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.
February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.
Why was it the most important date, you may ask? Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war. In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland. Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.
Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape. The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth. In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training. In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.
But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time. Let us focus on the victory at Donelson. Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio. Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.
Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected. Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless. But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.
As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains. Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare. Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River. It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson. Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter. Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.
At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.
Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits. The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured. Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.
Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.
The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees. That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.
Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood. Even more importantly, this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.
Today, we commonly say, “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not, “The United States are going to Hell in handbags” and think nothing of this grammatical absurdity.
It was Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, who famously observed that after the Civil War, the United States of America–which used to referred to in the plural in both popular writing and official texts–suddenly began to be referred to in the singular. McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “Union forces won the war.”
In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times, but to the Nation not once. Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once. Lincoln is now talking about “a new birth of freedom,”–of ONE NATION–dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]
What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it. It is not just flowery prose. When Lincoln spoke those words, he had a specific political message to convey to the North, as well as the South.
This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be. Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those fundamental texts that needs to be seared into the memory, as a branding iron does to the flesh.
While I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right.
While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the very same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon, but also a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War, someone who not only fought but bled for that “new birth of freedom.”
As anyone who has delved into Bierce’s life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with researching Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, during a career spanning over forty years.
While researching Bierce’s life and work is now getting better thanks to MessrsJoshi and Schultz and a handful of other scholars, traditionally most people have only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via the anthologies published during his lifetime or else through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life. All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes. In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilm archives of old newspapers, looking at the original articles and essays. While much in these old journalistic pieces may only be of passing historical interest, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, for example, it stirred the old war dog within Bierce. In between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, Bierce began to ruminate about his own experiences of war. Although the Jingoism promoted by his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, grated against his last nerve, Bierce too soon got caught up in the war fever of the day.
Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time. More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce weighed in on the whole “is” vs “are” issue. Since “Almighty God” Bierce is, by far, a better writer than I, it is best to let him make his point in his own words:
“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii]
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; that much is not in dispute. Twelve days later, Booth was tracked down and fatally wounded in a burning barn on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia; that, at least, is the official version of this tragic finale to the Civil War.
Of all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate, none is more fascinating—or more debated—than John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot to assassinate the President. Of course, the fact of the conspiracy itself has never been in debate: no one doubts that Booth conspired to murder Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet, and succeeded in that goal.
Unlike presidential assassinations since, Booth has never been characterized as a “lone assassin.” We know he had a large group in on the plot. Where the various alternative theories conflict with the official version of the assassination is exactly how wide the Booth Conspiracy really was. In this regard, the debate about the Booth Conspiracy has raged long and hard and remains hotly debated to this day.
What sparked this latest entry in the debate by yours truly is the publication of a recent book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014). A recent book review in Civil War News, gives it generally positive reviews. However, the book lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts) and given that the book’s assertions are fairly radical, that seems a curious omission. The book does apparently contain a substantial bibliography, though.
Apparently Jameson—allegedly a Booth descendent—gives first the “official” version of the assassination, then dissects all the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in government version. There is nothing new in that—researchers have long pointed out many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death. Brad Meltzer produced an excellent television documentary delving into this issue on his History Channel’s History Decoded series and there are several other documentaries available which have also investigated this issue. But no matter how much the Federal government at the time, or modern historians today, assert the orthodox line about the limits of Booth’s conspiracy and of his death, there have always been dissenting voices that 1) the conspiracy was far wider and deeper than the succeeding administration was willing to concede, and 2) that, in fact, John Wilkes Booth did not die on the Garrett farm after being shot by Federal cavalry. I have gone into both these issues in previous articles on The Late Unpleasantness.
How soon after the murder of Lincoln did these alternate scenarios of his assassination take shape? Would you believe within days of Lincoln’s death? In Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War, for example, in chronicling Mrs. Grant’s own premonitions about going to the theater that Good Friday, I cite her own words to the effect that she and her husband were being stalked by suspicious characters that afternoon and that the general’s wife always believed that a team of assassinations had been detailed to murder her husband who were never apprehended. You may read that chapter in GHCW for more details about the Grant’s very real dangers and premonitions; suffice it to say that, while I did not footnote it in that book, the chapter isbased on primary sources relating those events.
Even more telling than the facts surrounding the General and Mrs. Grant’s close brush with death on April 14, 1865, we have the testimony of the first person to make accusations of a wider conspiracy: Mrs. Lincoln herself. Bear in mind that the backstage personnel of Ford’s Theatre were all friends and close associates of John Wilkes Booth; while they all denied any complicity in the crime, it remains a moot point how involved they may have actually been in the plot, denials after the fact not withstanding.
More importantly, the body guard that had been detailed to stand watch just outside the door to the box seats where the Lincolns were watching the play that night was conveniently missing at the very moment when Booth entered the balcony box to murder Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln did not mince words and she directly accused the body-guard of being in on the plot. Mary went on to accuse Andrew Johnson of complicity in the plot to murder her husband. Much of this is detailed in the sections on the assassination in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln has always been given a bad rap by historians: “crazy Mary” has always been the refrain when it comes to her actions and words. Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly educated, cultured lady—far more so than many of her male contemporaries in Washington—a fact which only increased their resentment for the Kentucky blue blood who had relatives in the Confederate army and she neither crazy nor stupid and, moreover, well aware of the danger her husband was in. Granted, that after watching her husband being murdered before her very eyes, she was a mite upset and lashed out at all those she thought responsible; yet there is a strong ring of truth in her accusations.
Where was the body-guard that night and why was he not at his post? Certainly there were many others willing to die defending the President had they known he was not adequately protected.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson have a ring of truth about them.
Some seven hours before the murder, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson was staying and left a note for the President of Vice:
“Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth” read the note.
What business did the leader of the plot have with the prospective new President? How deeply was Johnson involved in the plot?
Although Andrew Johnson was considered a Loyalist Southerner, with political connections to Unionist East Tennessee, he was hardly a paragon of virtue and in fact had many suspicious connections. He was a man fond of strong drink and loose women—a fact not lost on the more straight-laced members of the Republican Party. When he was Military Governor of Tennessee, he was known to be a close associate of none other than John Wilkes Booth. In “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (1997), evidence is presented that Booth knew Johnson dating back at least to February of 1864, when Booth performed at the newly opened Wood’s Theatre in Nashville.
According to Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907), whenever Booth visited Nashville in his guise as actor (although he probably was already in the employ of the Confederate Secret Service) he and Governor Johnson went boozing and wenching together, sharing the sexual favors of two sisters on more than one occasion.
How deep Andrew Johnson was in the Booth Conspiracy shall never be known—but clearly Mary Lincoln was neither hysterical nor “crazy” when she lashed out against him after her husband’s death:
“..that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband’s death – Why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed – I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man… As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this…” Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866
We come to the person of Booth himself: actor, lover, spy, assassin; as Shakespeare once observed, a man may play many roles in his life and we know that Booth played more than a few. It has never been proven, but many believe that Booth was not the mastermind behind the plot to kill Lincoln; certainly he had connections to the Confederate spy ring operating in Canada and residing in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac from Richmond, he could not help but have been in easy contact with the Rebel spy masters in that capital.
Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to Union troops in April of 1865, most of the Confederate Secret Service’s records disappeared—whether by accident or to purpose remains a moot point. We shall never know exactly what secrets of the Booth Conspiracy disappeared with the loss of those files, but the suspicion remains that the loss was great.
One thing we know for sure: John Wilkes Booth was not on a suicide mission. He had escape routes clearly planned out for himself and his co-conspirators. What remains under debate is how successful Booth really was in making good his escape. The accepted consensus is that he ultimately paid the price for his treachery and treason; but there are dissenters, his descendent Mr. Jameson among them.
In the years following the war, various researchers have followed the convoluted trail of evidence indicating that booth did indeed live a long life after the assassination. Newspaper reports days after the assassination had Booth in various cities around the country—none of them seemingly true. In the years following however, there were various accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands in newspapers, some of which may have had some credence. The reports placed Booth in India and Ceylon, in China, in Mexico, and even in the South Seas. Common to these all these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable gentleman with no remorse for his deed. Interestingly enough, most of the locations where he was sighted also coincide with locations where émigré Confederates actually did establish colonies during Reconstruction.
Some serious researchers believe Booth did make good his escape and, like Jameson, have presented their evidence; but positive proof remains elusive 150 years later.
“DEATH, THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, FROM WHOSE BOURNE NO MAN RETURNS” —Shakespeare
Abraham Lincoln was a complex, multi-faceted man. The common mis-perceptions of him have been carefully cultivated by his hagiographers
TheParanormal Presidency deals with Lincoln’s belief in and experience of the paranormal, and while but one aspect of this many faceted man, it is one which has hitherto been overlooked.
To a large degree, how we perceive the Sixteenth President today is as much a reflection of his various biographer’s own biases and beliefs. as it is a reflection of the man himself and his life’s work.
If you peruse even a small fraction of the many biographies of Lincoln, you will find a quite voluminous literature on Lincoln as secular saint and devout Christian–despite the fact that he resisted joining any denomination until the very end of his life.
My book deals with his beliefs relating to his supernatural, irrational side; yet there is also a book out that argues that his love of mathematics caused him to be highly rational. Indeed, a good case can be made for Lincoln being, if not an outright atheist, at the very least a “free thinker” or skeptic, although the evidence is complex and subject to debate.
There is no doubt that Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery. Yet Lincoln’s detractors can quote Lincoln directly, expressing things that by any modern standard would be considered overtly racist.
Lincoln has been portrayed as shy with women to the point one writer even theorized he was a homosexual; yet his former law partner gathered testimony that as a young man long, lanky Abe had several sexual encounters; even so, Herndon may well have suppressed even more explicit accounts of Lincoln’s sexual exploits as a young man.
The bottom line to all this is that the common biographical portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which has been heavily sanitized and sanctified, is almost certainly false. He was a man–a great man–but one who had foibles and faults. Some admirers have thought to protect his memory by suppressing those aspects of which they disapproved. My view is similar to his law partner Herndon’s; that Lincoln’s character and accomplishments was great enough to endure the truth–the whole truth. In following posts we shall explore several aspects of that truth.
One aspect of Lincoln’s character which runs like a golden strand through his life and career, was his fatalism. From a very early age, Abraham believed that he was fated for greatness; but he also believed that he would not long live beyond achieving those great things.
To a large extent, death stalked Lincoln throughout his life and career; it informed all his actions and motivated him to strive to achieve his goals before he should be struck down. To what extent this fatalism was a self-fulfilling prophecy is a moot point. That he believed in his personal destiny is something which I document in depth in my book.