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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 ...

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