Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning: A Library of America Special Publication – Harol Holzer

LincolnThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), remains a pivotal moment in American history when the nation was truly at a crossroads.  A brutal civil war had just ended and millions of former slaves found themselves unsure of their future post-bondage.  The former Confederacy was left in shambles and the Radical Republicans were intent on reconstructing the south in the model of the Union as a whole.  Lincoln, was either loved or hated depending on who you asked. In the Confederacy, there was no love lost when he was murdered and as Jefferson Davis (1809-1889) bluntly stated: “Well, General, I don’t know; if it were to be done at all, it were better that it were well done; and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would then be complete.”  Investigators had tried to link Davis to the assassination but the former Confederate leader was never tried or convicted for Lincoln’s murder. The crime cast a dark cloud over the nation and millions of American went into mourning at the loss of the fallen leader.  Author Harold Holzer takes us back in time as we re-live the murder and events that followed as they happened in 1865.

The author opens with a brief description of events at Ford’s Theater as Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) watched the play Our American Cousin. Around 10:15 p.m, a stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) fired a single shot sending a derringer bullet barreling into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him and changing American history. The assassin made a quick escape as he jumped down to the stage and uttered the infamous words “sic semper tyrannus”. Pandemonium ensued as doctors and guards rushed to Lincoln’s side. But doctors quickly realized that the president was beyond help. He was moved to the dwelling of William A. Petersen and at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds. The shocking murder of the president sent shockwaves across the city and nation but before long, authorities knew the identity of the man they were looking forward and his conspirators including Lewis Powell (1844-1865) who had also attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). The chain of events comes roaring back to life through cables to Washington, newspaper articles and statements from witnesses and the even the officer who shot and fatally wounded Booth, Sgt. Boston Corbett (1832-1894), whose own life story is beyond puzzling.

At the beginning of the chapter’s the author provides relevant information to help the reader keep things in context but lets the writer of the letter or article presented do the talking. A majority of the statements are from those who knew Lincoln and loved him while at least who are from Southern sympatizers who rejoiced at the news of his death. Their statements are also included and some readers may find themselves filling with anger at the words. Remarkably, even those who had once mocked Lincoln, found the appropriate words of endearment for the fallen president. Journalists and politicians alike make amends in the book while offering their words to Lincoln’s memory. Today it may be hard for some to appreciate how loved Lincoln was by many during his time even in spite of his detractors. Included in the book is this statement by historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) that truly captures the majority of opinions at the time:

How shall the nation most completely show its sorrow at Mr. Lincoln’s death? How shall it best honor his memory? There can be but one answer. He was struck down when he was highest in its service, and in strict conformity with duty was engaged in carrying out principles affecting its life, its good name, and its relations to the cause of freedom and the progress of mankind. Grief must take the character of action, and breathe itself forth in the assertion of the policy to which he fell a victim. The standard which he held in his hand must be uplifted again higher and more firmly than before, and must be carried on to triumph. – George Bancroft (1800-1891)

What I did notice in many of the statements provided is that the issue of slavery always remained prevalent. Some speakers addressed it head on while others included as an addition to their main point. But what is clear in the book is that the issue continued to be a hot topic of discussion with many wondering how the United States would move forward with millions of freed black men and women. Reconstruction was the goal of Lincoln and his associates in Congress but their efforts would be undermined by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1865) who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868.

The constitution was weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of prominent figures who sought to carry on Lincoln’s legacy and make America’s black population a legitimate part of the American experience. But first, Lincoln’s funeral needed to be held and sadly, even with him lying in state and on his way to the grave, blacks would feel the wrath of discrimination as they were initially barred from the funeral procession. It truly is mind-boggling but did actually happen and the criticism leveled at the Common Council in New York City is included as well. The order was defied and reversed but left a sour taste in the mouths of blacks who had already experienced their share of indignations at the hands of bigots. Outrage ran so high that even the Secretary of War Edward Stanton (1814-1869) stepped in and personally ordered that blacks be permitted to march in the funeral procession. As I read this part of the book, I shook my head in disbelief. But this was America in 1865.

The amount of speakers who appear in the book is extensive and include Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) whose statements in tribute to Lincoln may surprise some readers. As to how sincere Stephens was in his words regarding slavery, we shall never truly know. However, he did show Lincoln the utmost respect in death even if they were at odds during the war and made the following proclamation:

Indulge me a moment upon this subject of the institution of slavery, so called, in the Southern States. Well, Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, it was not an unmitigated evil. It was not, thus much I can say, without its compensations. It is my purpose now, however, to bury, not to praise, to laud, “nor aught extenuate.” – Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883)

The above quote is just a sample of the extensive amount of statements in the book that are crucial in American history. They are voices in history who were guiding the republic as America split in half and nearly destroyed itself. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and had preferred to avoid conflict but was left with no choice but to wage war. The conflict had been a long and brutal campaign but the president had his eyes set on the future and how to move America forward. But on April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet put an end to his goals. The world would see a similar event take place in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Old Abe as he was sometimes called is fondly remember as the first Republican President and an astute politician who came from a simple background in Kentucky. And at the time of his death, he stood ready to move America forward. His death was a profound loss to the nation and that sorrow is captured here perfectly. As I read the book I felt as if I stepped back in time and had been provided with a ring side seat as a president was mourned and the hunt for an assassin was on.

The focus remains mostly on Lincoln but Holzer does discuss the arrests and fates of the conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold (1842-1865), George Azterodt (1835-1965), John Surratt (1844-1916), Mary Surratt (1823-1865) and Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883). Of the group, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death and she became the first woman in American history to be executed. The group mounted their defenses and the statements by their attorneys are included as part of the author’s discussion on the investigation and convictions that followed. The attempts by defense lawyers were admirable if not also quite ludicrous. Authorities had the guilty parties and left no stone unturned as they hunted Lincoln’s killers. It was a conspiracy in the making from the beginning and the trail of evidence is presented out in the book. However, neither at that time or in the years that followed, has there been any evidence conclusively linking anyone in the Confederacy’s highest level of government to the crime.

America continues to grapple with race and equality but we have the tools and the will to continue the goal of improvement life for all. And as we embark on our path for true equality we can look back at the life and death Abraham Lincoln as a reminder of just how far we have come as a nation and where we should want to go. Old Abe’s ghost will always be with us and he will continue to be lauded as one of the greatest presidents in Unites States history. Great book.

ASIN : B00SW8BNVM

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865 – Janet Elizabeth Croon

CroonI was browsing through recommendations on Amazon when this book caught my attention.  As one would expect, the words Civil War stuck on the cover.  However, the name LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) did not sound familiar at all.  My interest peaked and I decided to see why the book had earned a five star rating.  And to say that it is a hidden gem would be an understatement. It is indeed special and the author did a remarkable job of putting it all together.

Janet Elizabeth Croon admits early in the book that she had no idea who Gresham was.  I would wager that a majority of Americans are unaware of him as well. He was never mentioned in any of the history books I studied while in school. Nor is he mentioned in literature regarding the Civil War.  But I firmly believe that this journal is one of the most overlooked accounts of the war from the point of view of the Confederacy.  The story is told from the Gresham family home in Macon, Georgia.  LeRoy is what we would call an invalid, having survived a dangerous accident in 1856 in which his left leg was severely broken by a falling chimney. Following the injury, he developed a dangerous and persistent cough in addition to other symptoms that were later diagnosed as tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”.  LeRoy is never told of the diagnosis and the journal was written by a young man who did not think death was coming for him until his very last moments.

Readers will notice instantly that Gresham is highly articulate for a young man of his age.  It becomes obvious early on that his mobility is limited and he does not get out often.  However, he is a keen observer of the news and those around him.   His awareness and understanding of the raging conflict between the Union and Confederacy speaks volumes about his level of maturity.   And although he was not always correct in some of his observations, that can partly be attributed to faulty reporting in a time before social media and live news broadcasts.  In fact, news moved so slowly at times, that it could be an entire day or two before information reached its final destination.  Regardless, LeRoy follows the war closely, offering detailed insight into the war’s progression.

As I read through the journal, I did notice that most of his days were actually quite eventful with relatives and friends coming and going constantly.  Games are played,  the weather detailed, various foods eaten and plenty of conversation takes place.   Sadly though, LeRoy’s illness does not let up and he comments on his own physical condition nearly every day.  Readers have the benefit of the doubt in knowing what was wrong with him but he was unaware of his terminal diagnosis.  He mentions old medicinal treatments common during the time and some of the names will be foreign to some readers.  The reports of the war’s battles may also be unfamiliar to those that are not Civil War buffs. But the author provides a ton of invaluable footnotes at the end of the chapter to explain almost everything contained in the journal for each year.  Without these footnotes, the journal would have assuredly been a far more challenging read.

As a Black person, I could not ignore the “elephant in the room”.  LeRoy’s family were slave owners and supporters of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). As I started the book, I did feel a bit of uneasiness about what I would find.  I did not find anything extreme in the journal but I did notice he was not averse to using racial terminology that was commonplace at the time, in particular for a slave owning family.  However, he does not lace his journals with it and refers to family slaves by their first names in describing the day’s events.   But I was under no illusions that he believed in the abolitionist movement.  LeRoy believed in the Confederacy and was no fan of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), but as the journal progressed, I did notice a few changes in his beliefs that will cause the reader to take notice.   And had he lived, perhaps his views might have changed over the course of time.

The journal only covers between 1860 and 1865, so we do not know all of the details regarding the accident that caused him to break his left leg .  The author explains the accident but LeRoy does not talk of his leg much in the journal. In fact, his back is the main focus in addition to his hacking cough and the abscesses that would plague him as the tuberculosis raged through his body eventually reaching his spine.   As a bonus in the book, the author was able to get a doctor to examine what was known of LeRoy’s medical history, the medications he was taking and the care he received to render the most likely diagnosis.  At the end of the book, the doctor takes a very detailed look at the medications which explain even further exactly what LeRoy’s condition was and why he would have been given them.  Reading the journal did make me grateful for modern medicine.

I strongly advise and recommend that anyone interested in the Civil War to read this book.  It is by no means an authoritative source on the war but it is a very intimate look at the conflict through a very different set of eyes.

ASIN: B07D6QQT77

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth -Terry Alford

BoothOn the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife take in a performance of ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theater.  Later that night, Lincoln is shot and fatally wounded and dies the following morning at 7:22 a.m.  Upon being shot he slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness.  Booth flees the theater but not before suffering a fractured ankle, and is shot and killed twelve days later on April 26, 1865.  His body would not find a final resting place until 1869 when he was buried by his mother at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.  But just who was John Wilkes Booth?  And what made him act on that night in April, 1865?

Terry Alford has composed the definitive biography of Booth and his short but intriguing life. As Alford points out early on, there isn’t a wealth of information on Booth’s early life.  However, Alford has done a masterful job researching Booth and putting together the most complete chronology of his life.  And through his efforts, we come to know the complex individual deeply committed to his beliefs and unwavering in his convictions.  Fiercely supportive of the Confederacy and intent on seeing its success, he would go from stage actor to one of the most notorious assassins in American history.   As a fierce supporter of slavery, he opposed emancipation but professed admiration for the abolitionist John Brown.  A gifted actor and favorite of the ladies, he passed over a life of success on the stage for a doomed future of a political assassin.  And his ability to recruit conspirators for the plot would make history for the execution of Mary Surratt was the first time a woman had been executed in United States history.  That record would hold until 1953 when Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.

One hundred and fifty-one years have passed since Booth’s death but his actions and life continue to draw attention and discussions about the Lincoln presidency almost always include his name and infamous deed.  The true reasons for many of his actions and decisions went with him to the grave but Terry Alford has given us window into the past in order to begin to understand the ever mysterious John Wilkes Booth.

ASIN: B00VQVNB6M