The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, September 18, 2019 1:00 am


Critical choices

In library lecture, author recounts how April 1865 saved fragile, fractured nation

Abraham Lincoln changed trains in Fort Wayne on his way east one day in February 1860 then again on his way back to his home in Springfield, Illinois, two months later. It was probably just a few minutes each way.

But one may be forgiven for presuming that Lincoln spent a great deal of time in this community. Since it opened in 1930, the Lincoln Tower has helped define downtown Fort Wayne; it was for several decades the tallest building in Indiana. The Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. was founded here in 1905; its vast collection of Lincoln's papers is now housed at the Allen County Public Library. And all that Lincolnania has produced a small army of local residents fascinated by the life of America's 16th president.

Monday night, they packed the library's lecture room to hear Jay Winik discuss “April 1865: The Month That Changed America,” his best-selling book about Lincoln, the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and the end of the Civil War.

Winik is not just a prominent historian. Before he began to write books, he was a specialist in foreign civil wars who helped to create the United Nations plan to end the civil war in Cambodia. His experiences with conflicts within other nations inform his view of the actions of Lincoln and Lee in 1865.

“Throughout history,” Winik told his audience, “far too many civil wars have ended badly, with more bloodshed, and more violence, and more mayhem. Our Civil War could have ended just as badly ... but didn't,” he said. “Why?”

Just before that crucial April, Winik said, Lincoln had become increasingly anxious to reach an agreement that would bring the war to a close. But Lee and his lieutenants considered fighting on, even if it meant taking their troops and horses into the hills to continue the fight as guerrillas.

“That of course is what Abraham Lincoln himself feared ... with all his heart and all his being,” Winik said. The South still had the resources and skilled leadership to sustain a formidable guerrilla campaign for years. It might, Wink said, have led to a permanent split between the North and the Confederacy.

When his retreat from Richmond was cut off, Lee decided to surrender his army on April 9. Lincoln was prepared to usher in a “soft peace” that would make the rebels feel welcome rejoining the Union. But five days later, the president was assassinated, and there was a resurgence of hope among the Confederates; perhaps they could fight on. Lee then became the crucial decision-maker, urging the other Southern armies to lay down their arms and accept the peace, averting the possibility that the conflict would “devolve into an unending cycle of chaos and bloodshed,” Winik said.

Winik says he is drawn to history's turning points, and he is adept at illustrating how events that month altered everything that followed in America. “Think of Ireland, which went on for years after years; think of the ongoing turmoil in the Balkans and Lebanon and once in Cambodia,” Winik said. “Think of Afghanistan today. How wars end is every bit as crucial as why they start, and how they're fought.”

Since its inception, America seems to have had individuals who were able to step up in those moments when history – and perhaps millions of lives – can turn on a dime.

“In the final analysis, what we see is that a handful of men rose to the occasion,” Winik said. “This, 'April 1865,' was a story of leadership ... of vision, a story not of war but of peace.”

So there is another clear lesson one may draw from Winik's meticulous account of the last days of the Civil War. Choose your leaders carefully.

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