April 1865: The Month that Saved the Union
Jay Winik, 2001
Atlanta had been overwhelmed. Columbia had been surrendered-and burned. Charleston
had been abandoned. The peace conference at Hampton Roads had been fruitless. And the British
and the French had refused to intervene. The Army of Northern Virginia, after striking its own
harsh blows against the Union in the six bloodiest weeks of the war, from the Wilderness to Cold
Harbor, had wriggled free of the enemy's clutches and fallen back, converging in a defensive
position around Petersburg and Richmond.
Across the slim divide of the battered landscape lay Grant's swelling Army of the Potomac. It
was the Confederacy's direst crisis since the start of the war, vaster than the fall of Vicksburg, more
terrible than the failure at Gettysburg, and more traumatic than the toll of Sharpsburg. This time, the
South stood irrevocably alone. But as smoky light filtered off the James River below Richmond, a
strange emotion prevailed throughout much of the Confederacy. It was, Southerners knew, not the
first time in history that defenders had been pitifully whittled down into pieces by attacking legions,
cut in half, starved, demoralized, enervated, and yet somehow had found the will to prevail. They
still had four armies in the field, and man for man some of the finest fighting men in all of the
history of warfare. Their guerrilla fighters and cavalry were second to none. Their lineage, they
reminded themselves, was impeccable, stretching from the Jamestown colonists of 1607 to the
Founding Fathers of 1776, and included George Washington himself This kindled and rekindled
their dwindling resolve. So did their prayers. And so did their own spirit, however waning. And so
fervent were they in their desire to earn their independence that after an extensive, protracted
debate, they had even held out the promise of freedom to any black man who would fight for their
Now, confronted by the dreaded prospect of losing all, they looked to their leadership, for
another George Washington, a figure who could rescue the South. In these desperate times, after all
the suffering and death, after the multitude of exhaustion and despair, such a man-or such men-was
the Confederacy's final chance.
In the trenches of Petersburg, there was such a man, and across the Confederacy, there were such
men. As a weary Abraham Lincoln, who had braced the Union when the blood was thick and
victory seemed lost, so deeply feared, Robert E. Lee and the generals who looked to him for
leadership, and a good many of the Confederate citizens who looked to him for guidance, were as
aggressive as ever: not ready to give up, to give in, or to relinquish their Confederate identity
burnished in the fires of war. This war was not over. Not by a long shot. And the implications for
the peace to follow were profound.
It is the eve of April 1865.
Even today, what followed in the remaining days of the Civil War seems almost miraculous.
April 1865 is month that could have unraveled the American nation. Instead, it saved it. It is a
month as dramatic and as devastating as any ever faced in American history-and it 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.
Too often, it is at a small red brick house in Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865- Robert E.
Lee's fateful meeting with U. S. Grant- that the story of the Civil War stops. Yet this is a mistake.
For one thing, the war was still not over; it could have lasted several more hard months, even
years. For another, no period was more harrowing, or had so great an impact upon this country, as
the days that followed Lee's surrender. Within six days, Abraham Lincoln was dead, the first-ever
assassination of an American president. Never before or since in the life of this nation has the
country been so tested as in this one week alone. Nor have so many tales of human drama and so
many remarkable events, surrender and assassination but two among them-occurred with such
breathtaking simultaneity and far-reaching consequences, within a simple span of some thirty or so
Indeed, the whole of April 1865 was marked by tumult and bloodshed, heroism and desperation,
freedom and defeat, military prowess and diplomatic magnanimity, jubilation and sorrow, and,
finally, by individual and national agony and joy. Consider a few unforgettable images: this one
month witnessed the poignant, frenzied fall of the rebel capital at Richmond and its government on
the run; Lincoln's unprecedented walk through Richmond the next afternoon, as the city still
smoldered and burned and its newly freed blacks brushed him with their hands; one of the most
savage battles of the war, fought along Sayler's Creek, and the daring-and daunting-prospect of the
South forming guerrilla groups to press the conflict and bleed the North, with grave, long-term
consequences. It saw Lee's defiant efforts to head south and reunify with General Joe Johnston,
while fervently proclaiming "we must all determine to die at our posts"; the Army of Northern
Virginia force-marching in a labored, hurried retreat, an unduly complicated effort marked by
heartbreaking mistakes, remarkable stoicism, and near split-second decisions with cataclysmic
results; Lee's reluctant yet dignified surrender to Grant at Appomattox, accompanied by Grant's
equally dignified, and largely unprecedented, handling of his fallen foe, a masterful act that set the
tone for the rest of the war and the peace to come. It glimpsed Lincoln's eerie premonitions of
death just days before his own assassination, followed by the successful plot to kill the president
and a near-successful plot foiled only at the last moment-to decapitate the entire Union govern-
ment, threatening the revival of more ruinous war. And while sporadic which is to say its
Europeanization-or 1776, the American Declaration of Independence. But April 1865 is another
such pivotal date.
It was not inevitable that the American Civil War would end as it did, or for that matter, that it
would end at all well. Indeed, 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. Throughout this period, there were critical turning points, each of which could have
shattered a fragile, war-torn America, thrusting the new nation back into renewed war, or, even
worse, into a protracted, ugly, low-level North-South conflict, or toward a far harsher, more
violent, and volatile peace, with unpredictable results. Time and again, things might have gone
altogether differently. For instance, we are sorely mistaken if we believe that Lee had no options
after the fall of Richmond or if we assume that his final retreat could have ended only in
wholesale capitulation. Or, as opposed to what 200 years of smooth constitutional government
may lead us to think, we would be equally mistaken if we believe that the constitutional
provisions guiding the Union cabinet-as it prepared to hand power over to Andrew Johnson were
anything but awkward, uncertain, and exasperatingly unclear.
In truth, one cannot understand how the nation came together without seeing the element of
choice and uncertainty, or what historians often call “contingency,” that hung over every
dramatic event in April: from the final military battles to the diplomatic meetings, from the
weighty political decisions to the tense presidential succession, from the deep and drastic social
dislocations in the South to the raw nerves and excitement in the North. History is not a random
sequence of events, and never more so than here. In a sense, the story of April 1865 is not just
one of decisions made, but also one of decisions rejected. Lee's decision concerning guerrilla
warfare, with immense if not unforeseen ramifications, was one such decisive moment; Grant's
choice to be magnanimous at Appomattox was another; and then, of course, there is the first ever
assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, itself an unthinkable event. In light of the panic
and chaos that followed, crucial questions remained. Would Southern leaders seek to take
advantage of this moment of fleeting weakness? Or found new spirit in the North's woes? As
fighting continued in the South, the Union was plunged into near chaos as the first-ever
presidential transfer of power in a crisis commenced, amid widespread hysteria and rage, with the
inauguration of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, an illiterate until age twenty-one, who had met
with Lincoln only once since the inauguration. This one month also beheld an angry nationwide
search for John Wilkes Booth, while intensive on-again, off-again negotiations were waged over a
ten-day span to produce General Johnston's eventual surrender to William Tecumseh Sherman-as
other rebel generals and would-be guerrillas in the Deep South, in the backwoods, and in the Far
West watched, waited, and pondered their next steps. And, of course, it ushered in the start of the
But even as the war climaxed to a close, there remained the most significant question of all-one
that had consumed Abraham Lincoln, haunted him, kept him awake at night, and etched lines of
worry deep in his face: not simply how to subjugate the Confederacy by force of arms, but, more
importantly, how to reunite two separate political, social, and cultural entities that had been bitter
military enemies just days before. There is "no greater [task] before us," Lincoln bluntly told his
cabinet, or for that matter, before "any future Cabinet." In truth, this was the foremost challenge of
April 1865. This accomplishment-two nations becoming one-perhaps among the most momentous
of all time, makes the story of April 1865 not just the tale of the war's denouement but, in countless
ways, the story of the making of our nation.
For historians, it is axiomatic that there are dates on which history turns, and that themselves
become packed with meaning. For the English, it is 1066, the bittersweet year of the Norman
Conquest and the beginning of the most widely spoken language across the globe today. For the
French, there is the powerful symbol of 1789, marking the dawn of liberty and equality, and, just as
accurately, the stunning transition between the old order and modern French society. For
Americans, one magic number is, of course, 1492, the year marking the discovery of America.
And would Northerners now flirt with government by cabinet, as they had when John Tyler succeeded
William Henry Harrison? Or inch toward military or autocratic rule, as some,. cabinet members
included, feared? Or would they impose far harsher terms upon the South and the remaining Confederate
soldiers? And finally, there are the subtle but powerful efforts not just of Lincoln, whose wisdom and
foresight shine in these days as vividly as at any other time in his career, but also of high-ranking
military men, North and South, to resist what one historian has labeled the "hoarse cry of vengeance,"
and instead do their part in peace, to help heal the country.
Ever since the founding of the republican experiment in 1776: the United States was still very much a
fragile entity, and each generation was fearful of its prospects for survival. They knew that most
republics throughout history had been overthrown by revolution, or had collapsed into dictatorship or
civil war, or had succumbed to uncontrollable anarchy. The same fate, they feared, could be theirs. And
their fears were hardly unfounded; history, then and now, is littered with bad endings. As Lincoln said,
the Civil War was a time of "great testing." In many ways, never were the temptations or threats for an
imperfect peace, or a time of unbridled enmity, or a protracted low-grade North-South conflict, or even
the allure of dictatorship, greater than in the final month. Whatever may have followed later, in these
most crucial of days, none of this happened. How this carne about is an important, and neglected, story
In the end, only after each such concatenation draws into focus does April 1865 come to be seen as
not simply a crucial and coherent period of the Civil War in its own right, but as an essential cornerstone
in the events that ultimately brought America together. To understand this is to grasp something
precious: it is to see our country anew.
1) List three crucial issues that faced the nation in April, 1865. Which issue do you think
was most important? Why?
2) According to Lincoln, what was the most important task facing the union that month?
3) How did Grant help shape the post-war nation at Appomattox?
4) How did Lee help shape the post-war nation?
5) Take one event described in this reading, and explain what might have happened had
the event turned our differently.