This is Jay Winik’s story of the [almost] end of the Civil War. He calls April of 1865 “the month that saved America.” Mr. Winik is obviously a genius marketer and he’s an engaging writer, but that’s all hyperbole. By April of 1865 the war was almost over, and many confederates saw the writing on the wall. He hangs his hat on the supposition that the confederates considered and could have launched a guerrilla campaign that would extend the conflict by years and exhaust the will of the United States to continue the conflict, thus resulting in at least thousands more casualties and a disunited America. But is that supposition correct?
While the author certainly did a great deal of research, putting many hours and much effort into the book, it does have its share of flaws. He claims, “And so fervent were they [the confederates] in their desire to earn their independence that after an extensive, protracted debate, they had even held out the promise of freedom to any black man who would fight for their cause.” [p. xii] That’s not exactly correct. The legislation didn’t promise freedom for any slaves who fought. Jefferson Davis, in his implementing instructions, specified that any slaves who volunteered had to have been freed by their owners before they could be enlisted. This is one example of his not reading the evidence carefully enough. There are others.
In writing about Thomas Jefferson, Winik says, “And though an emancipationist in theory, warning that slavery was ‘the dreadful firebell in the night,’ Jefferson never systematically pursued an end to its practice.” [p. 9] While he’s right that “Jefferson never systematically pursued an end to its practice,” he didn’t call slavery the “firebell in the night.” In his letter to John Holmes dated April 22, 1820, Jefferson wrote, “I thank you, Dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read the newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burthen on a greater number of co-adjutors. An abstinence too from this act of power would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress, to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. This certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the general government. Could congress, for example say that the Non-freemen of Connecticut, shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other state? I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ‘76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself as the faithful advocate of union I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect. Th. Jefferson”
Jefferson was writing about the agitation over slavery in the debates over the admission of Missouri as the fire bell in the night, not slavery itself. The metaphor he used for slavery in that letter was the “wolf by the ear.” And as we can see, he didn’t use the term “dreadful firebell in the night.”
Winik also claims, “For all of Jefferson’s love of the United States–there was no fiercer patriot and ardent expansionist–his love of his home state ran even deeper: he referred to Virginia not just as ‘a nation,’ but also as ‘my country’; he described Virginians as ‘my countrymen’ and for a time spoke of the United States Congress as ‘a foreign legislature’; he even called the Union ‘a confederacy.’ And it was this duality, above all else, that fiercely tugged at him all his life and, in turn, at the nation in the years before the Civil War.” [p. 10] Let’s test that. In a letter to Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, dated March 3, 1804, he wrote, “Altho’ it is long since I received your favor of Oct. 27, yet I have not had leisure sooner to acknolege [sic] it. In the middle Southern States, as great an union [sic] of sentiment has now taken place as is perhaps desirable. For as there will always be an opposition, I believe it had better be from avowed monarchists than republicans. New York seems to be in danger of republican division; Vermont is solidly with us; R. I. with us on anomalous grounds; N. H. on the verge of the republican shore; Connecticut advancing towards it very slowly, but with steady step; your State only uncertain of making port at all. I had forgotten Delaware, which will be always uncertain, from the divided character of her citizens. If the amendment of the Constitution passes R. I., (and we expect to hear in a day or two,) the election for the ensuing 4 years seems to present nothing formidable. I sincerely regret that the unbounded calumnies of the federal party have obliged me to throw myself on the verdict of my country for trial, my great desire having been to retire, at the end of the present term, to a life of tranquillity; and it was my decided purpose when I entered into office. They force my continuance. If we can keep the vessel of State as steadily in her course another 4 years, my earthly purposes will be accomplished, and I shall be free to enjoy, as you are doing, my family, my farm, & my books.” It’s obvious here that “my country” refers to the United States. In a letter to Thomas McKean, dated January 17, 1804, Jefferson wrote, “I have duly received your favor of the 8th but the act of ratification which it announces is not yet come to hand. No doubt it is on it’s way. That great opposition is and will be made by federalists to this amendment is certain. They know that if it prevails, neither a Presidt or Vice President can ever be made but by the fair vote of the majority of the nation, of which they are not. That either their opposition to the principle of discrimination now, or their advocation of it formerly was on party, not moral motives, they cannot deny. Consequently they fix for themselves the place in the scale of moral rectitude to which they are entitled. I am a friend to the discriminating principle; and for a reason more than others have, inasmuch as the discriminated vote of my constituents will express unequivocally the verdict they wish to east on my conduct. The abominable slanders of my political enemies have obliged me to call for that verdict from my country in the only way it can be obtained, and if obtained it will be my sufficient voucher to the rest of the world & to posterity, and leave me free to seek, at a definite time, the repose I sincerely wished to have retired to now.” Once again, “my country” clearly refers to the United States. In a letter to the inhabitants of Albemarle County, Virginia, dated April 3, 1809, Jefferson wrote, “Returning to the scenes of my birth and early life, to the society of those with whom I was raised, and who have been ever dear to me, I receive, fellow citizens and neighbors, with inexpressible pleasure, the cordial welcome you are so good as to give me. Long absent on duties which the history of a wonderful era made incumbent on those called to them, the pomp, the turmoil, the bustle and splendor of office, have drawn but deeper sighs for the tranquil and irresponsible occupations of private life, for the enjoyment of an affectionate intercourse with you, my neighbors and friends, and the endearments of family love, which nature has given us all, as the sweetener of every hour. For these I gladly lay down the distressing burthen of power, and seek, with my fellow citizens, repose and safety under the watchful cares, the labors, and perplexities of younger and abler minds. The anxieties you express to administer to my happiness, do, of themselves, confer that happiness; and the measure will be complete, if my endeavors to fulfil my duties in the several public stations to which I have been called, have obtained for me the approbation of my country. The part which I have acted on the theatre of public life, has been before them; and to their sentence I submit it; but the testimony of my native country, of the individuals who have known me in private life, to my conduct in its various duties and relations, is the more grateful, as proceeding from eye witnesses and observers, from triers of the vicinage.” Here “my country” refers to the United States, but “my native country” refers to Virginia, and specifically to Albemarle County. There are, of course, more than one meaning to the word “country,” one being “a nation or a state,” but another being “
Winik claims the American Revolution was an act of secession [p. 16], which is an absurdity. He also claims, “The first spark assaulting national unity pitted not North against South, over slavery, but West against East, over taxes.” [p. 16] He’s referring to the Whiskey Rebellion, but he’s apparently unaware that the issue of slavery threatened the American Union almost from the beginning, with the arguments over Jefferson’s antislavery clause in the Declaration of Independence and the southern threat to stay out of the Union if the Constitution threatened slavery. He also claims, “The United States was just as often ‘the states United,’ or ‘the united States,’ or even ‘a league of sovereign states,’ and was invariably spoken of as a plural noun.” [p. 19] In reading works from an era of relaxed capitalization, one shouldn’t put too much stock in which words were capitalized. Also, this was an era where British English was the norm, and British English treated all collective nouns, such as “United States” as a plural, whereas today’s American English treats those nouns in the singular.
To say Winik mishandles evidence is to be charitable. He fumbles evidence, seemingly whenever he can. He calls the River Queen “Grant’s floating headquarters,” [p. 66] when in fact it was no such thing. In referring to the start of the Overland Campaign he writes, “Lee lay in wait in the steaming green tangle of the Wilderness.” [pp. 89-91] Lee didn’t lay in wait for Grant, but marched to meet Grant.
Perhaps the most egregious example of fumbling evidence is the crux of his argument. When writing of Edward Porter Alexander’s talk with Lee, he claims, “Instead, Alexander suggested a Confederate trump card, in fact, the specter most dreaded by Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman: that the men take to the woods, evaporate into the hills, and become guerrillas. ‘Two thirds’ would get away, Alexander contended. ‘We would be like rabbits or partridges in the bushes,’ he said, ‘and they could not scatter to follow us.’ ” [p. 146] That is such a complete misuse of the evidence–a fumbling of it–that if it were done by a professional historian he would probably be guilty of some type of malpractice. Let’s look at what Alexander actually wrote: “For about a year now there had been no exchange of prisoners. So, to me either capture or surrender meant going to prison for an indefinite period, maybe for years, & with all sorts of hardships & persecutions. So I had made up my mind that if ever a white flag was raised I would take to the bushes. And, somehow, I would manage to get out of the country & would go to Brazil. Brazil was just going to war with Paraguay, & I could doubtless get a place in their artillery, if only captain or lieutenant of a battery, & then I would send for my wife & children. And judging from the map, then for once I would be on the winning side. So, when the general said in effect that it was impossible to cut our way out, i was glad of the unexpected opportunity, & spoke from the fullness of my heart as follows: ‘Well, Sir, then we have only two alternatives to choose from. We must either surrender; or, the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.’ ‘Well,’ said Gen. Lee, ‘what would you hope to accomplish by that?’ ‘Well, Sir,’ I said, ‘If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay. For if the Army of Northern Va. surrenders every other army will surrender as fast as the news reaches it. For it is the morale of this army which has supported the whole Confederacy. And Grant if necessary could move successively on each with 100,000 men & they would go like a row of bricks. If there is any hope of help from abroad, we stand the chances by delay. But if the news of the surrender of this army crosses the water it ends every possible chance from there. Meanwhile, the one thing left us now to fight for is to try & get some sort of terms; not to be absolutely helpless, & at the mercy of the enemy. The Confederacy will never be recognised in a treaty, & never can get terms, but there have been intimations that the states might be recognized. That Vance might make peace for North Carolina, & Brown for Georgia. That is why I suggest sending the men to their states instead of to Johnston, that the governors may make some sort of show and get some sort of terms.’ ‘But General,’ I said at the last; & now I was wound up to a pitch of feeling I could scarcely control: ‘if there is no hope, & no terms possible, & if this is just the end, & the wreck of all things; there is still one thing that the men who have fought under you for four years now have the right to ask you. You don’t care for military fame & glory, but we are proud of your name & record & the record of this army. We want to leave it to our children. Its last hour has come and a little blood more or less now makes no difference. And the men that have fought under you for four years have got the right to ask you to spare us the mortification of having you ask Grant for terms & have him reply ‘Unconditional Surrender.’ They call him that: U.S. Unconditional Surrender Grant. General, spare us the mortification of having you receive that reply.’ Usually I stood very much in awe of Gen. Lee but now I was wrought up & words came to me as never before. And as I made my points they seemed to me unanswerable. And at the end when I made, on top of all my good logic, an appeal that I knew the soldier in him must respond to I believed firmly that I had him, & he would do it. He had listened very patiently until I finished & then he said, ‘If I took your suggestion & ordered the army to disperse how many do you suppose would get away?’ I answered: ‘Two thirds of us I think would get away. We would scatter like rabbits & partridges in the woods, & they could not scatter so to catch us.’ ” [Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, Gary Gallagher, ed., pp. 530-532]
There’s no talk of guerrilla warfare there. Alexander is suggesting two options: First, unite with Johnston’s army; Second, return to their states and become part of an organized state militia. The idea that Alexander suggested guerrilla warfare is a complete and total delusion. But Winik isn’t about to wake up from this dream. He next claims Jefferson Davis called for guerrilla warfare: “For his part, West Point graduate and former U.S. secretary of war Jefferson Davis was aware of much, if not all, of this illuminating past. Now, in April 1865, with his government on the run, he was thinking precisely about such things as a war of extermination, a Confederate ulcer, a national war that ruins the enemy. In short, guerrilla resistance. The day after Richmond fell, Davis had called on the Confederacy to shift from a static conventional war in defense of territory and population centers to a dynamic guerrilla war of attrition, designed to wear down the North and force it to conclude that keeping the South in the Union would not be worth the interminable pain and ongoing sacrifice. ‘We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle the memory of which is to endure for all ages,’ he declared. ‘… Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve.’ He concluded thus: ‘Let us but will it, and we are free.’ ” [p. 150] Winik fumbles the evidence again, as nothing in here is a call for guerrilla warfare. You can read the entire message here. Davis is calling for continued civilian support of the organized forces of the confederacy in the field, as he now expects the army to operate much as the Continental Army operated under George Washington, maintaining itself and striking weak points not in a guerrilla operation but in conventional warfare, as organized soldiers.
The book also suffers from a number of lesser factual errors. He claims Nathan Bedford Forrest was a guerrilla fighter [p. 157]. While Forrest was unconventional, he was no guerrilla. He claims Grant was caught drunk on duty in 1854, which led to his resignation from the Army. [p. 176] There’s no evidence that’s what happened. He claims Grant “reenlisted” in 1861. [p. 177] As an officer, Grant didn’t enlist or reenlist. He asks the question, “Would the spirit of Appomattox infuse the rest of the tattered Confederacy, still prepared to fight and die for the Stars and Bars?” [p. 198] The Stars and Bars was the First National Flag, which at that time was no longer the official flag of the confederacy. If he’s talking about the battle flag, it wasn’t a standard flag either. And he is another who makes the ridiculous claim that the Civil War changed the way Americans refer to collective nouns: “Before the war, Americans often spoke of the United States in the plural–‘The United States are … ‘ For example, in his classic work on the history of America, noted historian John H. Hinton wrote in 1834: ‘By some, the United States are highly eulogized; by others, they are eagerly depreciated.’ Sometime after the war, however, so changed was America that this was now modified to a singular noun. Thus, Hinton’s words would become, ‘The United States is …’ ” [pp. 378-379] As I’ve written several times here, and my blogging colleague Andy Hall has also demonstrated on another forum, this is poppycock. “The United States is,” according to Google n-gram, became more popular than “The United States are” in the 1830s.
Finally, the notes section is utterly useless. He doesn’t use standard footnotes or even standard citations to quotes. Instead, for each chapter he tells us what general sources he used and only rarely points us to a specific source for a specific quotation. Thus it’s incredibly difficult to track down specific sources if he quotes something that’s not already well known. To me, that renders the book as a whole of little value.
Even though the book is well written and the narrative flows smoothly, I cannot in all good conscience recommend this book for readers. Save your money and skip this one.