april 1865: the month that saved america

by Jay Winik

(Perennial, 461 pages, $14.95)

There is a chilling passage about halfway through April 1865: "They move quickly, attack fast, and just as quickly scatter. They strike at night--or in the day...they assault military targets, or, just as often, hunt down random civilians. In short, they may hit at the rear of the enemy, or at its infrastructure, or, most devastating of all, at its psyche; the only constant is that they move when least expected, and invariably in a way to maximize impact."

Writing several months before the Sept. 11 attacks, author Jay Winik is actually describing guerrilla warfare--a very real prospect in the waning days of the Civil War. A few days after 9/11, though, President Bush was seen toting a copy of the book, and Winik was invited to dinner at Dick Cheney's house to discuss lessons from history in the war on terrorism. So what parallels can be drawn between the most momentous month in this nation's history (which included Lee's surrender, Lincoln's assassination and Andrew Johnson's teetering accession as president) and our current crisis?

Virtually none that this reviewer can see. But George W.'s delusions that his troubles somehow match Honest Abe's shouldn't be allowed to spoil the fact that this is a smart, captivating read about a critical period in which the preservation of the Union was anything but a done deal. Winik gets carried away in the breathless rush of his narrative (who wouldn't?), but his eye for detail never blinks and his arguments are sound. He over-romanticizes Robert E. Lee, for instance, but he rightly credits the Confederate general with sparing the nation from a guerrilla war that could have spun out the conflict for decades.

Winik is also careful to place the Lincoln assassination in context; this was not a simple revenge killing but part of a larger plot to decapitate the Union government (Lincoln's VP and Secretary of State were also to die). By shooting Lincoln, Winik argues, John Wilkes Booth slew the most powerful friend the Confederacy had left. Reconstruction would have gone far easier for the South if the Great Emancipator had lived.

Jay Winik appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, April 29.