News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective
13th June 2010

April, 1865

posted in Books |

I finally finished my Lowell Reads Lincoln book, April, 1865, by Jay Winik (my three online classes are cutting into my reading time), and I ended up liking it despites some reservations about his repetitive, often hyperbolic prose style. (I really think there are not enough good editors around). His reasearch does seem to have been extensive, and his book is a useful consolidation of many scholarly points about the end days of the Civil War. His thesis seems to be that the month of April, 1865 was a turning point in the nation’s history, and that it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. He mentions several times that the words ‘nation’ or ‘national’ appear nowhere in the Constitution and that prior to the Civil War, the country was invariably referred to in the plural as “these United States” or “the United States are” with the emphasis on the plurality, the independence and the sovereignty of the individual states. Indeed, there were many secessional movements before the Civil War, including one engendered in New England over the War of 1812. Who knew? So, the Civil War itself seemed to create, out of bloodshed and carnage, a national identity where there was none before; in fact, it appears that “the Confederate national identiy in 1861 was actually far stronger than any collective American identiy alive at the time of the Constitution” (47). Winik cites many historical examples where a civil war left a country ripped apart, beset by partisan acts of terror and guerrilla warfare, the fear of which haunted Lincoln’s last days, and he highlights the magnanimity of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman and others in settling the terms of peace so that there were no vicious reprisals against the losers. What he does well is restore the tension and suspense of those last days, where it was by no means certain that the war would end, that Lee wouldn’t have a lucky break and get away from Grant, that partisan bands wouldn’t take to the hills or to Texas to continue the fight as was urged by the Confederate president. He ends by noting one of the first uses of the United States in the singular when, after the war, a noted historian’s 1834 work was edited to read, “the United States is…” Pretty remarkable.

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