A short historical essay on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the USA.
On this morning, at a little after 7 o’clock, the tall man who lay diagonally across the bed because he could not fit on it any other way, gave up his last breath and was pronounced dead. Shot in the back of the head as he sat to watch a theatre play, his body had struggled for 15 hours against the inevitable. The doctors who surrounded him, volunteers from the theatre audience as well as his official doctors who had hurried to his side when news of the attack reached them, could do little but relieve some of the symptoms. They took blood clots from his brain, which seemed to help him breathe more easily.
Supposedly, Abraham Lincoln had foreseen his death. Ten days before the assassination he woke from an evil dream in which he walked about a White House filled with the sound of sobbing to find a guarded catafalque set up in a state room. In his dream he asked one of the soldiers on guard, “Who has died?” The soldier replied, “It is the President.” Others who knew Lincoln intimately – including his wife Mary – testified that he’d had similar nightmares on and off for years, so though you might say he had foreseen his death it was hardly evidence of prescience.
On 15th April 1865, the USA was in the last stages of its civil war. For four years the country had been torn. Something between 600,000 and 850,000 people had died, mostly men between the ages of 25 and 40. Lincoln felt a moral responsibility for this and as a man of peace it must have been a heavy burden to bear.
The civil war broke out over the question of whether member states of the United States had the right to secede (leave) the Union. But of course, that was not the real reason.
In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln, who was well-known as an advocate of the abolition of slavery, was elected President. His support came principally from the north and west of the country, from the “free” states where slavery was not permitted. He was opposed by four other candidates, and won less that 40% of the popular vote throughout the country, but in the north and west – the greater part – he won by more than 60%. Under the USA’s two-tier electoral system in which voters elect a college of electors who go on to choose the President, he was the out-and-out winner.
Lincoln’s most compact opposition came from the “slave” states of the south. The 11 states that eventually broke away to form the Confederacy had a combined population of just over 9 million people, but more than a third of that number, 3.5 million, were slaves. (The population of the rest of the USA numbered 22 million of whom, in fact, nearly half a million were also slaves.)
The slave states were wealthy, but their wealth came from plantations of cotton, tobacco, sugar and other cash crops. It depended on slave labour. The plantation owners who, as the richest men in their states, dominated local political life, feared that President Lincoln would abolish slavery which would undermine their wealth and reduce their power. There is little evidence to support their fears. On the contrary, in a published letter (from 1862) Lincoln said he had been prepared to allow slavery to continue if that would have saved the Union without war. The slave states, though, chose not to trust him and instead adopted an issue that had been circulating since the United States was first formed – the issue of whether a member state had a right to leave the Union.
With Lincoln on his way to the White House, advocates of slavery took up the slogan, “The Union without slavery, or slavery without the Union.” Slave states began to secede from the Union (January) and formed the Confederacy (February) even before Lincoln could be sworn in as the new President (March). War broke out on 12th April 1861 when Confederate soldiers attacked loyal Union troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
In the 1860s warfare had yet to impinge mortally on civilian populations, however most of the deaths occurred not on the battlefield, but – like Lincoln’s own – after the event and as a result of disease and complications.
I say that warfare did not impinge mortally on civilian populations because humanity would have to wait till the 20th century before armies developed the technology to reach civilian populations behind the lines – and before the warmongers developed the mindset that would allow them to target civilians as well as soldiers. However the war was a civil war and certainly did affect the civil population, especially in the South. The concept of total war adopted by the combatants meant that property was destroyed and populations driven to flee in order that the enemy would be deprived of economic value and material support. So, Union General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and the Confederate’s scorched earth retreats.
In April 1865, the war was nearly at an end. At the beginning of the month Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, had been abandoned and set on fire by the retreating southern army and had surrendered to the Union on the 3rd. On the 9th the army that had fled, itself surrendered. The struggle continued in other parts of the country, but the war was effectively over and the South had lost. The murder of President Lincoln was a last, desperate attempt to change the result. It failed, and created a martyr for the victors – though Lincoln’s modern hero status would likely have been just as great even if he hadn’t been assassinated.
It is interesting, though not very edifying, to read many of the comments on Lincoln, his assassin John Wilkes Booth and the Civil War being made currently on American websites commemorating the 150th anniversary. I’m reminded of Civil War historian Emory Thomas’s description of the shifting and contradictory way in which Confederacy presented itself to foreign public opinion in 1861 and 1862.
The Southern nation was by turns a guileless people attacked by a voracious neighbor, an ‘established’ nation in some temporary difficulty, a collection of bucolic aristocrats making a romantic stand against the banalities of industrial democracy, a cabal of commercial farmers seeking to make a pawn of King Cotton, an apotheosis of nineteenth-century nationalism and revolutionary liberalism, or the ultimate statement of social and economic reaction.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that racism and greed were the foundation on which everything else was built. On 11th April 1865, Lincoln gave a speech at the White House. He chose to speak of peace, reconstruction and the readmittance to the Union of the defeated states. It was not a victory speech and he did not dwell on slavery (for slavery was still practiced in some of the Union states), but he did speak of giving the vote to all liberated slaves.
John Wilkes Booth was present and heard the speech. Or at any rate, heard what he wanted to hear. His reaction (reported by his co-conspirator Lewis Powell) was, “That means nigger citizenship… That is the last speech he will ever give.” Depressingly, after 150 years, Booth’s feelings about “nigger citizenship” seem to be shared by numbers of Americans, many of whom appear to be serving as law enforcement officers.
Lincoln’s body lay in state in Washington DC for six days and was then taken on a long and circuitous train journey, stopping for memorial ceremonies in many cities before reaching Springfield, Illinois, where it was buried.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit – with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs – Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
From “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman.
This little essay is a sidestep from what I usually write here, but today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death and I was dreaming about it when I woke this morning. If this was an academic essay I would speckle the text with footnotes, but you’ll have to take it on faith that I have done my homework (as well as the Internet will allow). It’s not all from Wikipedia 🙂
The illustration is a photograph of Lincoln taken at the White House in February 1865, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-crop.png The featured image includes pictures of the US 1 cent obverse which portrays Lincoln. The 1909 cent was the first to carry Lincoln’s portrait.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
I originally published this article on the separate At the Quill website. I added the featured image before transferring it here on 13 April 2017.