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April 1865: Was it the Month that Saved America?

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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. In his new and best-selling book, April 1865, author Jay Winik argues that the most critical month in American history was April 1865. It began with a brutal civil war still raging between the states. By the time it ended, the South had surrendered. President Lincoln had been assassinated. American began binding its wounds and headed for national and global greatness. Was such a course of glory for ordained? Winik says, not at all. The topic before the house: April 1865: Was it the month that saved America? This week on Think Tank.

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April 1865, it was the month that the guns of the Civil War finally fell silent. The struggle had lasted four years. More than 600,000 Americans from both sides had been killed, but the North’s war of attrition had done its grim work. On April 9th in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate General of Robert E. Lee. Grant was acting on President Abraham Lincoln’s guidelines, but five days later, Lincoln was killed by an assassin’s bullet. The work of reconciliation fell to other men. The war might not have not ended there. Civil wars are nasty wars. The Confederacy embittered by the harsh tactics of the North, considered the option of continuing the conflict as guerilla warriors. The nation might have remained divided for decades more, but peace prevailed and America has traveled an ascended arc ever since. What happened? Why? Author Jay Winik has some ideas.

Jay Winik, welcome to Think Tank. Congratulations on your book, it is a fascinating book. Take us briefly up to the events that led to the month of April 1865?

MR. JAY WINIK: The war had been raging for four years and if we go back and look at the beginning, Abraham Lincoln, he originally called up troops for 75 days and you know, it was Bill Sherman, one of his greatest of generals who said, no, it will be many months and many years and there will be much bloodshed and many tears will be shed before this war is resolved. And so the war had been going on for four long years. There had been Gettysburg. There had been Fredericksburg. There had been the tragedy of Cold Harbor. Let me give you a little scene for a minute. Abraham Lincoln is meeting with his two top generals in March 27-28. He’s meeting with US Grant.


MR. WINIK: Of 1865. And Bill Sherman. And now he’s meeting with his two top generals to talk about the war, when it will end, how it will end and what will happen when it does end. And at one point, Lincoln sort of straightens himself up and he says, he says, must more blood be shed to U.S. Grant, he says, he says, must there be a final, bloody Armageddon? And Grant shakes his head, yes, sadly and says, Lee being Lee, Robert E. Lee being Lee, more blood will be shed. And then Lincoln says, he talks about his other great fear that’s haunting him, which is that the Confederates will take off into the hills with their hearty horses and hearty men and wage guerilla warfare. And Grant shakes his head because this is one of the things that haunts U.S. Grant and Bill Sherman as well.

And then one other thing Lincoln talks about, he says, when this war does end, there must be no bloody work; there must be no hangings. In other words, what Lincoln is talking about, is he is saying that when the war does end, there must be no French Revolution type scenario.

MR. WATTENBERG: And yet, as I understand it, the way the war developed—it became the most gruesome and brutal war of attrition, led by those two men, Grant and Sherman, set up a killing machine.

MR. WINIK: In effect, they do and they wage a type of war that even the southerners wouldn’t wage. Let’s look at a few examples. After Gettysburg, you know, we’ve all heard about Pickett’s charge, which was this terrible—sort of event and created all this terrible carnage for the Confederates. Well, let’s go a year later practically in the wilderness campaign in May of 1864, when U.S. Grant finally squares off against Robert E. Lee. Well, in the first day of this wilderness campaign, U.S. Grant loses 17,500 men. That night, he goes into his tent, he throws himself down on his cot and he weeps. The next morning when he comes out, everyone expects him to do what every other general has done in the Union army, which is retreat. Memorably, Grant says, no, I will fight out it if takes all summer. Of course, it will take all year.

When the country is calling for Grant’s head, when they’re saying that he’s a butcher and even Mary Lincoln is calling him a butcher, Abraham Lincoln says, no, I need him. He is a man who fights. Lincoln understood that the only way to win this worst—this most terrible of all wars was through total war and that’s what he was initiating.

MR. WATTENBERG: The North had an enormous demographic advantage.

MR. WINIK: The ratio was just extraordinarily different. And to give a sense, the entire Confederacy was mobilized for the war. You know, when the war was over, there would be a whole generation of women who would go and marry because they have lost so many men. By contrast, in the North, Harvard and Yale would continue to have rowing contests and sporting contests. It shows a great disparity in the demographic difference.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s talk now about this fear of guerilla warfare. In April of 1865, what did Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, what did they know about guerilla warfare?

MR. WINIK: Well, in fact, they knew a lot about guerilla warfare. You know, the word guerilla warfare actually comes from the Spanish insurrection against Napoleon, in which the Spaniards tied Napoleon down in fits and at one point, Napoleon in a fit of peak, called it his Spanish ulcer. So they were well acquainted with guerillas. Robert E. Lee’s father fought as—the great lighthorse Harry Lee, fought as a partisan in the Revolutionary War. In the Civil War itself, they were intimately acquainted with guerilla war. For one thing, there was already a full scale guerilla war taking place in Missouri and in the scope and savagery and destruction, Missouri was every bit as bad as what we have seen in the Middle East today. Every bit as a bad as what we would see in a Rwanda today. Almost as bad as a Cambodia and certainly worse than Northern Ireland. Brother was set against brother. Family against family. Terrorists were operating freely. At one point, Abraham Lincoln said, what is taking place in Missouri is the very visitation of evil.

It was total anarchy that the Union could not prevail fully militarily, because of this guerilla war that was taking place.

MR. WATTENBERG: And so, who was Quantrill?

MR. WINIK: William Quantrill is one of the most feared of all guerillas and he sort of operated out in the West and the Missouri Territory and he was responsible for the legendary raid in which they went into the town of Lawrence and they were beating their hoofs, and they were screaming, kill, kill, kill, kill. And what they did is they rounded up every man and every boy and they killed them—they killed them in cold-blood. And of course, Quantrill was part of a larger movement of both guerillas and cavalrymen.

Let’s look at a few others. There was John Moseby, one of the greatest of all cavalry riders. You know, today if you go into Virginia in the Shenandoah, it was called back then Moseby’s Confederacy. Moseby was one of the greatest of all fighters. There was Nathan Bedford Forest, the great cavalry fighter about whom Bill Sherman, the Union general once said, that man is the devil and we must capture and kill him, if it costs us 30,000 lives or bankrupts U.S. treasury. They never caught him. Well, of course, there was Quantrill and you know, Quantrill was dead by 1865, but there was his understudies, which were the Jesse James Boys. The South itself was a maze and a tangle of hills and swamps and streams and forests. And you know, there are riders, they’re the fighters, they have the temperament, they had the ability and they had the incentive and arguably, if they had decided to wage guerilla warfare, they would have been one of the most formidable guerilla armies in all of history.

MR. WATTENBERG: And given the nature of this total war, they had not only the original incentive, but fury and hatred against the way the Union and Lincoln were waging the war.

MR. WINIK: Yeah. You know, that’s a good point, Ben, because you know, we tend to romanticize the end of the war, saying that brother somehow magically sort of made up with brother. In fact, at the end of the war, the hatreds were every bit as great, if not greater than at the beginning of the war. There is this wonderful diarist, Mary Chestnut of the Confederacy who sort of sums up it well. She talks about how these Union men, they are like locusts, they are like red ants, they are like the plagues of Egypt. Or another woman who I quote in my book in April 1865, she says, “Oh, those Yankees, I just hate them so, I could just spit on them.” So in fact, this was the challenge for the Union.

MR. WATTENBERG: And of course, the Confederates gave back in kind. They weren’t pussycats either.

MR. WINIK: No, they certainly weren’t.

MR. WATTENBERG: When they got into civilian areas, they were also very harsh.

MR. WINIK: Well, not the way that the Unionists were. You know, Robert E. Lee when he went North—when he carried the war north from both Antietam and for Gettysburg, he wanted to make a point to treat the Unionists or the Union population quite tenderly to sort of show that they were friends as opposed to hostile enemies, but it was Sherman who said who said that this war can only be won by total war and took it a step further.

MR. WATTENBERG: You make the point, as I understood it when I read the book, that secession is not simply a Southern idea.

MR. WINIK: No, no, far from being simply a Southern idea, it was as much this sort of basis of the country as was the Union and it was these two impulses that were really running a conflict, but when the Southerners eventually decided to secede, it was not some mad or heretical idea within the world as they knew it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Was the war about slavery? I mean, that was a moral issue and there were shadings in it, but ultimately as I believe Lincoln came to understand it, it was about slavery.

MR. WINIK: Yeah, but the operative phrase as you just put it is Lincoln came to understand it. You know, when the war first began, long before the Thirteenth Amendment that freed the slaves, there was another Thirteenth Amendment, and the first Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln endorsed and that would have codified slavery in America in perpetuity forever. So in part, it’s a very sort of gray wrinkled question. You know, up until 1863, Abraham Lincoln was still flirting with what to do with the slaves. He is thinking about sending them to the island of Haiti or Uvachi (sp) or host of other places.

MR. WATTENBERG: So Lincoln and his generals are faced with this terrible dilemma of having to wage total war, to keep the Union together and yet, set into motion a situation that could bind the nation as a nation because that was the purpose of the war. And then you have the very imposing character of General Robert E. Lee.

MR. WINIK: Yeah, its—I mean Robert E. Lee is just a fascinating character. He’s almost like a knight out of the medieval ages in terms of the kind of chivalry and nobility that he brought to his role. Robert E. Lee was offered the commanding generalship of the Union armies by Abraham Lincoln; he turned it down because as he said, “ I cannot raise my sword against my home state of Virginia.”

MR. WATTENBERG: But he raised his sword against what we would call his nation, the United States of America.

MR. WINIK: Right. But in his world, he didn’t see it that way.

MR. WATTENBERG: I understand. Did they know each other, Lee and Lincoln?

MR. WINIK: No, they didn’t know each other, but they certainly greatly inhabited each other’s worlds. Throughout this war, Lincoln saw Lee’s face wherever he went and Lee certainly saw Lincoln’s face. They were nemesis.

MR. WATTENBERG: So gradually, the tide of war changes. The daring Lee wins his battles, the Union generals aren’t doing the right thing, but sooner or later the power of demography and industrialism and the things that the railroads and the blockades of the Southern ports, gradually comes to bear and this massive military machine that U.S. Grant assembles starts grinding the South down.

MR. WINIK: Yeah—

MR. WATTENBERG: And Lee understands before Appomattox that they are going to lose this war, is that right?

MR. WINIK: The way I would put it is, Lee is trying to do everything so he doesn’t lost the war. Let’s look at this, the final week and a half of the war of the beginning of April 1865 I should say. Richmond falls and Petersburg falls and at this point, far from being dispirited, Lee’s men have a daring plan. What they are going to do is they’re going to hook down south 140 miles, link up with another Confederate general, Joe Johnston, and from there, they will strike at Bill Sherman and at that point, they’ll then to take the hills and as Robert E. Lee once said, “If he can get to the Blue Ridge Mountains, he could continue the war for another 20 years.”

MR. WATTENBERG: So Lee, not only was flirting with guerilla warfare, but in some of his modes was planning it?

MR. WINIK: Yeah, well he wasn’t planning it per se, but this sort of idea of sort of taking off into the hills or into the mountains where he can have safety, that was certainly looming on his mind. And what’s so interesting is is when you see this sort of retreat that he undertakes from Richmond and Petersburg, you know, this four long columns of men and materiel and weapons, some 55,000 men in long snaking lines. The men, far from being dispirited in April 1865, are actually quite elated. Their morale is high. Their spirit is high and that’s because Lee had bested every Union general before and when he was out in the open, he was always at his most audacious, his most aggressive and he had performed miracles in the past and they believed he could perform miracles again. And it was at that point that they undertook this retreat and he did it with a greatest of spirit. Several days later on April 6, at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, will take place some of the most savage fighting in the entirety of the war and it is the worst rout of the entire campaign for Robert E. Lee. And at one point, Lee himself rides to this rise that overlooks this disorderly scene of retreat and chaos for his men and he says, “My God, has my army been dissolved?” And a general rides up beside him and says, “No general, we are here to do your duty.” But by the day after that, it is clear that the end is coming near. Three of the top aides come to Robert E. Lee and they raise the dreaded word—that dreaded word is surrender and this is where he discusses this fateful question of whether or not to wage guerilla warfare. One of his most trusted advisors will say, “You know, we can scatter into the hills like partridges and rabbits and a little more bloodshed now will make no difference.”

And in fact, at this very moment, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, his government was on the run calling for a guerilla warfare, but in the end, Lee says no to guerilla warfare because he reasons that it will destroy not only the North but the South and quite impressionably he says, it will take many generations before this country will recover. And it’s at that point that he straightens himself up and he says, “And now I must go meet General Grant and I’d rather die a thousand deaths then do that.”

MR. WATTENBERG: Is this the meeting at Appomattox or this is a preliminary meeting?

MR. WINIK: No, this will be the meeting at Appomattox.

MR. WATTENBERG: Where the actual surrender takes place?

MR. WINIK: The actual surrender of Lee’s army. And of course the most fascinating thing about this meeting that is usually overlooked, is Lee doesn’t know how he will be treated that morning when he goes to meet General Grant at Appomattox. And if you want to really appreciate what Grant does at Appomattox, consider it from Lee’s perspective. We know that Lee was quite nervous that morning. He was speaking in mumbled half sentences and well, he should have been nervous because he knew throughout history, defeated generals and revolutionaries and traitors were usually beheaded or they were hung or they were imprisoned or like Napoleon, they were exiled. In fact that very morning, The Chicago Tribune editorialized, Hang Lee.

MR. WATTENBERG: So Lee goes to meet Grant at Appomattox and some symbolic interplay happens that as you described it, really sets the tone for everything that follows it.

MR. WINIK: Basically, the scene is as follows: They meet in the small Wilmer McLean house in Appomattox Court House and they are surrounded by rolling hills and thousands of men dotting these rolling hills just standing at wrapped at attention.

MR. WATTENBERG: On both sides?

MR. WINIK: On both sides of this great piece of theater that’s about to take place—this surrender of Robert E. Lee to U.S. Grant. Lee walks into the Wilmer McLean house, Grant comes in after about 30 minutes, wearing a mud-spattered Private’s blouse and think of this, here we have Robert E. Lee who is probably the closest thing to a scion of the founding father George Washington himself and he is surrendering to the son a tanner. Only in America can a story like this happen. And you know—

MR. WATTENBERG: And a drunk.

MR. WINIK: And a drunk and somebody who when he was at West Point, actually prayed that Congress would abolish West Point because it was so miserable for him.

MR. WATTENBERG: Did they know each other in West Point? Or they are in different classes?

MR. WINIK: No, they were in different classes. Lee is older than Grant, but they certainly knew each other through warfare. They had bonds created by warfare and in fact—

MR. WATTENBERG: When they were on the same side?

MR. WINIK: Yes. That’s right. And in fact, when of course, Robert E. Lee was the great Robert E. Lee even back then and U.S. Grant was a nobody, but what’s so interesting is when they sit down at this Appomattox Court House, is Grant is quite nervous at the beginning. And he starts talking about the old days. He starts talking about the Mexican War. He remembers General Lee and tells him so and Lee at one point says, “You know, I’ve tried to recall your face all these times throughout battle and I could never quite do it.” And Grant continues talking and at one point, Lee finally interjects, “I suppose we should discuss the object at hand, this surrender.” And it’s at that point that Grant carries out this idea that Lincoln has of a tender peace and a magnanimous peace.

One of the first things he does is he enables the rebels to keep their side arms. Now, let’s think about that. It makes no sense for—if you’re worried about guerilla warfare for you to allow a defeated army to keep their side arms, not militarily, not tactically and yet he’s doing that because he’s saying, “We may have defeated you, but we still honor you.” Grant is still saying, “We may have defeated you, but you were to become our countrymen again.” Another thing he does is he enables them to keep their horses because as he says, “You will need it when you want to plant a little bit of crop.” Of course, this again, makes no sense militarily or tactically.

But the most poignant scene will then happen in a few minutes. Soon this surrender is concluded, the letters are exchanged, Lee will shake hands with everyone inside this Wilmer McLean House and at this point, he then sort of emerges from the Wilmer McLean House. He walks down one step, then a second step, then a third step. And at a certain point, he looks right then he looks left and he pumps his fist once, then twice, then a third time and in a choked, hoarse voice, he calls out, “Orderly, orderly.” He wants his horse, Traveler. Traveler comes. He strokes Traveler, mounts the horse and at this point he lets out a loud, large heavy sigh, “Huh,” just like that and everyone tenses about what will happen next.

And what happens next is U.S. Grant’s finest moment. U.S. Grant walks out and looks at this defeated general, Robert E. Lee and makes eye contact and then he tips his hat in salute, a gesture that’s repeated by all the other men there and this one small act will speak volumes in as much as it will reverberate in every corner and every nook and cranny in the days and weeks and months and years to come, setting a tone for the healing that is to take place. Lee will set the tone and one by one by one, all the rest of the Confederate generals will surrender in much the same words and with much the same tone as Robert E. Lee.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does Jefferson Davis ever come around to that point of view?

MR. WINIK: No, Jefferson Davis is the one lone holdout. His government is in flight and on the run and to the bitter end, he is calling for a renewed and continued warfare. In fact, Jefferson Davis will give orders to Joe Johnston, the other principal general in the South, who is in North Carolina to fight on.

MR. WATTENBERG: So to get this straight. When Grant and Lee are meeting, Lee is more or less acting on his own. Grant, regardless of what his own personal feelings may or may not have been, is really, clearly, acting on the direct orders of Abraham Lincoln. That’s the way Lincoln wants this war settled.

MR. WINIK: Right. There not really orders, but they are wishes.

MR. WATTENBERG: But very emphatically expressed over time?

MR. WINIK: Yeah.


MR. WINIK: And certainly as I said earlier in this meeting at City Point, where he says, “There must be no bloody work, there must be no hangings. We must become countrymen again.”

MR. WATTENBERG: How many days after Appomattox is it until Lincoln is assassinated?

MR. WINIK: Yeah. It’s five days.

MR. WATTENBERG: By that time, have the other generals so—when Lincoln is killed, the Civil War is over in Virginia, but not entirely over.

MR. WINIK: No. No. From the Confederate capital in Florida to the Confederate capital in Texas, there are still strong pockets of Confederates—175,000 strong who are willing to sort of fight to the bitter end.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it your view that Abraham Lincoln is the greatest American and the epitome of America? Or having done all this research, do you come out with a mixed view?

MR. WINIK: Well, if I were living in the day of the Civil War, I’d have a mixed view, but with the benefit of hindsight, I see Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest of presidents. I mean, certainly one of the top two or top three. And you know, let’s think about it. He was a one-term Congressman, a failed politico, a hanger on her most of his life. He was subject to moods. I mean, who could have been less prepared for this most terrible of conflicts than the Civil War than Abraham Lincoln? He wanted this war the way a hangman wants a noose, and yet somehow as the body count rose, as the calls for his head rose, as the country was crying for his removal, somehow he persisted. And he did it with a generosity of spirit. A sort of tenderness towards the opposition and a humility that is hard to fathom. And for that reason, we have to see him as one of our greatest of presidents. He really saved the Union. He saved this country and certainly he set a moral tone with what he did with the slaves. All that is crucial.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it Garry Wills or someone who points out that before the Civil War, the nation was always referred to as these United States? And after the Civil War, it’s referred to the United States?


MR. WATTENBERG: Is that accurate?

MR. WINIK: Yeah. Well, it’s slightly different. It was said and the spirits are same. It was said, literally, until the Civil War and into the Civil War, the United States are an expanding territory. The United States are a growing country. In fact, I even went back and I read the old Senate debates and you can see that there and somehow in the final months and weeks of the war and in April 1865, we went from being the United States are to the United States is, from a plural to a singular.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jay, thank you for joining us on Think Tank. Again, congratulations on a fascinating book.

MR. WINIK: Thanks for having me.

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