By Jay Holmes
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth murdered United States President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. Many of us left middle school with the notion that Lincoln’s assassination occurred shortly after the end of the American Civil War, but that is not true. To understand the assassination we need to clarify the actual end of the Civil War. . . .
April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia to United States General U. S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. To my frustration, the surrender of Lee is often pointed to as the “end” of the US Civil War, but that is quite inaccurate. Well over 120,000 confederate troops remained under arms and under effective command across the Confederate South after the surrender of Lee’s Army.
May 10, a full month after the surrender of Lee’s Army of Virginia, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured. He nearly escaped captivity dressed as an old woman, but an attentive Union officer noticed that the hobbling old woman was wearing riding boots and spurs.
May 26, more than a month after Lincoln’s assassination, Confederate General Kirby Smith surrendered his 43,000 man Army of the Trans-Mississippi.
June 23, over two months after Lee’s surrender, the last Confederate general, Brigadier Stand Watie, surrendered his forces. Watie was a Cherokee Chief in charge of a very effective Confederate cavalry brigade that included warriors of the Cherokee, Creek, Osage and Seminole Indian tribes.
Brigadier Stand Watie
November 6, the last confederate warship, the Shenandoah, surrendered, but smaller bands of holdout Confederates continued raids across the South for several months.
August 20, 1866, a year and four months after Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, the American Civil War officially ended when US President Andrew Johnson signed a peace declaration.
Many of us grew up with the notion that Lincoln was assassinated on a peaceful, post-war weekend by the hand of a bitter, Confederate sympathizer in a futile act of vengeance after the war ended, but that notion is false. The country was, in fact, still at war. That fact is important in understanding the motives of John Wilkes Booth.
John Wilkes Booth
Booth was, indeed, bitter, but he was not yet convinced that the Confederate’s chances for success were gone. He was strongly anti-abolitionist and opposed Lincoln’s plan to allow freed slaves to vote. He hoped to throw the Union government into confusion and allow the Confederate armies and government to regroup and regain some measure of initiative.
Booth had actually planned and organized a band of conspirators to kill not only the President, but to also simultaneously kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The “hit man” assigned to kill Johnson lost his nerve and did not conduct the planned attack. The attack on the Secretary of State did come to fruition, but failed. The Secretary of State and other members of his family were wounded.
Had the plot been carried out as planned, Booth’s dream of disrupting the Union government would not have seemed so far-fetched. In my view, whatever confusion might have occurred in the halls of government would not have prevented the Union Army from completing the successful prosecution of the war, but I reach that conclusion with a Northern mind and as a child of the 20th Century. Booth and his co-conspirators saw it differently. There still remain a few Americans that see it differently today.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Lincoln’s death is often viewed as the end of the Civil War epic, but I view his sad passing as a symbol of the continuance of something larger than Lincoln or the Civil War, itself. American readers may remember reading the Gettysburg Address, the speech Lincoln delivered at the commemoration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. I have always held dearly one particular part of that address. In some very dark moments in my life, these words have brought me comfort. I hope that you find value in them, as well.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
~~Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Pennsylvania, United States of America
We need not travel to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s memory or the sacrifice of those who fell there. We act in honor of his memory and on behalf of our own best angels when we act in accordance with the simple principles of freedom and justice.