to live together in peace.
Such anecdotes tell us nearly as little about the war or the peace as do the
solemn handshakes at Appomattox (especially since, in a footnote, Winik asks,
"Did this scene happen? Or is it myth?" He's not sure). For it is impossible to
understand the Civil War or its aftermath without placing slavery and
emancipation at the center of the narrative. Slavery motivated secession; it
shaped whatever patriotic feeling the Confederacy inspired; it even determined
military tactics. Jefferson Davis's dreams aside, guerrilla warfare was not a
realistic possibility for the Confederacy. Waging a long guerrilla war requires a
level of communal solidarity that is simply incompatible with holding more than
three million people in bondage. Winik's suggestion that the war's aftermath
might have spiraled into an extended separatist struggle is a way of evading the
basic choice the Confederacy faced: between protecting slavery and winning the
war. The secessionists chose the former--keeping slaveholders on large
plantations out of the war and refusing to conscript slaves until the war was all
but lost. And so, when it seemed that the cost of victory was the end of slavery,
there was no longer any reason to fight. Far from being full of pluck and
patriotism, thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted the army in the last
months of the war.
Similarly, the fate of the freed slaves is integral to any story of reunion.
Winik is right that the post-Civil War era created a single nation of sorts. Yet
it did so not by subduing Southern separatism but by accommodating white
supremacy. After Reconstruction, the South forced blacks back into a subordinate
position, violently repressing black political activity with the help of roving
white militias bearing a curious resemblance to the guerrilla armies that Winik
says never materialized. As a result, the radical promise of the Civil War--the
equality of citizens before the law--would not be fulfilled for nearly a hundred
years. When the last federal troops left the South in 1876, the foundation was
laid for the reunion of the nation--and for Jim Crow. The cost of the
reconciliation that Winik celebrates was the political freedom and civil rights
of African Americans.
Most of Winik's arguments are as old as the war itself. What
is surprising, though, is how well his book has been received, despite its
discredited interpretation. It spent more than five weeks on The New York
Times best-seller list. Richard Bernstein--a decorated veteran of the PC
wars--waxed enthusiastic in the Times about Winik's "fresh, intelligent
recasting" of American history, agreeing that the United States was indeed
different from nations where "the wounds of domestic strife didn't heal for
decades." Another Times reviewer celebrated the "brilliant freshness of the
argument." Such vigorous praise indicates that Winik's views are not those of a
maverick historian out of step with the mainstream. Instead, his errors suggest
the amnesia of our age.
The Dunning school dominated American historiography in the early
twentieth century, just after Southern states had disenfranchised their black
populations and erected the labyrinthine system of legal segregation. The story
of triumphant reunion after the Civil War helped justify the South's nullification
of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Today, the United States is embarking on a
similar retreat. The Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of striking down
affirmative action. A booster of Southern Partisan magazine is the nation's
attorney general. A U.S. president was elected thanks to what were apparent
violations of black voting rights in Florida, and his contested election evoked
calls for renewals of an 1877 electoral commission that traded the end of
Reconstruction for eight more years of Republican sovereignty in the White House.
Perhaps, then, it is not a coincidence that 30 years after the climax of the
civil rights movement--the second Reconstruction--there should be a new popular
historiography of the Civil War that once again glorifies a national
reconciliation wrought from reaction and the suppression of black freedom.