About 137 years ago John Wilkes Booth crept into the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater and fired, at point blank range, a single shot from his derringer into the brain of Abraham Lincoln. That shot profoundly altered American history just as the Civil War itself altered American history. The American history that shot altered would have been a vastly different Reconstruction than that which unfolded under Andrew Johnson and the Black or Radical Republican majority in the Congress. One of the strange mysteries about the American Civil War lies in what Lincoln would have done with the South following the end of active fighting. I believe we already have some clue, as he once reportedly said to someone who asked him what his plans were for the defeated South, "Let 'em down easy."
Admittedly, there were those in the halls of Congress and outside of Congress who clamored for revenge against the defeated South for the four long years of bloodshed and turmoil and suffering. Nevertheless, is not revenge something belonging to our baser nature?
Our Sixteenth President perhaps suffered more than any one North or South during the long years of the war. A look at the portraits taken of him from 1860 to his last portrait in early 1865 shows how deeply the brother-against-brother struggle marked and changed him. It is illuminating that Lincoln remarked, after reading Gen. George Meade's Victory Proclamation about driving the Army of Northern Virginia "from our soil", of "When will they understand, it is all our soil?" (To me, that sentence reflects the sheer force of the agony which Lincoln must have labored under all those years.) Lincoln himself had family members die from disease during the war years and his wife had a brother in law serving in the Confederate armies. Lincoln had, indeed, become "Father Abraham" to not only the African-Americans freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the inroads of Union armies into Confederate territory but also to those who had remained loyal to the Union through the seemingly interminable conflict.
John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln just days after Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia and the daily-anticipated news of the surrender of the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Joe Johnston shocked both the North and the South. During the last year of the conflict, many in the South had begun to see Lincoln as a true friend, as their best hope for rebuilding and rejoining the Union without being treated as a "conquered people." With the mortal wounding and death of Lincoln, those hopes would be forever dashed.
The information that Booth had committed such a heinous act came to many at the time as a thunderclap. Did he act alone with his band of conspirators or did he have approval and support from some in the highest reaches of the Confederate government? Debate on these, and other questions around the entire assassination, began almost immediately following and have continued almost unabated since. Booth, a known Southern sympathizer and possessing a hatred of African-Americans, might have done some work for the Confederate Secret Service. Moreover, Booth was a prominent member of the Booth family, perhaps the premier American acting family of the time. Booth's assassination of Lincoln would be akin, perhaps in today's culture, to Michael Jackson assassinating George W. Bush. It was so unthinkable, as Booth was clearly one of the superstars of American entertainment of the period.
The intense manhunt for the killers of Lincoln took two basic forms. One was the rounding up, speedy trial and execution of those who conspired with Booth to commit the crime. The other was the tracking and catching of Booth himself. Booth was run to ground on a farm not far from Bowling Green, Virginia. While the sanity of the Union cavalry sergeant (Sergeant Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett) who mortally wounded Booth might itself be questioned (he claimed to be acting on the orders of God), there is, for me, a weird coincidence in the date of Booth's death. Booth was born on April 26, 1838 and died on that same date in 1865. So how is that a weird personal coincidence?
It is also my wife's birthday.© 2002