With a subtitle asserting that April 1865 was "The Month That Saved America," Jay Winik 's latest narrative history would appear to be pure Yankee propaganda.
After all, the two famed historical events of that month are Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and President Lincoln's assassination - and no respectable person could write a book saying the latter tragedy "saved America."
But Winik , who excitingly chronicled the end of the Cold War in "On the Brink," has given us another incredibly readable book which is as much about what did not happen in April 1865 as it is about what did.
Such historians as Thomas Fleming and Joseph Ellis have made the point recently that the American Revolution was unique in history because the aftermath led to peace and liberty, rather than chaos, war and political persecution.
But as Winik points out, it is even more astounding that after a long and bloody civil war America could ever reunite, much less do so in the wake of the murder of the leader of the victorious side. This month could have easily finished America.
And since that leader, Lincoln, was the leading proponent of reconciliation with the South, it required statesmanship on the side of the defeated to make this nation whole again.
Winik writes, "What emerges from the panorama of April 1865 is that the whole of our national history could have been altered but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate, a sudden shift in luck."
While history texts treat Lee's surrender at Appomattox as the end of the Civil War, Winik shows it wasn't necessarily so - nor was it inevitable.
First, Lee commanded only the Army of Northern Virginia. While he was the South's most prominent and ablest commander, nearly as many men were under arms with Gen. Joe Johnson in North Carolina. There was no supreme commander of Confederate forces.
Second, while Lee's men could not fight on as a regular army for much longer, perhaps no army in modern history was as prepared to continue on as a guerilla force - especially with Lee's logistical genius.
Winik illustrates this in Lee's last march, a trek for supplies in a place called Amelia's Court House, which might have been successful save for an "administrative error" that sent ammunition instead of food for the starving troops.
Not only did Lee get advice from a commander on the scene to resort to guerilla warfare, it was Confederate President Jefferson Davis' policy to flee and fight on. Ultimately, both Lee and Johnson ignored their civilian leader when they surrendered their armies.
As when George Washington, his distant relative, made history by giving up power after leading a revolution, Lee was bucking the historical norm when he put the country first and refused to take to the hills to fight another day.
Of course, in most countries, he would know he was bound for horrible death after surrender. Lee said he was "surrendering to Lincoln's goodness" rather than to "Grant's army."
As an example to the South, Lee immediately began referring to himself as a citizen of the Union and condemned Lincoln's murder in the strongest of terms.
While "April 1865" focuses on the efforts of Lincoln, Grant and Lee to reconcile the country and the remarkable ease with which it was accomplished - despite the fact that Andrew Johnson was about the worst possible successor to the Great Emancipator - Winik also colors his account with ironies and little known facts about the Civil War and its end.
The most unexpected of these concerns Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose tactic of destroying civilian homes and farms in the South is still criticized more than 100 years later. But Sherman, who may have gone too far in the pursuit of victory, was raked over the coals by many in the North for being too generous in his peace terms with Joe Johnson.
Another is the fact that at the end of the war, the Confederate forces were more integrated by race than the Union's -who incorporated blacks into segregated units only. Winik details a long debate in the South about offering emancipation for slaves willing to wear the gray and the admission of many that the decision to allow slaves to fight was, in effect, the end of slavery, no matter who won the war.
"April 1865" is as readable as the factual Civil War novels of the Shaaras. It is everything a popular history book should be: well researched, provocative and even inspiring. Buffs will enjoy it, but this is a book for everyone.