Lincoln’s Murder Was the U.S. Civil War’s Worst Killing
The assassination doomed hopes for a merciful peace
The American Civil War brought death to more than 750,000 people, two percent of the nation’s population at the time. But an assassin’s bullet inflicted the war’s worst casualty — the death of Pres. Abraham Lincoln.
John Wilkes Booth did more than kill a president — he killed the one man who could have secured a compassionate peace that would somehow honor both the North and the South.
This is the story of how the murder of a president 150 years ago killed Lincoln’s wish that the nation “with malice toward none, with charity for all” would pursue reconciliation and healing that would lead to “a just and a lasting peace.”
But it’s also a tale full of conflicts and struggles that would be familiar to any wartime president of the United States in recent years.
In seeking “a just and a lasting peace,” Lincoln ran headlong into political rivals who believed Congress — not the commander-in-chief — should determine not only the outcome of the Civil War, but the future of the nation.
“It is hardly possible to talk about the North’s effort to win the war — and just as importantly, to secure a compassionate peace — separate from Lincoln,” historian Jay Winik wrote in April 1865 — The Month That Saved America.
But people often forget that history is kind to Lincoln … kinder than were many of his contemporaries. Fellow Republicans — even members of his own cabinet — questioned his ability to lead during the Civil War.
Put bluntly, Lincoln never administered anything greater than a two-person law office in Springfield, Illinois before becoming president in 1861. Congress had plenty of members who believed he was out of his depth.
“His speeches have fallen like a wet blanket here,” Rep. Charles Francis Adams, a Massachusetts Republican, said during Lincoln’s election campaign. “They put to flight all notions of greatness.”
From the beginning, Lincoln asserted his presidential authority to prosecute the war as commander-in-chief. He hired and fired generals, reviewed military policies and spent hours in the War Department telegraph office examining reports from battles.
He also believed that when — not if — the South surrendered, the president should be in charge of the peace as much as he had been in charge of the war.
By 1863, Lincoln readied himself for what he considered an inevitable Union victory. On Dec. 8, he issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Often forgotten today, the executive order summed up Lincoln’s generous and conciliatory terms for the South.
Lincoln offered a full pardon and full restoration of property to all but the highest Confederate officials. State governments could reconstitute if only 10 percent of the state’s population swore a loyalty oath to the Union. Ex-Confederate states that accepted the plan had to accept the emancipation of slaves and do nothing to hinder their freedom.
These were magnanimous terms — and shocked many of his political allies. He said kindness would govern the government’s policies toward the South, an idea he expressed again in 1865 during his Second Inaugural Address.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln said during the speech. “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
What did this “kindness” mean? Historian Philip Paludan noted that the South wanted to survive. Lincoln’s approach to reconstruction would at least allow white Southerners to consider themselves Americans again — and they could participate in the nation’s government.
“Lincoln’s instinct was to implement his policies in ways that would enlist support from as many motives as possible and political self-interest was a motive he understood well,” Paludan wrote in The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Once again, Lincoln faced opposition from his own party. Fellow Republicans saw the plan as an attempt to coddle traitors who had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers and led a slave-holding republic in rebellion.
“Strip the proud nobility of their bloated estates, reduce them to a level with plain republicans, send forth to labor, and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble proud traitors,” Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued.
Stevens was a Radical Republican leader and opponent of kindly reconstruction.
When Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill, its own attempt at shaping reconstruction, Lincoln used the pocket veto to dash the challenge to his presidential authority. For him, the stakes were too high. Lincoln believed his reconstruction plan would help end slavery forever.
“Lincoln had never swerved from the conviction that Congress had no power over slavery in the states, and that he as President could never have interfered with it except as a necessity of war,” Benjamin Thomas wrote in Abraham Lincoln — A Biography.
But it was Lincoln’s dedication to the destruction of slavery that led to his death.
John Wilkes Booth — one of the most famous actors in America, a supporter of slavery and open Confederate sympathizer — wasn’t the first in America to want to kill Lincoln.
Lincoln faced death threats before he took office in 1861. He even had a file in his White House desk where he kept the threatening letters. In 1864, Booth toyed with plans to kidnap Lincoln and turn him over to the Confederate government for ransom.
But by April 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s battered Army of Northern Virginia was on the run, with the Union Army in pursuit and ready to destroy what remained of the South’s once-finest fighting men.
At Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses Grant, who offered generous terms to both Confederate officers and men. The war was beginning to end, and the ending seemed rooted in mercy.
On April 11, 1865 — just two days after Lee’s surrender — Lincoln spoke from a White House balcony, outlining his latest plans for reconstruction.
Lincoln called for cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of the government on the issue of reconstruction, again stressing the need for a generous peace. Most importantly, he asked the nation to accept the reality of blacks gaining their rights as American citizens, and he emphasized those who voluntarily served in the Union Army.
Booth was in the crowd below. “That means nigger citizenship,” he said to a companion. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
On April 14, 1865, Booth made good on his promise. He mortally shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre while his co-conspirators targeted Secretary of State William Seward and Vice Pres. Andrew Johnson in an attempt to decapitate the executive branch.
Seward survived an assault by a knife-wielding assailant. Johnson’s would-be assassin got cold feet and retreated to a tavern.
By the next morning, Lincoln was dead. So was any hope for a merciful reconstruction of the nation.
Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, became president. Mistrusted by Lincoln’s cabinet and regarded an outsider by the congressional Republican majority, Johnson was an ineffectual president whose missteps allowed the most extreme elements of Congress to direct reconstruction.
Long-lasting military occupation, bitter resentments in both North and South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan marked the immediate post-war years. Jim Crow laws and the systematic denial of basic rights to black Americans persisted into the 1960s.
The U.S. never entirely overcame that legacy.
“Lincoln’s assassin struck a blow from which America has never recovered,” wrote Vernon Burton, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of The Age of Lincoln.
“The North lost a hero, African-Americans lost an ally for fair and equal opportunity and the South lost a leader, southern born, who called for charity without malice.”