Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood. Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life. A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater. “He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.” Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.
But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago. Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person. For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight. Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.
As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before. He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore. It always portended important war news. Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.
Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston. Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats. Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance. Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.
Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill. For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.
Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran. To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed. But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration. Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught. But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.
What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however. Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down. How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war! We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.
Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end. No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage. In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life. As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.