The month that saved America

By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist
Mac McPhail -

They are the right person, at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. They are leaders. But sometimes that right place is a difficult place. And often, that right time is a difficult time. That’s when that right person, that leader, is so important.

The difficult time was April 1865. The difficult place was right here in the United States. The Civil War had torn our country apart for four bloody years. I was reminded of those difficult times, as I recently reread Jay Winik’s excellent chronicle of those times, aptly titled, “April 1865.” (I bought it for 25 cents during the last book sale at the library. Check it out the next time they have a sale.) The subtitle of the book calls that month, “The month that saved America.”

In his book, Winik writes of how President Abraham Lincoln, General U.S. Grant and General William T. Sherman in the North, along with General Robert E. Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston in the South, worked for a peaceful, reconciling end of the bitter, costly and deadly war. This was in spite of the many in the South who wanted to keep the war going, and popular opinion in the North, who wanted to severely punish the South for succeeding from the Union. This is where the leadership of these men is shown.

More than anything, President Lincoln wanted to bring the country, North and South, back together again as one nation. Then, slavery could be totally eliminated. He knew placing harsh conditions on the Confederate soldiers as terms for surrender would only hinder that goal. Lincoln let his desire for an easy surrender known to Grant and Sherman as they were closing in on Lee and Johnston.

As for Lee and Johnston, they were under pressure to continue fighting, no matter what. As the Union forces closed in, one of Lee’s generals counseled him to disband his army, send them to the hills, and let them continue on the war as guerrilla fighters. Knowing the long term chaos and destruction it would cause, Lee refused and surrendered his army to Grant on April 9 at Appomattox. A few days later, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston not to surrender his army as Sherman was closing in. He wanted Johnston to disband his army inorder that they could become groups of guerrilla fighters for the South. Johnston ignored the order and surrendered to Sherman at Bennett House, near Durham.

Remembering Lincoln’s desire for an easy peace, Grant and Sherman made the terms for their Confederate counterpart’s surrender much more agreeable to accept. The terms were basically this: Quit fighting and go back homes to your families. They even allowed Confederate soldiers to keep their horses, if they had one, because they would need them on their farms for planting that spring,

Because of these leaders, the reconciliation of the North and South, after such a bitter and destructive war, started on the right path. Sadly, it wouldn’t continue that way. Lee and Johnston were vehemently criticized by many in the South for surrendering, as were Grant and Sherman in the North, for their generous terms of surrender. Many in the North accused even Sherman of being a traitor, saying he was paid off by Southerners in gold. (Ironically, it’s the same General Sherman Southerners hated for his scorched-earth tactics during the war.)

Then there was President Lincoln. He was despised by many in the North, including many in his Cabinet, for being too soft on the South. Sadly, because of a bullet from John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln never had the chance to achieve his goal of gently bringing the South back into the Union. General Johnston knew that. When informed of Lincoln’s death, he exclaimed, “Great God! Terrible! The greatest possible calamity for the South!” He was right. The South would suffer under the iron hand of Radical Reconstruction, and the bitterness would continue.

In April 1865, those leaders did the right thing, and we are a better country today because of it. It wasn’t the easy thing, the popular thing, and it cost those leaders. It cost Abraham Lincoln his life. Maybe there are such leaders around today. But first, they will probably have to check with their polls to find out what they believe in.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist