On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence. The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head. Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.
It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before. Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.
For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries. The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter. Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox. A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater. That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.
It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced. On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated. To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly. Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel. They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate. Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way. The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.
Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time. It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water. The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.
Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory. After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned. Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period. Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.
It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle. Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.