Good Friday is somber day, and I think that there was none more somber than Good Friday 1865. Shortly after 10 P.M. at Ford’s theater a handsome and well known actor walked into the booth occupied by President Lincoln at Washington’s Ford’s Theater. The President was there with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and another couple after a very full day of business to watch the play Our American Cousin a farcical look at the visit of an American visiting his English relatives when going to settle the family estate.
Lincoln was looking forward to the play. Though the war continued the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th for all intents and purposes had placed the final nail in the Confederacy’s malevolent coffin, and it was if a burden have been removed from Lincoln’s shoulders. His task now what the reintegration of the rebellious states back into the Union, a task that he believed needed to be accomplished without malice while still seeking justice. He made this clear in his Second Inaugural Address just over a month before:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Just three days before Lincoln had given his last public speech at the White House. It was a practical speech dealing with the nuts and bolts reuniting the country including announcing his support for Negro Suffrage. He said:
“By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”
In the speech Lincoln discussed the issues related to the new government of Louisiana and its dealings with African Americans, which did not go far enough for Lincoln, who was intent on extending the franchise to vote for all blacks, even if it took time to make it so. John Wilkes Booth was in attendance that day and as he listened he became ever angrier and he vowed to a fellow conspirator Lewis Powell, “That is the last speech he will make” and Booth was going to ensure this himself.
Lincoln had been troubled for some time by terrible insomnia and dreams, both bizarre and ghoulish. A few days before he had told Mary and others sharing dinner with them of a troubling dream which he described in detail, Mary and those at the table so accustomed to Lincoln’s customary wit and humor were stunned as Lincoln spoke. He closed the description with these words:
“Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I entered the East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and a throng of people, some gazing mournfully at the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully: ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President’ was the answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ “Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd…”
Mary and the others were so upset, particularly with the large number of death threats Lincoln had received throughout the war. However, Lincoln told them all not to worry as “it was only a dream.”
On that Good Friday Lincoln was determined not to mourn, instead of attending Good Friday services or contemplating the war, or reconstruction, he simply wanted to laugh and chose to attend the play, wanting General Grant and his wife to attend. However Grant needed to travel to New Jersey and declined the offer.
Despite this Lincoln was in a cheerful mood, looking forward to the future and discussing all the things that he wanted to see and do after his term in office. Mary was startled by his cheerfulness and Lincoln told her “I have never felt better in my life.” Lincoln and his party arrived late to the cheers of the cast and took their seats in the box about 8:30 to the strains of Hail to the Chief. As the play resumed Lincoln’s bodyguard slipped away to get a drink and about twelve minutes after ten Booth slipped into the box where Lincoln sat watching the play. As the crowd roared its delight at a particularly funny scene a shot rang out and Lincoln’s arm jerked up and he slumped over. Booth then jumped to the stage from the box, injuring his leg and shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” or thus always to tyrants. It was the beginning of a series of attempted assassinations designed to decapitate the Federal government, Secretary of State Seward was badly wounded by Lewis Payne, a third assassin backed out at the last minute and failed to attack Vice President Johnson.
Though physicians sought to save the President the wound was mortal, the bullet having ender the back of his head, and dug deep into his brain, lodging behind his left eye. At 7:22 A.M. Abraham Lincoln was dead. It was a disaster for the nation as the new President, Andrew Johnson was a political enemy of Lincoln and not in line with Lincoln’s understanding of reconstruction and reconciliation. A poor Southerner from Tennessee, Johnson hated the Southern plantation aristocracy and would act as a punisher, while radical reconstructionist members of the cabinet and Congress would act in such a way that reconstruction would never achieve all that Lincoln believed that it could.
While radical Confederates rejoiced in Lincoln’s death others were more circumspect. Jefferson Davis who was fleeing and hoping to continue the war realized that the South would not fare as well under Johnson as Lincoln. In fact Johnson’s lack of understanding of the nuances of northern politics as well as his loathing of blacks, his “beliefs, prejudices, personality traits were a recipe for disaster at a time when an unprecedented national crisis put a premium on the capacity to think in new and creative ways.”
The Army of the Potomac learned of Lincoln’s assassination on Easter Sunday. Joshua Chamberlain told a woman whose mansion was at the center of his division’s camp when she asked what disturbed him “It is bad news for the South.” When the woman asked if it was Lee or Davis Chamberlain told her that it was Lincoln and said “The South has lost its best friend, Madam.”
Chamberlain ordered chaplain to conduct a field memorial for the fallen President. The division chaplain a Catholic Priest, Father Egan spoke and roused the men, and Egan ended his service “Better so, Better to die glorious, than live infamous. Better to be buried beneath a nation’s tears, than to walk the earth guilty of the nation’s blood.”
During the war Lincoln had endeared himself to his soldiers and they responded with great emotion. One burst into tears and sobbed “He was our best friend. God bless him,” another wrote home “What a hold Old Abe had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.” Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote “The United States has lost the greatest man she ever produced.”
The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth was a disaster for the country. Sadly, there are some today, in particular the White Supremacist group The League of the South are choosing to celebrate the assassination of the man that they so hate, and honor the assassin as a hero. However, I have to agree with Admiral Porter, there has never been a President before or after who was anything like this man, and I dedicate myself to the quest for equality of all people and for a reconciliation. I will continue to work for that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so believed in.