In April 1865: The month that saved America, author Jay Winik argues that this month at the end of the American Civil War was a pivotal moment in history where the future of the country was in serious doubt. Yes, the Union in the north was beating down the Confederacy through attrition, but the war was very much still undecided. Winik says that events unfolded in a way that led to a swift end to the war and to a period of national healing that allowed the South to reintegrate back into the the United States.
I don’t buy it.
I don’t think April 1865 was quite the miraculous month Winik says it was. The country continued to bleed from open wounds for at least a century. The war may have ended slavery, but the freed slaves spent the next 100 years as third class citizens, with very few rights and almost no equal protection under the law. Also, when I look at our country today – at how divided it is – I can’t help but notice the regionalism. Most of the South votes one way. Most of the North votes another way. That’s no coincidence.
Yes, the future of the country was still very much undecided in April 1865. The South had fewer resources than the North but it did have better military leadership. General Robert E. Lee had made every single Union general he faced look silly. Even in the final weeks of the war his hopelessly outnumbered forces inflicted massive losses on General U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was considering a transition from a conventional war to a guerrilla war that could have prolonged the conflict indefinitely. The Confederacy’s people had formed a national identity of their own and the prospects for them ever identifying themselves as citizens of the United States seemed dim. President Abraham Lincoln was about to be assassinated by a conspiracy that sought to kill him, his vice president and his secretary of state, an attack that had the potential to send the country into a paroxysm of panic and anarchy.
Winik argues that the almost everything seemed to break just right, allowing the war to end and allowing the South to slowly reintegrate into the country. He points to decisions by men like General Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederate officers to order their men to surrender rather than take to the hills and the mountains as partisan fighters. Had they become guerrillas, the war could have raged for many more years. Imagine the South turning into something like Vietnam or Iraq. Such a conflict would have destroyed the South and broken the spirit of the North.
On and on, Winik points out events that unfolded in a way that allowed the country to survive and heal. And he’s right. Lincoln’s assassination could have been a decapitation that led to chaos. A dictator could have emerged in the White House. The Northern armies could have avenged Lincoln’s death by burning what was left of the South to the ground. Anything could have happened. But the war ended quietly, despite Lincoln’s death.
Winik overlooks a critical part of the war’s outcome. The United States may be irrevocably united by law and nationhood. People in the North and the South consider themselves Americans. But the country remains very, very divided. The South is the land of Republicanism. The North is Democratic. The division in America is complex, but much of it is rooted in the racism that originally perpetuated slavery for centuries.
During the Civil War the Republican party was the party of abolitionists. The Democratic party defended state’s rights and slavery. After the war ended, the parties continued on this course. The Democrats dominated in the South, at least until the late 1940s, and Republicans dominated in the North. Then President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, advocated and signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and began enforcing judicial orders to desegregate the country and end institutional racism.
When the Democrats became the party of the Civil Rights movement, the South’s political leanings shifted sharply. It wasn’t all about ethnic divisions, but Republican leaders were explicit behind closed doors that they would exploit Southern racism to take the South from the Democrats.
For nearly 50 years the South has been solidly Republican. Today there’s very little difference between the two political parties, but the South remains Republican. I’d say that’s a legacy of the racism that has plagued the South and divided it from the North since the war ended 145 years ago. Yes, there was and remains plenty of racism in the North, but racism was a key issue that divided the nation in 1861 and it continues to be an issue today.
Today, the divisions between the North and the South are more complex than smple racism. And the regional divisions are also less geographically monolithic. Some states in the South and the North buck regional trends. The country’s expansion has led to other regional divisions, too. There is a lot of talk about “Real America” and “Real Americans.” People in Alabama might see New Yorkers as alien and vice versa.
I’d say the wounds that cut the country apart in 1861 are still very raw today. Winik should have mentioned something about that in his book. Instead, he barely even mentions the failure of Reconstruction, the North’s attempt to remake the South after the war.