April is the cruelest month, and April 2020 will be the cruelest April in decades.  Sometime this April the Covid 19 pandemic will possibly explode; with luck it will crest and the “curve flatten”, but no one knows for sure when.  

Americans have been through terrible Aprils before, but this will be one of the worst.     

April 1865 was the most important month for Americans in the 19th Century.  On April 6 that year, retreating Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee reach a small stream in central Virginia known as Saylor’s Creek.  

Here they engaged the mighty Union army under Gen. Ulysses Grant.  

When the battle was over Lee had been routed, losing six generals and a quarter of his army.  The Confederate remnants continued westward, three days later surrendering to Grant at a small junction called Appomattox Courthouse.  The Civil War, with 600,000 dead Americans, was over, but the relief and cheering in the victorious north was short lived. On Friday April 14, just five days after the surrender, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Lincoln has promised a peace “with malice toward none, with charity toward all” in his Second Inaugural Address, but it was not to be.  As something of an afterthought, he had chosen as his running mate in 1864, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee named Andrew Johnson who had stayed loyal to the Union, and he was now president.

The events of that April reverberated throughout American history for the next century.  Johnson was incompetent and stupid, the Congress vindictive and the south resentful. Once white southerners got back control of their states, they imposed segregation and Jim Crow on their former slaves, and the south became and remained an economic basket case for the next hundred years.  April 1865 was indeed a cruel April.

Some 77 years later, America went through another cruel April, this one, like 1865, bringing into question the very survival of the country.  April 1942 was surely the worst month of World War II.

In the four months following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had free run throughout the Pacific.  On December 8, they had destroyed the American air forces at Clark Field in the Philippines. They had sunk the prides of the British Navy, the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales and then took Singapore and Hong Kong.  In January, 1942, the Japanese had occupied Manila.  On March 8, they took Rangoon and began their conquest to Burma. The next day, March 9, the Dutch East Indies surrendered.  At the end of March, Admiral Nagumo, commander of the Pearl Harbor attack, sailed his aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean intending to finish off the last remnants of the British Navy.

And then came April, the cruel month. 

On April 9, the American Army surrendered at Bataan in the Philippines, and some 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers began the 65-mile long Bataan Death March to their prison camps.  All that remained of the American presence in Asia was a small force on the island of Corregidor that would surrender the following month. In Burma, the Chinese and British were retreating toward India as the Japanese marched along the road to Mandalay to complete their occupation of that British colony.

On April 5, Adolf Hitler issued his Directive 41, to complete the conquest of the Soviet Union begun the previous summer.  Now that the Russian winter was over his forces were to head south taking the oil fields at Baku and the city of Stalingrad. In North Africa, Gen. Rommel’s Western Desert Campaign had driven the British into Egypt, and it seemed only a matter of time until his panzers roared across the Middle East destroying everything in its path.

With the fall of Burma India would be open to the Japanese.  They could race across India and meet up the Nazi forces in southern Russia or Rommel’s panzers in Iran, or both.  Meanwhile, with America battleships at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and its army on the Bataan Death March, Nagumo moved his carriers toward the small island of Midway intending to destroy what remained of the American navy.

While Californians awaited the inevitable Japanese landing on the west coast, it looked that cruel April like Russia and Britain would be defeated once the two pronged Nazi advance met up with the Japanese, and that America would be forced into a humiliating surrender with no army, no navy and no allies left to fight on.  

Cruel April ended but cruel May seemed no better.  On May 2, the British surrendered Mandalay; on May 4 the Japanese moved toward Port Moresby in New Guinea, setting off the Battle of the Coral Sea; on May 6, Corregidor fell and the Japanese conquest of the Philippines was complete.  Did it not seem like the war was about over in a massive allied defeat?

Of course that never happened.  In June, Admiral Nimitz sank much of the Japanese carrier fleet at Midway; in August, the battle of Stalingrad began, leading to a complete German rout; and in November British Gen. Montgomery defeated Rommel at El Alamein. 

So some 78 Aprils later California and America again face their own very cruel month.  Perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 Americans will die before the month is out. Perhaps the entire American economy, in near total shutdown, will collapse.

Or perhaps not.  Death rates in California seem slower than the national average.  In the US as a whole, our death rate per one million people is two percent, in Italy it is 12 percent, in Spain nine percent.  California at least seems to have gone into lockdown earlier than other parts of the country. Perhaps warming weather will slow the virus as it does the flu. Nevertheless the next 30 days look like a horrendous time; this will be an April to remember.