April 2015 marks 150 years since the most important month in American history, April 1865.  This anniversary probably won’t be remembered, although it should be.  In the span of a single week that April, two events occurred that have marked American history ever since: the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The Civil War had begun on an April day in 1861 when Southern forces attacked federal property at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, but it had its inception at the very beginning of the county in the controversy over slavery.

Slavery was a moral issue in the abolitionist north; it was a state’s rights issue in the slave-holding south.  But it was also an economic issue; northerners resented having to pay for their labor while southerners depended on their slaves; the south resented the north’s interference in what it said was a uniquely southern institution.

Now it was all coming to an end; on April 6, 1865, at a small stream in central Virginia called Sayler’s Creek the Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee suffered their last defeat, in a battle that cost Lee the capture of six of his generals including his own son.

Three days later, on April 9, at a crossroads town a few miles away called Appomattox Courthouse, Lee surrendered the Confederate army to Union General Ulysses Grant, who demanded of Lee what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would demand of the defeated German army exactly 80 years and one month later, total surrender.

President Lincoln had made it clear that once defeated, the south could be readmitted to the Union (that he said it had never left), without malice.  “Get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops,” he ordered, “Let them have their horses to plow with, and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with.  I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around.  We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”

But it was not to be.  On Good Friday, April 14, just five days after the surrender, Lincoln was murdered by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth while attending a play.

Lincoln had made one terrible mistake, the man he selected for vice president in 1864, a former Tennessee senator named Andrew Johnson.  The new president was completely incapable of putting the country back together.  His relations with a vengeful Congress were so bad he was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped removal from office by the Senate by a single vote.

For 12 years the southern states remained under a northern military occupation called “Reconstruction.”  In 1876, the north finally tired of its occupation, and pulled out.  Resentful white southerners took back their states and imposed on their former slaves a system of strict racial segregation that lasted for most of the next century.

The events of April 1865 have reverberated throughout our history since that fateful month. Had Lincoln lived Reconstruction would not have been so oppressive an experience for the defeated south.  Today’s racial unrest has its inception in those long years of racial segregation that only ended legally in the 1960s, but a racially divided country remains with us today.

The defeated south returned to its agrarian past and for the next 100 years remained the poorest part of the country.  After Reconstruction, economically, culturally and to a large extent politically the south went its own way. Only in recent years, has the south caught up economically to the rest of the country.

Interestingly, the south came back into the Union in a most unusual way.  After 1930, Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, a domination that lasted with only two short breaks until 1994.  The one party Democratic south came to dominate the major committees of congress, and southern Democrats became masters at sending federal dollars to their states, especially for military installations.

It was said of Charleston, where the Civil War began, that if its powerful congressman, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee, put one more military base into his district it would sink into Charleston Harbor.

So one of the ironies of April 1865 is that the Old South, which so much wanted to free of the Union in the 19th Century, came to dominate much of federal decision making in the 20th Century.