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Donald A. Yerxa

How the War Might Have Ended

A conversation with historian Jay Winik

Jay Winik is a senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs. His April 1865: The Month That Saved America was already a bestseller when news photos shortly after 9/11 showed President Bush carrying it. In April of this year, a two-hour documentary based on Winik's book screened on A&E/The History Channel.

Let me start with what may seem like a cheeky question: why do we need another book on the Civil War?

At one level one could argue that maybe we don't. More books have been written on the Civil War than any other subject save for the Bible and Jesus. And I think it is also safe to say that the caliber of the books written about the Civil War is extremely high. There is, however, always something to be said for the scholarly value of reexamining familiar topics. And in the case of the Civil War that was what I tried to do. What was a little different in my case was that I am not by training a Civil War historian. I spent my formative years in the policy world, and because of those years in the defense and foreign policy arena, I was able to bring a fresh gaze to the Civil War—at least that was what I was hoping to do.

What drew you to this particular topic?

In the years that I was in the defense and foreign policy arena, I traveled around the world and witnessed firsthand a number of civil wars. Probably the most powerful and poignant of these experiences for me was Cambodia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a fear that Cambodia could descend into another ghastly civil war, a return to the horrific killing fields. And seeing all these different kinds of civil wars, one thing struck me: many civil wars end badly, with terribly tragic consequences yielding even more bloodshed and strife. And that got me thinking about what happened in the American Civil War. Why did that epic struggle conclude so well, comparatively speaking?

What were you trying to accomplish with April 1865?

I was trying to write a narrative of what happened at the end of the war, but in such a way that I could explore why our civil war did not end with dire consequences, even though it easily could have. And I wanted to place readers back into the closing weeks of the war to help them get a sense of the crucial decisions as they were being made, so that they could appreciate the tension and the drama that the participants themselves experienced.

You note that "the Civil War could have ended in many ways." What are some of the ways in which the outcome of the war could have been different—indeed, very different?

Let's just take three quick snapshots from this pivotal month of April 1865. First, on the fateful morning of April 9, Robert E. Lee's army was surrounded, and he called a council of war. One of his senior aides raised the question of guerrilla war, which Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, had already been calling for, and indeed hundreds of Lee's men, scattering into the hills and forests, were anticipating just such an eventuality. But Lee resisted temptation and concluded that attempting to fight a guerrilla war would impose too much bloodshed and chaos upon the country. It was then that he decided to surrender. Had Lee agreed to guerrilla war, I think it is quite likely that we would be living in a different country today. We could have gone the way of the Balkans or Northern Ireland, or—God forbid—we might even have witnessed something like the "Middle Easternization" of America. So that was one fateful decision.

A second pivotal moment happened just five days after Lee's surrender. Let me set the stage. There were still three Confederate armies in the field, over 175,000 fighters presumably willing to fight to the bitter end, and Jefferson Davis's government was on the run, calling for prolonged and partisan war. So it was a very real question whether the war would last another week, six weeks, six months, or even another year. This was the context for the events of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln.

But what I want to stress is that too often we forget the rest of what happened that evening. Secretary of State William Seward was stabbed five times. Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was supposed to go that evening to Ford's Theater, begged off, saying that he was tired and that he wanted to get some sleep—not realizing that there was an assassin planning to go to his hotel room and plunge a knife into his heart. Only at the last second did the assassin get cold feet. In the end, Johnson survived by dumb luck, and Seward's life hung by a thread.

We can only imagine the chaos that was rippling through the North at that point. This was the first assassination of an American president in history. There was so much turmoil and so much chaos that the Union cabinet would literally discuss, with a straight face, whether or not a Napoleonic coup was under way. And who did they think was behind the Napoleonic coup? None other than William Tecumseh Sherman himself. And there was another storm cloud hanging over America that night: who would become president? The founders had only said that in case of the death of the president, the vice president would temporarily act as president until an election would decide who would be the new president. So imagine the temptations for a regency-style government, for a cabinet-style government—indeed on that very night Edwin Stanton would be running the government as president, vice president, secretary of war, secretary of state, and commander in chief all in one—or the possibility for some kind of military-style intervention, which was what they actually feared.

As it turned out, not because of the Constitution but because of an evolving practice, the cabinet would show enormous discipline, and one by one they would all fix their names on a sheet of paper, turning the presidency over to Andrew Johnson, and in doing so they would create enormous stability. That was another very pivotal moment in the life of the nation.

And third, things could have gone very differently were it not for the leadership and vision of Abraham Lincoln. During the month of April 1865 Lincoln met with his two top generals, Grant and Sherman, at City Point to talk about what should happen when the war finally ended. Defying the brunt of Northern sentiment, he told them there must be no bloody reprisals; there must be a generous peace. The vision of a magnanimous peace that he laid out at City Point would have remarkable poignancy at Appomattox, where Grant would do so much to temper the feelings of hatred in the South with his kind treatment of Robert E. Lee. Things could have gone very differently had Lincoln not sketched out this vision of a generous peace.

One of the more striking scenes that you depict is that of Lee's abortive attempt to escape Grant after departing Richmond. You relate how a foul-up at a railroad junction left Lee with munitions instead of the food and provisions his army desperately needed to continue its escape. What might have occurred had there been food rations at that junction?

When Lee abandoned Richmond and Petersburg, he had a one-day's jump on Grant's Army of the Potomac. For him to break free from the clutches of Grant's army, all he had to do was get to Amelia Court House after a day and a half march. Substantial stores of rations were supposed to be waiting there for Lee's army. But instead he found guns and ammunition, all the tools of war but none of the precious food he desperately needed. As a result, Lee was forced to spend a day and a half foraging unsuccessfully for food in and around Amelia Court House. One can speculate that had the Confederates found the food and not wasted a good day, Lee might have made his escape. He wanted to move south in order to hook up with Joe Johnston, and strike at Sherman's army before taking to the hills. And these moves likely would have prolonged the war—maybe weeks, maybe months. Who knows how it would have played itself out? Clearly, the ending of the war would have been very different. And the tension—filled retreat is an epic story in itself.

Your book is an outstanding example of a trend in recent historical literature of emphasizing contingency and narrative tension. Since you put such a powerful spotlight on the role of historical contingency, let's probe that matter a bit further. What is gained when historians "strip away the inevitability of events" to stress the contingent nature of the past?

We gain a lot. By stripping away the inevitability of events, I think we get a far richer, more textured picture of what happened in history. And I think we get a more accurate picture of what actually happened. Further, if we don't strip away the inevitability of events, momentous turning points can seem like foregone conclusions rather than moments of genuine uncertainty, and sadly, we often lose much of the story itself.

Should historians do more to cultivate what Jeremy Black has called "counterfactual awareness" to capture the uncertainties of the past, the indeterminacy held by contemporaries?

When historians ask what happened in the past, they are obliged to deal with the contingent nature of events and the different paths that history could have taken, the counterfactual. Some of the very best historians seem to be moving in this direction, and one would hope that there would be more emphasis on this in the training of graduate students.

For a number of years the historical profession tended to view history as a social science. This approach quantified things and tried to detect large, impersonal factors that shaped history. But now we are, again, starting to get the sense that people shape history. One cannot talk about the Civil War, for example, without talking about the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, one cannot talk about what happened in World War II without talking about Winston Churchill. And in each of these great events in history one sees that for good or for ill, for better or for worse, individuals powerfully determine the outcome of events. It is very heartening that Oxford University Press has launched a new series on pivotal moments in American history under the direction of James McPherson and David Hackett Fischer. This is a welcome attempt to get historians to think more about contingency and about writing history through the telling of stories.

How has writing a bestselling history book changed your life?

First, I should say luck and timing always matter; there is always an element of serendipity. Nor should one ever forget the many fabulous history books that don't become bestsellers. That said, obviously something like this impacts your life. In many ways it's good, and in many ways it's thornier. For one thing, there are so many requests to do things; I'm just swamped these days. And one of the casualties is that I don't have enough time to do what I love most: research and write. I don't think one can easily go out and do interviews, do radio, do TV, do speeches, do lectures, and in the same breath sit down and do high caliber thinking, research, and writing. Unfortunately, I have not gotten a handle on my schedule—yet. In other ways, a bestselling book does somewhat change the way you see things. There is something to be said for meeting a lot of people around the country, avid readers of quality nonfiction and history, who have read your book. It's particularly wonderful to see people so excited about history.

Another thing that has been gratifying is that April 1865 seems to have been noticed by policymakers—though this was not my intention. Right after September 11, President Bush read April 1865, and there is a photograph of him carrying it around, printed in papers worldwide, which is an author's—and publisher's—dream. I was invited to have dinner with the vice president on the eve of the bombing campaign against Afghanistan, to discuss lessons of history, from my book, for the war on terrorism. One day out of nowhere I got a call from Peter Jennings saying how much he loved the book; another day I got a call from Sandra Day O'Connor's office, asking if I would like to have lunch with the justice. She is a fan of April 1865. And when I had lunch with her, I was taken to meet the chief justice, who is also a fan of the book. Experiences like these have been wonderful. Actually, some of the nicest things have been the little surprises—I was buying an out-of-print book on the Internet and got an e-mail back from the seller saying how much he loved my book. Those things really make your day.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and assistant director of The Historical Society. This interview first appeared in a slightly different form in the society's publication, Historically Speaking. Used with permission.

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