On the night of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre. He died early the next morning. It was the first time a sitting president had been murdered. On this episode of BackStory, we mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by exploring how his death came to pass — and how a changed nation moved forward.
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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. 150 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending the theater with his wife. That much we know, but there’s a whole lot more to the story.
MALE SPEAKER: I don’t think the general public knows that there were simultaneous attacks on other members of the Lincoln administration.
ED: Another surprising fact, not all Northerners were saddened by the news. Some actually celebrated it.
MARTHA HODES: So for example, you have an Irish immigrant servant saying to her mistress I’m so glad Lincoln is dead.
ED: Today, in the show, everything you didn’t know about the Lincoln assassination, from the murder plot itself to the controversy surrounding the conspirator’s trial and the ongoing fascination with the story all these years later.
WYATT EVANS: I can sum it up in a word, and the word obsession.
ED: The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years later.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show, I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. On April 11, 1865, the mood in Washington DC was giddy. Two days before, Lee had surrendered his army to Grant and it seemed that the war might finally be over. That evening, a crowd began to gather in front of the White House, eager to hear the president speak. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was now a seamstress and close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, stood near the president and described the scene outside.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The band stopped playing. And as he advanced to the center window over the door to make his address, I looked out and never saw such a mass of heads before. Close to the house, the faces were plainly discernible, but they faded into mere ghostly outlines on the outskirts of the assembly. And what added to the weird spectral beauty of the scene was the confused hum of voices that rose above, sounding like the sullen roar of an ocean storm or the wind sowing through the dark lonely forest.
ED: Next to the president stood his young son, Tad, who held a lamp for his father to read by.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The father and son standing there in the presence of thousands of free citizens, the one lost in a chain of eloquent ideas, the other looking up into the speaking face with a proud manly look formed a beautiful and striking tableau.
MALE SPEAKER: We meet this evening–
FEMALE SPEAKER: Shh.
MALE SPEAKER: Not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and the surrender of the principal insurgent army give hope of a righteous and speedy peace, whose joyous expression cannot be restrained.
ED: Lincoln went on to praise the situation in Louisiana, which had recently come back in the Union fold. Louisiana had adopted a free state constitution that opened public schools to white and black students and laid the groundwork for African American voting rights. The speech seemed well received, but years later, when Keckley wrote about that night in her memoirs, she described her distinct sense of unease.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I stood a short distance from Mr. Lincoln. And as the light from the lamp fell full upon him, making him stand out boldly in the darkness, a sudden thought struck me. What an easy matter it would be to kill the president as he stands there.
PETER: Nothing happened to Lincoln that night, but in the crowd below was John Wilkes Booth, a well known actor from Maryland, and Lewis Powell, who had fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg. For months, both men had been trying to figure out a way to kidnap Lincoln and use him to force the release of Confederate war prisoners.
But hearing Lincoln support of voting rights for black veterans, Booth reportedly turned to Powell and said that means nigger’s citizenship. That’s the last speech he’ll ever make. By God, I’ll put him through.
BRIAN: It was his last speech. By the end of the week, Lincoln would be dead, shot by Booth in Ford’s Theater. You know that part of the story. But today on the show, we’re going to explore some of what you may not have heard about this momentous event, an event that took place 150 years ago this week.
ED: We’ll hear about how the assassination plot took shape. We’ll also look at the ways Americans mourned, and, yes, celebrated Lincoln’s death. And we’ll consider the prosecution of those responsible and the reasons it remains controversial to this day.
BRIAN: We’ll begin with the assassination plot itself. Now as we mentioned a minute ago, it was originally supposed to be a kidnapping. The previous summer, Booth had assembled a team of conspirators, some muscle to subdue Lincoln, a hunter to navigate the backwoods of Maryland and Virginia, and a boatman to ferry the team across the Potomac.
Some accounts say they came close to putting all this into action in March of 1865, but that a last minute change in Lincoln’s itinerary kept the president out of their grasp. News of the wars end threw the conspirators’ plans into disarray. Their main goal of prisoner exchange no longer seemed so pressing. And yet, Booth remained fixated on the president.
That spring, his kidnapping scheme started to morph into a murder scheme. The events of April 14th, 1865 have been the focus of countless books over the years. We spoke with the authors of a few of those books and compiled this play by play of how it all went down.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Booth’s original assassination plan included four people. It had included the president, Lincoln, it included Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General of the Armies Ulysses Grant.
TERRY ALFORD: The idea being, of course, that if he cuts the head off the federal government, in such a sense, you know, it might get the Confederates a second chance. I’m Terry Alford, author of Fortune’s Fool, a new biography of John Wilkes Booth.
EDWARD STEERS JR: My name is Edward Steers Junior. I write mostly nonfiction dealing with Abraham Lincoln and his assassination.
TERRY ALFORD: April 14th, 1865 was the end of a really tumultuous week. The Confederate army in Virginia, Robert E Lee’s Army in Northern Virginia had surrendered on Sunday. On that particular day, Booth went to the theater.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Booth used Ford’s Theater as one of his mail drops. And Friday the 14th was one day that he decided to stop by the theater and pick up any mail that had been addressed to him.
SARAH JENCKS: I’m Sarah Jencks, Director of Education at Ford’s Theater Society. We’re in what would’ve been the Ford’s Theater box office. And this is most likely where John Wilkes Booth picked up his mail.
TERRY ALFORD: And while he was getting his letters, he discovered that the theater management had invited Lincoln to come to the play that night. He saw Lincoln’s name written on the cardboard plan of seats. He spun the plan around, saw Lincoln’s name, spun it back, and gave no appreciable emotional reaction to it, but his head must’ve been spinning because here was Booth’s opportunity.
EDWARD STEERS JR: And of course, that spurred Booth to action.
TERRY ALFORD: The next few hours must’ve seemed like a blur. He had to contact his team, alert them to things he wanted to do. He needed to rent a horse for his escape. At 8 o’clock that night, Booth gathered the fateful few who were still in the plot with him. At that meeting, Booth assigned everyone their role. He would take Lincoln he said.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Grant had also been targeted. Now Grant canceled, didn’t go to the theater with the Lincolns.
TERRY ALFORD: He wanted Lewis Powell to attack Secretary of State Seward. He wanted to George Atzerodt to attack Vice President Johnson.
EDWARD STEERS JR: George Atzerodt’s role in the original conspiracy was as a boatman. Atzerodt protested and said that he didn’t know if he was up to being able to assassinate or kill Johnson.
TERRY ALFORD: And he said– and he told Booth I signed up for kidnapping, right? I’m not– I’m not doing this. And Booth says you’ve got to do it or I’ll kill you. And I think at that point, Atzerodt realized that the only way out of this was further in. So he agreed to do it. By 8 o’clock, the plan was set, the assignments had been given, now it was just a matter of waiting on Lincoln to come to the theater. Lewis Powell went to the home of Secretary of State William Seward.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Where Seward was convalescing from a very serious carriage accident.
TERRY ALFORD: And was confined to is bed from a broken jaw and some other pretty serious injuries.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Powell very cleverly posed as delivering medicine for Seward at the order of Seward’s doctor.
TERRY ALFORD: He was able to get into the door, go up the stairs, where one of the Seward’s sons stopped him.
EDWARD STEERS JR: Powell basically pistol-whipped Fredrick Seward, fracturing his skull and knocking him unconscious, and then forced his way into Seward’s bedroom, where he attacked Seward in bed with a knife and slashed him very badly. Powell then made his way out of the house, leaving Seward behind in a bloody mess.
TERRY ALFORD: He was cut pretty good and would have a serious scar for the rest of his life, but he was able to survive this. George Atzerodt, who was assigned by Booth to attack the Vice President, Andrew Johnson, lost what little nerve he had. So he did absolutely nothing that night.
EDWARD STEERS JR: At the same time that Powell was attacking Seward–
TERRY ALFORD: A few minutes after 10:00–
EDWARD STEERS JR: Booth entered Ford’s Theater.
TERRY ALFORD: When Booth first came in the theater, Jeannie Gourlay, one of the actresses, was on stage and she looked up and she could see him because he was standing at the back of the theater and everyone else was sitting, of course, in the audience. And she wondered if he were ill because he looked so pale. But when she finished her scene and looked up again, he was gone. He was coming up the steps to the dress circle, to the second floor of seats, making his way around to the box where Lincoln was waiting.
SARAH JENCKS: Handed his visiting card to Lincoln’s footmen and entered the foyer of the box.
EDWARD STEERS JR: People may wonder why an individual would have access to the president in a presidential box, but it was not uncommon.
SARAH JENCKS: Booth shut this door. We’re standing right outside of boxes seven and eight, which is where the president and his party were seated that night. This is the scene of a crime.
TERRY ALFORD: Imagine being in something that was maybe four feet wide, six feet long, with two doors leading into the actual box where the president and his party were sitting.
SARAH JENCKS: He waited. We don’t know exactly how long he waited, when he came into the box. He knew what line he wanted, because he wanted the laughter of the audience to cover the pop of the gun.
TERRY ALFORD: Booth came into the box behind Lincoln. Just took maybe one step toward him, raised his pistol, it was a single shot Deringer pistol. Rather small thing, but at that range, it packed a fearsome wallop.
There’s a enveloping bluish gun smoke in the box and Booth emerges out of that like a phantom. There was an army officer in the box who dragged Booth back, but Booth struggled with the man, freed himself by stabbing this man in the arm with a Bowie knife. Then Booth was able to leap over onto the stage.
SARAH JENCKS: It was about a 15 foot leap and he fell hard. The accounts that we hear from witnesses are that he didn’t land quite evenly. And the thought is that he probably broke his leg when he landed. It was really only a moment, but it was long enough that everyone froze.
Booth came into the middle of the stage, yelled sic semper tyrannis, which means thus always to tyrants.
TERRY ALFORD: My belief, by looking at the sources, he didn’t say that on the stage, he said that as he was leaving the box.
SARAH JENCKS: So there are lots of different accounts of what he might have said. You can imagine they don’t always agree.
TERRY ALFORD: He went to the wings, where several actors were awaiting their scenes. He pushed between them and Booth was able to get out the back door to a horse he had waiting, get on the horse, and take off down the alley. The whole thing was done in 30 minutes easy, maybe less.
WYATT EVANS: The impact of that shot in Ford’s Theater, I can sum it up in a word, but the word requires explanation. And the word is obsession. This is Wyatt Evans. I’m a professor of history at Drew University.
So the question is why does the American public have this fascination and this fixation with this moment in our history. And I think part of it is just the basic trauma. We just keep– we can’t get over the fact that this happened, and so we keep replaying it. I think also, with Lincoln’s murder, many people in this country feel that American history took a wrong turn or that it’s destiny was thwarted.
Some people say, you know, if Lincoln had lived, the horrors of reconstruction would not have happened. And I think that there’s a speculation there that is hard to back up. But more broadly, there is this current in American history that goes all the way back, that feels that the United States is a special nation, that it has a special purpose, and that its history is supposed to be a special providential kind of working out of democracy and equal opportunity. And that when Lincoln died, that that got twisted, that got changed. So again, I think that’s part of the reason why we keep coming back to him.
PETER: Thanks to Terry Alford, Edward Steers Junior, Wyatt Evans, Sarah Jencks, and the good folks at Ford’s Theater for helping us tell that story. You can find links to Terry, Ed, and Wyatt’s great books on the assassination at backstoryradio.org.
BRIAN: It’s time for us to take a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, how the nation reacted to the first ever assassination of a sitting American president.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. Don’t go away.
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today, on the show, it’s all about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. 150 years ago this week, he was shot on the evening of April 14th, less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and just over a month into Lincoln’s second term as president.
ED: You know, guys, anybody who’s going to write about the terrible events of April 14th, 1865 has to wrestle with a fundamental problem in the evidence. Here it is. After lying in the bed in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater all night long after he’s shot, Lincoln is finally dying. And his good friend and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who’s been with him throughout the night, who’s been sort of orchestrating things in the room, sees that Lincoln has actually died at 7:20 something in the morning.
He sobs. And then he says now he belongs to the angels. Or he says now he belongs to the ages. And there was a great essay by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik a few years ago that asks why does it matter, why do we care what Edwin Stanton actually said. Peter, what do you think?
PETER: Well, let’s first of all, set out the scene because I think that’ll help us answer that question, how we have those two different versions. One comes from the efforts that a soldier made, a guy named James Tanner, who had been dragooned to keep notes on the last moments of Lincoln’s life. He was about to write down what Stanton said. He had a pencil, but the pencil failed him at the time of need. It broke as he took it out of his pockets–
BRIAN: It’s that military issued stuff, Peter.
PETER: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, exactly. So he couldn’t get it down at the time. So he remembered it, and they said, well, it was angels. The other one, that comes from another source. It comes from the first major biography of Lincoln by John Nicolay and John Hay, who spent a lot of time with their boss, Lincoln, during the war. And they were there, and so what they remembered and reported in 1890, long after the fact, but they said it was ages.
So guys, I think the question is what’s the significance of the difference between these two words. What does it tell us? Do we need to establish which one is right? And what does right mean in this case?
BRIAN: Well, Peter and Ed, I think what we need to do is give this the BackStory treatment and figure out what each of these words would have meant to people at the time. I don’t think it really matters in many ways which it was, but I’d love to know what both of them meant to people at the time. What would Lincoln belonged to the angels have meant in 1865?
ED: Well, you know, that’s the phrase that I think that most people would have thought made sense in their own view of the world, right? We need to remember, of course, the enormous amount of death and suffering that have preceded Lincoln’s death. The last four years had just been drenched in blood.
And the main story that people told themselves was framed in terms of the Christian perspective of when you die, you go to heaven surrounded by angels. And even Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln had communed with spirits, with the death of their son. So it strikes me as not much of a leap. Nobody would have been surprised if Stanton had said now he belongs to the angels.
PETER: Well, in a way, Ed, I think you’re right. The ubiquitousness of death and people’s desperate efforts to connect to their lost loved ones, and that word angel, I think, has a different resonance in this time, Ed. I think it’s not an abstraction, it’s not in some other region. They were there, almost in the air, so that you can make contact with them. Contrast this with George Washington, images of his death in 1799. There, we have him ascending into the heavens in these images.
ED: Here’s another thing to think about though. Stanton was a religious man.
ED: Lincoln was not. He was not associated with a conventional Christian church. He spoke increasingly over time of God and providence moving history, but we don’t have evidence of him using the word angels except in his first inaugural speech. So it’s not a word that he, himself, and so you would think if this good friend Stanton is trying to share a moment with his good friend, that he might have spoken in a shared vocabulary.
ED: And so, Brian, it seems to me that angels makes all the sense in the world in the larger culture, but in the specific one of that room, at that time, I’m not so sure.
BRIAN: Then does ages make more sense?
ED: It does to me. If we think about what the media situation is it’s Stanton and Lincoln, who know they’ve been making history over the preceding years. They know that every decision they make is deciding the fate of a nation. And so if you think that Stanton has been kind of gathering his thoughts as Lincoln so slowly and painfully dies, that he might have been thinking about the larger place in history making where this would fit. And the sentence that he says after this, that you don’t usually see quoted, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” To me–
BRIAN: That certainly sounds like the ages.
ED: Yeah, it sounds like a secular framework. So what do you think, Peter?
PETER: Well, Ed, that notion of instant history, and we can place Lincoln in the larger course of events, well, yeah, that makes some sense, and certainly, it made sense in 1890. But it does take us away from the immediate experience of the moment into the memory of a great man. It’s as if Stanton is anticipating how he will remember, and the American people will remember, this lost giant among men. It’s, on the one hand, secular for the ages, but there’s a quasi religious dimension to this infinity of time and memory, and forever for the ages, he will live in our hearts.
You know, in some ways, I think angel and ages say the same thing. I think we could say that. But it anticipates different time frames, different perspectives. And in 1865, I think Tanner gives us a powerful sense that everybody in that room must’ve felt that he was gone, but he can’t be gone. He’s got to be with us. He’s gone, but he’s still one of us.
BRIAN: Abraham Lincoln died, according to press reports, with a smile on his face. “I had never seen upon the president’s face an expression more genial and pleasings,” wrote a New York Times reporter. In the following days, the public fascination with Lincoln’s physical appearance continued in death as it had life. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was in charge of funeral arrangements.
Stanton knew that the people were clamoring to see the dearly departed president. And so after a one week public viewing period in the capital, Stanton organized an elaborate funeral procession that would take Lincoln’s body for public viewing in 11 other US cities. The casket traveled by train, winding up in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois.
PETER: There would be an almost two week long journey, something made possible by new embalming practices introduced during the Civil War. As it turned out, those practices weren’t advanced enough to keep Lincoln’s body from noticeably deteriorating over the course of those two weeks. But still, Americans came out in droves. An estimated 1 million people saw the body, and 7 million saw the train pass by. That amounted to a third of the entire Northern population at the time.
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: The population of the North would brook no opposition to the idea that they would get to see the body.
PETER: This is Richard Wightman Fox, author of a brand new book called Lincoln’s Body. I sat down with him to talk about the spectacle of the funeral train and its meanings to Americans in the spring of 1865.
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: Everybody wanted their children to see all of this. They wanted to pass this event on through time. And by bringing their kids, making sure that they saw the body– also, this is true of blacks and whites in all of these Northern cities. And when they are interviewed by journalists at the time, they keep saying I want my children to see this.
PETER: You mentioned African Americans being part of those audiences, so that was something new too, wasn’t it? There’s new claim on public space, would you say?
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: Yes. Yes and no. I think in East coast cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, especially, there was already a well established black presence out in public. But in the Midwest, especially, one gets evidence in several places in which black people say at the time this is new and different. We have never been welcomed into public space as we have now been welcomed in these Lincoln funeral events.
That is such an important story. I think the fact that black men especially say in print in 1865, before this, we always felt we were just inviting a beating to go out in public. But here, in the funeral events, we have been welcomed. It’s a completely different atmosphere in those places.
And we have lots of evidence from the actual funeral episodes that black people were overrepresented, according to their numbers in the population, in the crowds walking by the body. And they also mourned differently. They mourn volubly. And white people who talk to reporters say, often, we wish we, white people, could show our emotions about this as easily as our black neighbors do.
PETER: And so when African Americans saw Lincoln, saw the train, participated in this mourning period, this was consolidating a position they thought they had earned with their lives, with their sacrifices, during the war.
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: Completely right, yes. That brings up the idea of the body politic, which is that entity which includes all citizens. And Lincoln is the man who pushed hardest to defend his idea of a body politic in which there was no distinction between the leader and the led. He wanted everybody to feel they were equal.
And therefore, he called himself the representative man of this particular moment when he was chosen as the chief magistrate. He wasn’t better or superior, he was just temporarily the leader. And that body politic implicitly, by the end of his life, included African Americans. That’s what led John Wilkes Booth to kill him. It was that Lincoln was going to get rid of the hierarchy between monarch and people and he was going to get rid of the hierarchy between white and black.
PETER: So Richard, the train, which is a new mode of transportation, enables a trip like this. But what’s the point of the trip if he’s dead? Let’s just put him away. Why did Stanton think it was so important to pay so much attention to the body? Why is there this big– you have to call it a kind of spectacle, isn’t it?
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: Oh, it’s certainly a spectacle. And it’s a spiritual as well as secular event, in the sense that people are still trying to figure out what this man meant to them. They realized that the assassination had catapulted him into a new stratosphere of importance for them. And he became, in effect, cosmically important, not just a national hero.
But he would have been that without the assassination. He would have been this Republican hero who gave up his body. He withered in office, beyond anything that anyone had witnessed before.
We had photography now recording his facial wrinkles, the famous Alexander Gardner image of him in February 1865, looking like he’s really ready to drop. And people of the time said that. They said he looks horrible. We are afraid he’s going to die in office just of fatigue.
PETER: Richard, how would Lincoln have considered, if he could have considered, the public display of his body after his death?
RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX: I love that question. I love thinking about how Lincoln would have responded to this long funeral train. Would he have minded his body being put on display and deteriorating before the very eyes of the American people? And the more I think about it, the more I think he wouldn’t have minded at all.
If there was a one person in 19th century America who would not have minded his body deteriorating in public, I think it would’ve been Lincoln. His whole point, this zealous Republican wanted to be with the people always. He jumped into crowds. And I think myself that by the end of his life, he had demonstrated, especially with his walk through Richmond on April 4th, 1865, that he was not to be taken as a coward in any respect.
He would gladly give up his life if that’s what it took to protect the Republic. And for him, the Republic meant a place where leaders congregate openly with the led. And so, here, after death, he, I think, would have been very glad to be treated as a corpse in public and for his body to go right down into dust. I think for him that would have been almost the perfect denouement.
PETER: Richard Wightman Fox is a historian at the University of Southern California. He’s the author of the new book Lincoln’s Body.
BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, a nation mourns, and in some cases, celebrates, even if it’s done very much in private.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Most weeks on our show, we trace the arc of a single theme through history. But today, we’re zeroing in on one particular event. And that’s the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago this week.
ED: In the days following Lincoln’s death, the country was overcome with grief. Buildings were draped in black crepe. Men, defying social convention, wept openly in the streets. On Easter Sunday, the day after Lincoln died, preachers spoke of him as the last casualty of the Civil War.
MARTHA HODES: Americans were used to mourning, but they had expected people to die in a war. Nobody had expected President Lincoln to be assassinated.
ED: This is Martha Hodes, author of a new book called Mourning Lincoln. Now there’s been a whole lot written over the years that draw on newspaper accounts of the assassination. But by pouring through diaries and letters from that period, Hodes has been able to paint a much more nuanced picture of how Americans all across the country responded to news of this shocking event.
MARTHA HODES: One of the phrases that people wrote over and over again in letters and diaries was a thunderbolt, and sometimes a thunder clap from a clear blue sky. No words could express horror.
ED: So did everyone share in these feelings?
MARTHA HODES: Not at all. And that was one of the most interesting findings of my book. Mourners, even though they knew it wasn’t true, they wrote in their diaries and letters that the whole world was grieving for Lincoln, the whole nation was grieving for Lincoln. Everybody, everywhere, they constantly wrote those words.
First of all, they knew that Confederates weren’t grieving for Lincoln. They also knew that the Copperheads, Lincoln’s Northern antagonists– they were members of the Northern Democratic Party who despised President Lincoln and didn’t want to be fighting a war for slavery, and they made very clear a certain kind of glee when he was assassinated. So even just in their immediate vicinity, there were people who were not mourning the fact that Lincoln had been assassinated, who were in fact quite gleeful.
ED: So would the Copperheads have really, really wanted Lincoln dead? I mean, that just contradicts so much of what we’ve heard about American history. And how do we make sense of that?
MARTHA HODES: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, by the evidence, the answer is yes. The Copperheads were a minority of white Northerners, but they were a significant and vocal minority. So for example, you have an Irish immigrant servant saying to her mistress I’m, quote, “so glad Lincoln is dead.”
ED: That’s pretty unambiguous.
MARTHA HODES: That’s pretty unambiguous, right? So then the mistress gives her interpretation when she’s recounting this scene. And she says, you know, the Irish servants hate Lincoln for emancipating the Negroes. They’re afraid that we will employ them and reduce their wages. So there’s a nice economic analysis within a few sentences in a piece of personal writing.
You also have Union soldiers who are Copperheads. And that I found really fascinating. And their words and actions are recorded by fellow Union soldiers who are mourning and who are infuriated by what these men are doing. And many of these men are brought up on charges of treason as accessories after the fact. So you have–
MARTHA HODES: For example, you have a soldier from Maine who says the assassination was, here’s a quote, “too good to believe.” You have people saying they’re happy for the assassination because Lincoln was, here’s a quote, “for the Negro.” Now that’s a Copperhead sentiment, obviously.
They called Lincoln all kinds of things. Ed, I don’t know what I can say on the air here, but I’ll just say it. You can do what you want with it. They called Lincoln a son of a bitch, a damned son of a bitch, and a long slab sided Yankee son of a bitch.
[LAUGHTER] Slab sided Yankee. Don’t ask me what it is.
ED: So could people get away with saying these things? Now you talk about the soldiers could get brought up in trouble, by how about just citizens?
MARTHA HODES: Well, citizens, in fact, could not, for the most part, get away with it, because other mourners were so angry in their grief, that people who made their Copperhead sentiments and their anti-Lincoln sentiments known in public in the North were visited with considerable violence and venom. Sometimes they were warned out of town, sometimes there were actual tarrings and featherings. There were fistfights, there were people beaten to a pulp. It was a pretty violent scene, because Lincoln’s mourners wanted so much to believe that the nation was united in mourning.
Now, the Confederates, they could to some degree write off because they had seceded from the nation, but, gee, the Copperheads? White Northerners, who were living right in their own cities, right next door to them? It was pretty upsetting. So this moment Lincoln’s mourners want to be a moment of national unity and closure is anything but.
ED: And what if it had been? What if he not been assassinated and he’d had a chance to kind of live up to the words of the second inaugural and people would see what it really meant to bind up the nation’s wounds and all that? I mean–
MARTHA HODES: Right.
ED: Was any possibility of peace and hope ruined– or an African American progress ruined by this assassination?
MARTHA HODES: Well, the first thing I should say is that when Lincoln’s assassinated, his mourners struggle with this kind of paradox. So was– they’re asking was Lincoln so lenient that God decided to take him away, because he would have led the country in a way that would have been too merciful to the Confederates, to the former Confederates. Or was Lincoln’s lenience a model that they should be following?
So it’s really kind of a paradox and it’s part of this moment of confusion. But they decide– so these, the more radical black and white mourners decide, well, God probably took Lincoln away because he was too lenient. And then, it’s after that that they fashion him into a radical for kind of strategic purposes. Although, I do think they believe it.
So the question is had Lincoln not been assassinated, what would he have done. We don’t know. Obviously, that’s the most straightforward answer. But we do know– I think it’s fair to say, we do know that he would have listened to African Americans in a way that Andrew Johnson absolutely did not. Johnson totally dismissed the black petitioners who came to the White House and asked for his assistance and asked for political rights. He was completely uninterested and made that clear.
Lincoln would not have done that. Lincoln didn’t do that–
ED: That’s right.
MARTHA HODES: During four years of war, right?
MARTHA HODES: My guess is he would have disappointed a lot of people at various junctures, just as he did during the Civil War. And then the question is would he have been able to do something that no one else would have been able to do and somehow bypass what came to pass, which was so clearly what I saw in these responses to the assassination, which were also responses to victory and defeat, just incredible antagonism and clashing visions of the future of the nation.
ED: Martha Hodes is a historian at New York University. She’s the author of her brand new book, Mourning Lincoln. She’s also one of the people who helped Ford’s Theater put together a terrific website featuring the range of reactions to Lincoln’s death. We’ll link to that from our own site, backstoryradio.org.
PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today, on the show, we’re focusing in on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Now as you may know, John Wilkes Booth was never prosecuted for the murder. A week and a half after the assassination, a Union soldier discovered him hiding out in a Maryland barn and killed him after he refused to surrender.
But eight of the other conspirators were put on trial. They were all found guilty of at least one of the charges against them. And four of them were sentenced to death.
BRIAN: One thing that’s important to know about this trial was that it did not take place in a civilian court. It was a military trial, convened with the rationale that an attack on the president before the full cessation of the war was itself an act of war. Many have argued that this was an excessive use of war powers and that the convictions were pushed through to prove a point to the South. And the person they point to as most responsible for this perversion of justice is Joseph Holt.
He was the head of the Bureau of Military Justice, tasked with playing the role of chief prosecutor and the role of chief judge. And by all accounts, he had a brilliant legal mind.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: You know, he’s the kind of person you like to read anything he ever wrote, extremely eloquent. You certainly would want him on your side.
BRIAN: This is historian Elizabeth Leonard. She’s the author of a biography of Holt as well as a book on the trial itself. And in the course of all of her research on Holt, she developed a certain, let’s just say, fondness for the guy.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: Children, apparently, adored him. Dogs adored him. He was a great lover–
BRIAN: We always go for the dog audience here on BackStory. I’m glad you mentioned that, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: He– well, and he had gardens that he tended with the enormous care. As his biographer, I certainly love him in some way, as a close friend of mine for many years. But he would have been very difficult to live with and part of–
Part of his problem was that he was an unforgiving sort. You wouldn’t want to be in his crosshairs.
BRIAN: When the trial began, it became clear that the conspirators weren’t the only ones in Holt’s crosshairs. Holt believed this was a much bigger conspiracy and was determined to prove that Jefferson Davis himself had ordered the assassination. Holt knew that Confederates had networks in Canada and that some of the alleged conspirators had recently traveled there. He just needed it the evidence to link it all together. So how successful was Holt in doing this? I put the question to Elizabeth Leonard.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: In terms of whether it went well or poorly, I would say for Holt, it basically went pretty poorly. It involved bringing in witnesses, who in their testimony, would tie these local events in Washington to members of what was called Jefferson Davis’ Canadian Cabinet. People who were stationed in Canada and serving the Confederacy from there and tie Jefferson Davis to the action team in Washington, and so on.
So there were a number of witnesses who were brought in. But a lot of Holt’s commitment to that idea arose from his connection with this very, very poor and self-interested witness who was known as Sanford Conover, who just seemed to keep supplying some reasonably believable evidence and some completely concocted evidence that would suit Holt’s imaginings about what had happened and kept saying he needed more money to make the tie a little tighter and so on.
BRIAN: Is that when things started falling apart in the grand conspiracy, when Conover was on the stand?
ELIZABETH LEONARD: Absolutely, that’s when the grand conspiracy theory really starts to fall apart. And then there’s this growing pile of evidence indicating that he– you know, from– not just from people who might have been supporters of the prisoners, but people who were members of the United States Army. And so an officer is saying, you know, we know a little bit about what’s going on here and we got to tell you this guy is a fraud and so on. That’s when it really starts to fall apart. And Holt was so susceptible for someone with a brain, and so eloquent, and so highly educated, and all that stuff. And you know, he just really couldn’t let go.
BRIAN: Elizabeth, would you say that vengeance is too strong an adjective to describe part of Holt’s motivation?
ELIZABETH LEONARD: No, I would not say that’s too strong. He had a degree of rage built up since 1861 against Jefferson Davis for his willingness to leave the government as he did in January 1861 and helped to found the Confederate States of America, which Holt saw as the ultimate crime against the United States. So he was very angry at Jefferson Davis already and angry at the Confederacy, and could not imagine that Davis himself and the other leadership were involved.
BRIAN: I think I can guess what the ACLU might have made of this trial. I’m curious to hear what you take away from all of this.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: Well, I know that there are those people who have said that this trial was unjust and that if the eight prisoners at the bar had been tried in a civil court, things would have gone differently, and so on. I don’t actually believe that’s true and I don’t see it that way. I also, as a historian who has done a lot of work on the post-Civil War period, I really do understand Holt’s perspective on the importance of using this moment to lay some foundation for what reconstruction would look like.
He had inklings that there were others in the federal government who, looking ahead, thought mostly in terms of forgiveness and reuniting the nation. And I think he was right. Maybe the trial wasn’t the right place. I don’t know what would have been a better place. But I think he was right to be concerned that Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was preparing to give away the farm in the name of harmony, and peace, and forgiveness.
And while I’m all for harmony and peace and forgiveness in most circumstances, this harmony and peace and forgiveness that Andrew Johnson sought, he sought it at the expense of the freed slaves. They got thrown under the bus for that. And I think Holt anticipated that. That, for him, that was one of the great implications of Union victory, was that there would be protection for these 4 million newly freed slaves. And that in order to ensure their safety, that the South and that Confederate sentiment would have to be squelched. And this was an opportunity to do it or to begin to do it.
BRIAN: Elizabeth, I’m going to come back to an aside you made though, that as much as I agree with you in terms of the larger objectives and outcomes, I do wonder whether a trial is the right venue for a vengeful prosecutor, who is also the general manager of the trial, who is operating on shoddy evidence and connecting the defendants to a case that, frankly, is not believable on the face of it. And by that, I mean the larger conspiracy entailing Jefferson Davis. So I wonder if the courtroom is really the right place to achieve all of this, as you so eloquently put it.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: No, I think you’re right. No, I think– in that sense, I do think you’re right. I mean, I desperately wish, I guess, that Holt had given up on the grand conspiracy sooner and just focused on the prosecution of the eight who were before him and found another place to express this deep concern he had. So I guess I would agree with you there.
I just– we have to understand the terror and chaos that prevailed in Washington in April, and even still in May. I mean, the war wasn’t over. It didn’t end for a while. It didn’t end till the end of May, actually, when the last Confederate forces finally surrendered. So the war was still going on.
The president was killed, the Secretary of State had been terribly wounded. The attackers might have killed Andrew Johnson, the vice president. They might have killed Ulysses Grant. People were terrified that this was just the beginning of something much darker and much worse. And that chaos and confusion and fear, we have to understand the trial, Holt’s response, and so on, all within that context.
BRIAN: Well, thank you for joining us on BackStory today.
ELIZABETH LEONARD: Oh, you’re so welcome.
BRIAN: Elizabeth Leonard is a historian at Colby College. She’s the author of Lincoln’s Avengers– Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War, and also of Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally– Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky.
ED: That’s going to do it for us today. But on next week’s show, we’re going to pick up where we left off. We’ll explore the climate of uncertainty in the immediate wake of the Civil War. As we’ll hear, nobody really knew what was going to happen next.
PETER: We’d love to be able to include your questions in that episode. You can leave us a comment at backstoryradio.org or send us email. Our address is BackStory@virginia.edu. And our voicemail line is 434-260-1053. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, and Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Koli Elhi. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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**Correction: John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in Caroline County, Virginia – not Maryland.