Lincoln Assassination

May 6, 1865: Executive Order Establishes Military Commission to Try Conspirators

Lincoln Miliary Tribunal

 

One hundred and fifty years ago an executive order establishing the military commission to try the accused Lincoln conspirators was issued.  There was some newspaper opposition to not according the alleged conspirators a civil trial, but by and large a military tribunal met with approval throughout the North.  As Commander-in-Chief in time of war it was argued that the murder of Lincoln was a military offense.  Additionally it was pointed out that passions were running so high in the weeks after the assassination that empaneling an unbiased civil jury would have been impossible.   Since the Confederacy was defeated, I can see little justification for trying civilians before a military tribunal in time of peace.  Edward Bates, former Attorney General under Lincoln, and Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, criticized the use of a military tribunal instead having the accused conspirators tried in a civilian court.   Here is the text of the order: Continue reading

April 17, 1865: Sherman Meets With Johnston

Sherman and Johnston

 

 

One hundred and fifty years ago news traveled slowly outside of areas with operating telegraphs, and so it was that news of Lincoln’s assassination reached General Sherman in North Carolina on April 17, as he was on his way to discuss with General Joseph E. Johnston the surrender of Johnston’s army.  Here is the portion of Sherman’s memoirs where he discussed what happened at the meeting:

Just as we were entering the car, the telegraph-operator, whose office was up-stairs in the depot-building, ran down to me and said that he was at that instant of time receiving a most important dispatch in cipher from Morehead City, which I ought to see. I held the train for nearly half an hour, when he returned with the message translated and written out. It was from Mr. Stanton, announcing the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, the attempt on the life of Mr. Seward and son, and a suspicion that a like fate was designed for General Grant and all the principal officers of the Government. Dreading the effect of such a message at that critical instant of time, I asked the operator if any one besides himself had seen it; he answered No! I then bade him not to reveal the contents by word or look till I came back, which I proposed to do the same afternoon. The train then started, and, as we passed Morris’s Station, General Logan, commanding the Fifteenth Corps, came into my car, and I told him I wanted to see him on my return, as I had something very important to communicate. He knew I was going to meet General Johnston, and volunteered to say that he hoped I would succeed in obtaining his surrender, as the whole army dreaded the long march to Charlotte (one hundred and seventy-five miles), already begun, but which had been interrupted by the receipt of General Johnston’s letter of the 13th. We reached Durham’s, twenty-six miles, about 10 a.m., where General Kilpatrick had a squadron of cavalry drawn up to receive me. We passed into the house in which he had his headquarters, and soon after mounted some led horses, which he had prepared for myself and staff. General Kilpatrick sent a man ahead with a white flag, followed by a small platoon, behind which we rode, and were followed by the rest of the escort. We rode up the Hillsboro’ road for about five miles, when our flag bearer discovered another coming to meet him: They met, and word was passed back to us that General Johnston was near at hand, when we rode forward and met General Johnston on horseback, riding side by side with General Wade Hampton. We shook hands, and introduced our respective attendants. I asked if there was a place convenient where we could be private, and General Johnston said he had passed a small farmhouse a short distance back, when we rode back to it together side by side, our staff-officers and escorts following. We had never met before, though we had been in the regular army together for thirteen years; but it so happened that we had never before come together. He was some twelve or more years my senior; but we knew enough of each other to be well acquainted at once. We soon reached the house of a Mr. Bennett, dismounted, and left our horses with orderlies in the road. Our officers, on foot, passed into the yard, and General Johnston and I entered the small frame-house. We asked the farmer if we could have the use of his house for a few minutes, and he and his wife withdrew into a smaller log-house, which stood close by. Continue reading

Now He Belongs to the Ages

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Now he belongs to the ages.”  So said Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, who had kept vigil at Lincoln’s deathbed, after Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet.

In hundreds of posts since 2008 at The American Catholic and Almost Chosen People, I have examined various facets of the public life of Abraham Lincoln.  Of course, the most important part of Lincoln’s life came, as it will for each of us, after his death when he stood before God for the particular judgment.  In this life the outcome of that judgment is unknown to us.  However, I think  the record is well-established that during the Civil War Lincoln found his mind and his heart turning increasingly towards God.

Lincoln throughout his life had read the Bible and effortlessly used scriptural quotes in his speaking and writing, both in public and in private.  Lincoln had the Bible in his bones, and often turned to it.  Lincoln’s religious opinions are not simple to discern, however, as Mark Noll in a perceptive article skillfully points out.

In 1846 when Lincoln ran successfully for Congress against a well known Protestant minister, Peter Cartwright, he was attacked as an “infidel” and a scoffer against religion.  In a pamphlet Lincoln responded:  “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular… I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.”  Before the election campaign Lincoln went to one of the revival meetings of Cartwright, probably to scope out the opposition.  During the meeting Cartwright asked all those who were intent on going to Heaven to stand, and Lincoln remained seated.  Cartwright then asked all those who were intent on going to Hell to stand, and Lincoln once again remained seated.  Cartwright then inquired of Lincoln directly where Lincoln intended to go since he stood neither for Heaven nor Hell.  Lincoln responded that he intended to go to Congress.

I have always thought that Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife and most perceptive observer, best understood Lincoln’s religious views:  “From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband’s heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on – when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office – with the care of a great Nation, upon his shoulders – when devastating war was upon us then indeed to my knowledge – did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God – for his sustaining power When too – the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God’s chastising hand upon us – he turned his heart to Christ.”

Certainly Mr. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address gives strong evidence that Lincoln had thought long and very hard about God and human affairs.  Lincoln occasionally gave hints that indicated that he was thinking about his own destiny in the hereafter.  In August of 1864 it looked as if Lincoln was headed to electoral defeat.  A group of Wisconsin politicians visiting the White House suggested that perhaps Lincoln’s prospects would improve if he would agree to drop the Emancipation Proclamation in exchange for the Confederate states returning to the Union.  Lincoln responded briskly:

“I should be damned in time and in eternity were I to do that.  I will keep faith with the gallant black soldiers who have fought and died for this nation at Port Hudson and Olustee. The Proclamation sticks.”

As for the Bible, Lincoln gave frequent public and private comments that indicated his great respect for the book of books.  When Lincoln received the gift of a Bible from freed slaves in Maryland he made the following statement:  “In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.

In the summer of 1864 Lincoln spent an evening with perhaps his closest friend Joshua F. Speed.  When Speed arrived Lincoln was reading the Bible.  Speed recounted the incident as follows:  “As I entered the room near night, [Lincoln] was sitting near a window reading his Bible. Approaching him, I said, ‘I am glad to see you profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism I am sorry to say that I have not!’ Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand upon my shoulder, he said: ‘You are wrong Speed; take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith and you will live and die a happier and better man.’”

Very significant evidence as to the impact on Lincoln of the death of his son Willie and the war is given by Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington that Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln regularly attended.  In response to an inquiry as to whether Lincoln was a scoffer, Gurley replied as follows:  ” I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the Subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teachings. And more than that, in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Savior, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion.”

So much for the historical record.  When it comes to something of the heart and soul like religion, prose and facts can take us only so far.  Time to call on a poet.

Stephen Vincent Benet 87, four score and seven, years ago wrote an epic poem on the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body.  Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, it is available on line here.  In this section of the poem I think he gets close to the truth of Abraham Lincoln and his turning to God during the war.  Lincoln is sitting in the telegraph office at the War Department anxiously awaiting news of the battle of Antietam: Continue reading

Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Walt Whitman

April 14, 1865: Toward an Indefinite Shore

 Final Cabinet Meeting

On Friday April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his wife planned to go to Ford’s Theater in the evening.  But first, Lincoln had a day of work ahead of him, which included a cabinet meeting.

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, made this notation in his diary regarding the cabinet meeting that occurred at noon:

Inquiry had been made as to army news on the first meeting of the Cabinet, and especially if any information had been received from Sherman. None of the members had heard anything, and Stanton, who makes it a point to be late, and who has the telegraph in his Department, had not arrived. General Grant, who was present, said he was hourly expecting word. The President remarked it would, he had no doubt, come soon, and come favorably, for he had last night the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the War. Generally the news had been favorable which succeeded this dream, and the dream itself was always the same. I inquired what this remarkable dream could be. He said it related to your (my) element, the water; that he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore; that he had this dream preceding Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, Wilmington, etc. General Grant said Stone River was certainly no victory, and he knew of no great results which followed from it. The President said however that might be, his dream preceded that fight.

Continue reading

Lincoln’s Last Speech

 

On April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln made his last speech.  It was to a jubilant crowd that had gathered at the White House in celebration of the surrender of Lee.  The speech was an impromptu effort and clearly indicated that Lincoln was shifting gears from the War to the problems of Reconstruction.  Here is the text of that speech:

We meet this evening, 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 can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated. Nor must those whose harder part gives us the cause of rejoicing, be overlooked. Their honors must not be parcelled out with others. I myself was near the front, and had the high pleasure of transmitting much of the good news to you; but no part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine. To Gen. Grant, his skilful officers, and brave men, all belongs. The gallant Navy stood ready, but was not in reach to take active part.

By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.

As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I can not properly offer an answer. In spite of this precaution, however, it comes to my knowledge that I am much censured for some supposed agency in setting up, and seeking to sustain, the new State government of Louisiana. In this I have done just so much as, and no more than, the public knows. In the Annual Message of Dec. 1863 and accompanying Proclamation, I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable; and I also distinctly protested that the Executive claimed no right to say when, or whether members should be admitted to seats in Congress from such States. This plan was, in advance, submitted to the then Cabinet, and distinctly approved by every member of it. One of them suggested that I should then, and in that connection, apply the Emancipation Proclamation to the theretofore excepted parts of Virginia and Louisiana; that I should drop the suggestion about apprenticeship for freed-people, and that I should omit the protest against my own power, in regard to the admission of members to Congress; but even he approved every part and parcel of the plan which has since been employed or touched by the action of Louisiana. The new constitution of Louisiana, declaring emancipation for the whole State, practically applies the Proclamation to the part previously excepted. It does not adopt apprenticeship for freed-people; and it is silent, as it could not well be otherwise, about the admission of members to Congress. So that, as it applies to Louisiana, every member of the Cabinet fully approved the plan. The message went to Congress, and I received many commendations of the plan, written and verbal; and not a single objection to it, from any professed emancipationist, came to my knowledge, until after the news reached Washington that the people of Louisiana had begun to move in accordance with it. From about July 1862, I had corresponded with different persons, supposed to be interested, seeking a reconstruction of a State government for Louisiana. When the message of 1863, with the plan before mentioned, reached New-Orleans, Gen. Banks wrote me that he was confident the people, with his military co-operation, would reconstruct, substantially on that plan. I wrote him, and some of them to try it; they tried it, and the result is known. Such only has been my agency in getting up the Louisiana government. As to sustaining it, my promise is out, as before stated. But, as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest. But I have not yet been so convinced. Continue reading

January 13, 1862: Letter From Mudd

Orestes A. Brownson, a Catholic convert, was the greatest Catholic writer of mid-Nineteenth Century America.  He published Brownson’s Quarterly Journal, an influential and popular magazine which examined the political, cultural and literary scene of the America of its time.  One hundred and fifty years ago one of his subscribers sat down and wrote him a letter.  Dr. Samuel Mudd was an unknown figure at the time, but just over three years hence all of America would know his name as the physician who  treated the assassin John Wilkes Booth after he had slain President Lincoln.  Mudd was arrested in the aftermath of the assassination.  Mudd claimed to be completely innocent.  However, at his trial evidence was presented that established that Mudd had contacts with Booth in late 1864.  What they talked about is lost to history.  Evidence by Mudd’s former slaves helped establish that Mudd had been part of the conspiracy.  He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, escaping the death penalty by a single vote.

Mudd was held for four years at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.  During a yellow fever epidemic in 1867 the prison doctor died and Mudd volunteered to take his place.  His efforts helped stem the outbreak and the soldiers at the fort wrote a petition to President Johnson asking for clemency for Mudd: He inspired the hopeless with courage and by his constant presence in the midst of danger and infection…. [Many] doubtless owe their lives to the care and treatment they received at his hands.  Due to this, and the ceaseless efforts of his defense attorney Thomas W. Ewing, Jr. who was influential with the Johnson administration, on February 8, 1869 Johnson pardoned Mudd.  Since Mudd’s release there have been continuing efforts to clear his name.  In 1992 my former Congressman, Republican Thomas Ewing, co-sponsored with Steny Hoyer, Democrat Maryland, House bill 1885 to overturn the conviction of Mudd.  The bill failed in committee.

Here is the text of Mudd’s letter to Brownson: Continue reading

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