One hundred and thirty-eight years ago this Monday, John Wilkes Booth fired a gun into Abraham Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The murder came in the middle of the most perilous month in American history — and those 30 days now spring to life in an outstanding television documentary based on Jay Winik’s best-selling book, April 1865.
“How wars end is every bit as crucial as why they start and how they’re fought,” says Winik, during Monday’s 9:00 P.M. debut of April 1865 on The History Channel. “In standard history texts, there tends to be a kind of rote narrative line about how all this takes place. What is said is that there’s Lee’s retreat. There’s the surrender at Appomattox, end of war, end of story. But actually it’s a far more complex picture than that.”
The Civil War might have ended very differently — or perhaps not at all. When Robert E. Lee gave up at Appomattox, there were still 175,000 Confederate troops in the field prepared to fight. Jefferson Davis was on the run. If an expected food shipment had arrived in Farmville, Va., on April 4, in fact, Lee’s famished army might have escaped from Ulysses S. Grant and joined Joe Johnston’s soldiers in North Carolina. The war would have dragged on longer.
Even worse is another possibility: guerilla warfare. Nobody called it that back then, of course, but this form of subversive combat has a long pedigree. “Its application is classic and surprisingly simple: shock the enemy by concentrating strength against weakness,” writes Winik in his book. Guerilla combat also had precedent in American history, in the example of Colonel Francis Marion (a.k.a. the “Swamp Fox”) and others during the Revolutionary War.
Lee gave serious thought to dispersing his army into small bands, and once said that he could hold out for 20 years if he could only reach the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of his top commanders in those final days, Porter Alexander, urged this move. “We could be like rabbits or partridges in the bushes,” he said, “and they could not scatter or follow us.”
In Monday’s documentary, Winik tells us what this would have meant for the United States: “the Vietnamization of America.” National reconciliation between North and South was hard enough following the Civil War. Imagine how much more difficult it would have been if the Confederates had maintained a fighting force in the Appalachians. The South might have become our own version of Northern Ireland, and domestic terrorism might have become a familiar part of everyday life long before it actually did.
Lee, of course, did not choose this path. “His finest moment comes not in war but in peace, in saying no to a deadly guerilla conflict that could have cleaved this nation not only for many generations but for maybe all of time,” says Winik.
The two-hour program bears out the claim of narrator Powers Boothe in the show’s opening segment: “It was the month in which the American nation could have unraveled, the American idea could have died forever. But instead it became the month that saved America.” (Boothe is a fine narrator, but he’s got an unfortunate last name for a guy who has to tell us about the death of Lincoln.)
I’ve read a shelf or two of books on the Civil War, and Jay Winik’s April 1865, published in 2001, is one of the best — right up there with James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and a small handful of others. On the pages of National Review, novelist Thomas Mallon called it “Impressive … a fresh perspective … This is a deeply felt book, patriotic in the most informed and fundamental way.” Two weeks after 9/11, President Bush was photographed carrying a copy off Marine One — presumably because, in addition to telling a great story, it provides lessons in political leadership. (Winik is also an occasional NR/NRO contributor; he participated, for instance, in this symposium on wartime reading and this piece on the Confederate flag.)
Most movies aren’t as good as the books they’re based upon, and the TV version of April 1865 isn’t as good as what Winik wrote. But it’s still excellent, and well worth the two hours. So watch the show on Monday. Then read the book.