restricted access How Wars End and the Writing of History: An Interview with Jay Winik
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1 8 Historically Speaking · February 2003 How Wars End and the Writing of History:An Interview with Jay Winik Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa JAY WlNIK is a senior scholar ofhistory and publicpolicy atthe University ofMarylandsSchool ofPublicAffairs. His April 1865: The Month That Saved America (HarperCollins, 2001) is now out inpaperback. Donald Yerxa: Let me start with what may seem like a cheeky question: why do we need another book on the Civil War? Jay Winik: At one level one could argue that maybe we don't. More books have been written on the Civil War than any other subject save for the Bible andJesus. And I think it is also safe to say that the level and caliber ofthe books written about the Civil War are extremely high. There is, however, always something to be said for the scholarly value of reexamining familiar topics. And in the case of the Civil War that was what I tried to do. What was a little different in my case was that I am not by training a Civil War historian. I spent my formative years in the policy world, and because of those years in the defense and foreign policy arena, I was able to bring a fresh gaze to the Civil War— at least that was what I was hoping to do. Yerxa: What drew you to this particular topic? Winik: In the years that I was in the defense and foreign policy arena, I traveled around the world and witnessed first-hand a number ofcivil wars. Probably the most powerful and poignant of these experiences for me was Cambodia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a fear that Cambodia could descend into another ghastly civil war with yet another horrific killing fields. And upon seeing all these different kinds ofcivil wars, one thing struck me: many civil wars end badly, with terribly tragic consequences yielding even more bloodshed and strife. And that got me thinking about what happened in the American Civil War. Why did that epic struggle conclude so well, comparatively speaking? Jay Winik. Yerxa: What were you trying to accomplish with April 1865? Winik: I was trying to write a narrative ofwhat happened at the end ofthe war, but in such a way that I could explore why our civil war did not end badly with dire consequences, even though it easily could have. And I wanted to place readers back into the closing weeks ofthe war to help them get a sense of the crucial decisions as they were being made, so that they could appreciate the tension and the drama that the participants themselves experienced. Yerxa: You note that "the Civil War could have ended in many ways." What are some ofthe ways in which the outcome ofthe war could have been different—indeed, very different? Winik: Let's just take three quick snapshots from this pivotal month ofApril 1865. First, on the fateful morning ofApril 9, Robert E. Lee's army was surrounded, and he called a council ofwar. One of his senior aides raised the question of guerrilla war, which Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, had already been calling for, and indeed hundreds of Lee's men, scattering into the hills and forests, were anticipating just such an eventuality . But Lee resisted temptation and concluded that attempting to fight a guerrilla war would impose too much bloodshed and chaos upon the country. It was then that he decided to surrender. Had Lee agreed to guerrilla war, I think it is quite likely that we would be living in a different country today. We could have gone the way ofthe Balkans or Northern Ireland, or—God forbid—we might even have witnessed something like . the "Middle Eastemization" of America, or even the Vietnamization ofAmerica. So that was one fateful decision. A second pivotal moment happened just five days after Lee's surrender. Let me set the stage. There were still three Confederate armies in the field, over 175,000 fighters presumably willing to fight to the bitter end, andJefferson Davis's government was on the run, calling for prolonged and partisan war. So it was a very real question whether the...


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