Tuesday, April 14, 2015


In the immediate aftermath of Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, the beleaguered city of Washington was in a state of euphoria.  A great wave of relief came over the city in the aftermath of the surrender as President Abraham Lincoln prepared to move form waging war against the South to reconstructing the Southern states.  He was planning to extend the civil liberties of full citizenship to newly emancipated blacks and do away with not only slavery but the aristocratic Southern oligarchy that sustained it.  Reconstruction was going to be no less firm under Lincoln then it turned out to be, but it was going to be fair.
In less than week after Lee's surrender, Lincoln would be dead.

It was 150 years ago today, April 14, 1865, that John Wilkes Booth, a revered actor and racist Confederate sympathizer, shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in an act of vengeance against Lincoln's prosecution of the Civil War.  Booth and his accomplices had planned to kidnap Lincoln in an effort to make the Union concede and grant the South its independence.  After Appomattox, Booth was still committed to the kidnap plot as a last-ditch effort to revive the fight for Confederate nationhood, until he attended what would be Lincoln's last speech, on April 11, 1865, in which Lincoln laid out his hope to grant the black man the voter.  Turning to one of his co-conspirators, Booth said, "That means n----- citizenship.  Now, by God, I'll put him through."
The plot was to decapitate the United States Government.  Booth would kill both Lincoln and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who was scheduled to appear with his wife Julia with the Lincolns at Ford's Theater to see the play Our American Cousin, but the Grants instead left for New Jersey to visit relatives.  Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancĂ©e Clara Harris, the daughter of U.S. Senator from New York, accompanied the First Couple to Ford's Theater. George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at his room at the Kirkwood House in Washington, while Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward.  While Powell stabbed but did not kill Seward and Atzerodt, who had misgivings about the plot when the objective turned from kidnapping to murder, did not attempt to assassinate the Vice President,  Booth successfully shot Lincoln and wounded Major Rathbone with a knife and was able to escape, being caught and killed by Union soldiers twelve days later in Virginia.  Lincoln died on April 15.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kept Washington from devolving into lawlessness and paranoia, keeping the government operational and the  rest of the Cabinet safe, capturing Booth's conspirators and having them prosecuted, found guilty, and executed, and also affirming the rules of emergency presidential succession by seeing to it that Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union Democrat elected Vice President as part of Lincoln's national Union coalition of Republicans and pro-war Democrats, was sworn in as President of the United States.  In the years that followed, though, Johnson, the only senator from a seceding state (Tennessee) who refused to resign his Senate seat and pledged loyalty to the Union in 1861 when the Confederacy was formed, proved to be an unreliable administrator of Reconstruction, as he was a bigot who tired to bring the Southern states back in to the Union quickly and tried to preserve the  pre-war tenets of racial superiority in the former slave states.  Impeached by the House for apparently violating a law passed over his veto that required him to consult the Senate before dismissing presidential appointees that required Senate confirmation - he attempted to fire Stanton, who sided with Lincoln and other Republicans over Reconstruction.  The Senate, ironically, acquitted Johnson, and the law, having been seen as constitutionally  was eventually repealed.  The damage, though, was done: Reconstruction was turned into a partisan political issue that ultimately failed as a program, institutionalized racism subsequently returned to the South, and the power of the Presidency was compromised for years.
And we're left to wonder how much more was killed by John Wilkes Booth's pistol.
It seemed appropriate, though, that Abraham Lincoln, the savior of the Union, was murdered on Good Friday, after he had spent the Lenten period trying to bring the war to an end, and so died for racial slavery, America's original sin. :-(                 

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