The 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