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The Other Great April

From the April 22, 2003 Dallas Morning News: The History Channel brings Jay Winik's Civil War masterpiece "April 1865" to life.

12:00 AM, Apr 25, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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HISTORIANS will look back at this month and regard it as one of our nation's most important ever. April 2003 will be seen as the month in which we toppled a regime that tyrannized its own people and was a threat to its region and even beyond it. We don't know what the liberation of Iraq will fully mean for the Iraqi people, nor what impact it will have elsewhere in the Middle East. But April 2003 is the month in which we spared the world from further atrocities ordered by Saddam Hussein.

A big accomplishment, yes, but another April--in 1865--remains even more significant. Two years ago, the historian Jay Winik published his best-selling book, "April 1865." That was the month the Civil War ended, and it remains so important because during that month the nation didn't implode, as indeed it might have, but survived. It was, as Winik's subtitle puts it, "The Month That Saved America."

Now, the History Channel, drawing on Winik's book, has re-created that amazing April. Its "April 1865" premiered earlier this month and will air a second time this Saturday.

The book remains primary--it is available in paperback--but the documentary, a production of Triage Entertainment Inc., is very good. The writers came up with a narrative that respects the integrity of Winik's book, and the producers made it into a film that certainly keeps your attention.

The History Channel likes to re-create events, and with the Civil War, of course, there is no shortage of grown men willing to suit up in the uniforms of 1865 and re-enact a battle or two. The re-enactments used in "April 1865" don't overwhelm it but are just long enough to make the necessary historical points.

Silently effective are the old photos of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, among others, that appear throughout the film. The music isn't as melancholy as it often is in Civil War films and at times seems too upbeat. The talking heads--Winik, Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia, and Donald Miller of Lafayette College--are used just as they should be: to emphasize and to sum up.

The History Channel understands itself as an educator and is encouraging classroom use of "April 1865," having prepared a teacher's guide. May schools across America now darken rooms for viewing: The documentary covers well the three great events of that month--the fall of Richmond, Lee's retreat and surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln's assassination. But most important of all, it conveys the central point of Winik's book--that events that now appear to us as "inevitable" were anything but that to those who lived through that momentous month.

Like the book, the film teaches the contingencies of history: We see Lee's hungry army in retreat, its hopes of regrouping dashed when a train that was supposed to be full of food is stacked with ammunition. What if, we are invited to wonder, the food had been there?

Also like the book, the film teaches the importance of human choice: We see Lee's army finally trapped, the indomitable general deciding what to do next. He chooses, we know, to lay down arms. But what if he had decided--as we see was urged on him--to head west for the mountains and mount a guerrilla resistance?

"The whole of our national history could have been altered," writes Winik in "April 1865," "but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate or a sudden shift of luck." Like the book, the film pauses long enough to enable the viewer to ponder what might have happened had Lincoln survived the bullet in his brain, or had his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, actually succeeded in killing others targeted in his plot to decapitate the entire Union government.

The documentary follows the book in drawing portraits of the key figures, both the generals and the presidents--Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and, of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. The photos used of Lincoln effectively relate his moods and his greatness. And like the book, the documentary doesn't shy from emphasizing how Lincoln was moved by his faith, how he saw himself as "an instrument of providence."

The History Channel deserves credit for making into a film Jay Winik's engrossing narrative about the final month of the Civil War. Had America not been saved that month, we wouldn't be where we are today--nor, it bears emphasizing, would history around the world, including in Iraq, have been the same.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.