Jewish World Review April 25, 2003 / 23 Nisan, 5763

Terry Eastland

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Another April that mattered | 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". (CLICK ON LINK TO BUY). 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 Mr. Winik's subtitle puts it, "The Month That Saved America."

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

The book remains primary but the documentary, a production of Triage Entertainment Inc., is very good. The writers came up with a narrative that respects the integrity of Mr. 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 - Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Winik in April 1865, "but for a few decisions, a quirk of fate or a sudden shift of luck."

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.

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Terry Eastland