ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

THE ASSASSINATION OF LINCOLN

*The surrender of Johnston on 26 April 1865, although a great victory for the North (although more symbolically than militarily at that point), was overshadowed by the great national tragedy of Lincoln’s death, a tragedy for both North and South.

*John Wilkes Booth, ‘the most handsome man in America,’ was the son of Junius Brutus Booth, and actor, and brother of Edwin Booth who was considered by many of his contemporaries the best actor of his day.  The Booths were from England originally, but John Wilkes Booth was born and raised in Maryland and lived in Richmond and Washington immediately before and during the War.  Although he hated blacks and hated the North for the destruction and humiliation faced by the South, he never joined the Confederate Army.  Instead, he created a scheme to kidnap Lincoln, who he blamed above all others, and exchange him for Confederate prisoners held in the North.  Later, he and a number of co-conspirators hatched a plot to kill Lincoln, Johnson, Seward, and Grant.

*On 14 July 1865, the US celebrated the anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter.  Robert Anderson went to Sumter and raised the flag he was forced to haul down four years before.  In the evening, Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre to see a play called ‘My American Cousin.’  Booth, who got mail at the theatre, knew Lincoln would be there.  Grant was also supposed to be there, but Mrs Grant disliked Mrs Lincoln, and they made up a flimsy excuse about a trip out of town to avoid it, and another officer took his place.

*During Act III, scene 2, the funniest line in the play was guaranteed to get a laugh.  Hoping to use this to cover the sound of his gunshot, Booth snuck into the Presidential box and fired his derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head.  The president collapsed immediately.  Booth leapt to the stage, catching his spur in the bunting and breaking his leg.  He cried ‘sic semper tyranis’ and limped from the theatre.  Doctors tried to help Lincoln (but probably made things worse).  He lived through the night, comatose, and died the next morning at 7.22.  Secretary Stanton said ‘now he belongs to the ages.’

*The man assigned to kill Seward tried and failed.  Seward had suffered a fall not long before and was wearing a neck brace when he was attacked.  His attacker tried to cut his throat, but was foiled by the metal brace.  Seward’s face was badly cut up and he was expected to die, but he survived, although thenceforth he only had his photograph made in profile.

*The man assigned to kill Andrew Johnson changed his mind at the last minute and never attacked him.

*When Andrew Johnson became president he did not have a good reputation.  He had gone to his own inauguration as Vice-President drunk, perhaps partly because Hannibal Hamlin offered him too much to drink the night before.  After that Lincoln only spoke to him once, embarrassed and disgusted.

*It is likely that no-one ever rose from humbler beginnings to become president than did Andrew Johnson.  His parents were poor farmers in North Carolina, and he was an illiterate tailor who never went to school until his wife taught him to read and cipher.  He had been a successful Tennessee politician, serving as mayor of Greeneville, elected governor, Congressman, Senator, and the military governor during much of the War before Lincoln chose him, the most prominent loyal Southern Democrat, as running mate in 1864.  He was famous for supporting the interests of poor whites against the big slave-owners, who only grew more bitter when he refused to leave his Senate seat when Tennessee seceded.

*Like John Tyler, another principled Southerner chosen to balance a ticket who unexpectedly became president, Johnson will not be successful.  He does not like Northerners or Blacks, and as a Democrat will not be popular with the Republican-dominated Congress.  As a Unionist Southerner and a man of poor background, the aristocratic South will dislike him as well.  He was committed to the Constitution (and was buried with it for a pillow), but could not get along with anyone.  As President, Johnson will have many enemies, few friends, and a lot of trouble.

*One of the first major actions of his presidency, of course, was the capture and execution of Booth’s accomplices, although this was largely directed by Edwin Stanton.  Booth himself was killed during the attempt to capture him.  Four of Booth’s accomplices, three men and one woman (Mary Suratt, the first woman executed by the US Government), were executed, and four others were imprisoned.

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*The War left the South devastated, and the North relatively untouched, although still deeply bitter about the loss of lives and the murder of Lincoln.

*Half the Southern capitals had been captured or destroyed, along with many other cities, most of the South’s few factories, her cotton gins, her banking systems, and large sections of her railroads.  Before the War, five railroads converged on Columbia, SC, but after the War she was 20 miles from the nearest functioning rail line.

*$2 billion worth of slaves had been lost to the South, a vast investment vanished along with the investment in other improvements to the plantations over the years and in worthless Confederate paper money and bonds.  Livestock and crops had been stolen or destroyed.  Many Southerners also felt the Lost Cause had been a just one.  They would belong to the US again, but they did not have to like it.

*The freedmen did not just represent a huge financial loss for the South or the disruption of a social system dating to the foundation of most Southern states.  It also meant a loss of labour for planters who suddenly had no-one to plant or harvest their crops.  Furthermore, there was now an immense number of blacks without any clear idea what to do.

*Many freedmen were confused by freedom at first, but most liked the idea.  Many went travelling, either to look for family members, to look for work, to go up North or out West where they expected better opportunities, or just to see the world after a lifetime or legally restricted travel.  Others remained with their former masters their entire lives, particularly if they had had decent owners.

*Freedmen bought fancy clothes, formalised marriages, created their own churches with black ministers (especially in the Black Baptist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church), and built schools for themselves and their children, all things difficult to do and often illegal in the late antebellum period.  Sadly, due to their condition before the War, many blacks were ignorant, uneducated, illiterate, unskilled in most tasks, abysmally poor, and in many ways quite unprepared for freedom.

*Even before the war drew to a close, both Lincoln and Congress began to formulate plans to deal with the South and with Southerners, both black and white.  One of their first creations was the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed on 3 March 1865 and intended to help free blacks on their way to becoming productive citizens.

*The Freedmen’s Bureau was a sort of welfare agency.  It was meant to offer food, medical care, legal advice, and education to both freedmen and white refugees.  Later it would help blacks vote when they got that right.  The head of the Bureau was General Oliver Otis Howard, who had fought at Manassas, Fair Oaks on the Peninsula (where he lost his right arm so that he only had head-and-shoulders photographs taken afterwards), Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and in Sherman’s Atlanta campaign as the commander of the Army of the Tennessee and who would later fight Indians in the West (including Chief Joseph).  He would later found Howard University in DC and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.

*The Bureau did offer education, and it was gladly accepted by freedmen of all ages.  Sherman had given tracts of up to 40 acres and occasionally the loan of Army mules to slaves freed during his march.  ‘Forty acres and a mule’ came to symbolise Federal willingness to help former slaves and even redistribute private property.  Congress wanted to offer this to more freedmen, and passed a forty acres and a mule law, but it was rarely implemented and later defeated by Johnson, who rescinded all its grants.

*In some cases the bureau was corrupt, often using blacks to stuff the ballot boxes of the Republicans, but sometimes coercing or tricking blacks into signing labour contracts that made them very nearly slaves to local whites.  Overall the Bureau did good work, but it was limited by opposition in the South and apathy from the North, especially as the War receded into the past.

*As early as 1863 Lincoln created a plan for bringing the Southern states back into the Union.  According to his theory that they had never seceded in the first place, this was a fairly simple affair.  Lincoln’s plan required 10% of the voters registered in each Southern state in 1860 to swear allegiance to the Union, so it was called the Ten Per Cent Plan.  The state would then elect a new government and, once accepted by Lincoln, function as a state of the Union again.  Finally, Lincoln would pardon any Confederate who would swear an oath of allegiance to the Union and accept the federal policy on slavery, but it denied pardons to all Confederate military and government officials and anyone who had killed black prisoners of war.

*The Radical Republicans in Congress thought this was too soft on the South, and refused to seat elected representatives from Louisiana, Arkansas, or Tennessee after those states sent them to Congress under Lincoln’s Ten Per Cent Plan in 1864.

*The Radical Republicans instead created the Wade-Davis Bill, and passed it in 1864.  Many Radicals felt that the Southern states, by leaving the Union, no longer had equal rights and deserved to be treated as conquered provinces that might one day being the process of admission all over again.  Radical Republicans believed the South needed a complete Reconstruction of its society.  Among many tougher restrictions, the Wade-Davis Bill required fifty percent of ex-Confederate men to take an oath of allegiance and swear that they had never borne arms against the United States.  After all, they could be called traitors if they did—the Constitution defines treason as making war against the United States.  It also had stronger protections for emancipation than did Lincoln’s Ten Per Cent Plan.  Lincoln refused to sign this bill, thus using the pocket veto.

*At the time of Lincoln’s death, nothing was resolved, although Lincoln was known to still favour a mild plan for reunification, welcoming the Southerners back into the Union as brothers who had gone astray.  Many Radicals were actually glad of Lincoln’s death at first, as they hoped that Johnson, known to hate the planter aristocracy, would side with them.  Despite his class biases however, Johnson was still a Southerner and did not want to see his countrymen suffer unduly.  He and Congress would fight over plans for Reconstruction for his entire presidency.

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This page last updated 8 December, 2003.