The Lincoln Assassination:
New Information-New Meaning
14 N. E. Mt. Hebron Dr.
Pendleton, Oregon 97801
(Portions of this paper appeared in the July 2002 edition of the Surratt Courier.)
Over the past dozen years there have been several books and articles written about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that have shed new light on the conspiracy developed by John Wilkes Booth.1 The new information leads to the inescapable conclusion that Booth was a Confederate secret agent acting in concert with very high levels of the Confederate government. It appears that the Confederacy gave Booth gold, as well as access to the Signal Corps, which provided him with the resources needed to recruit members for his action team and guides to lead him to safety in Virginia. Unfortunately for Booth, he suffered the fate of secret agents caught engaging in covert operations: he was denounced by his former Confederate supervisors and made the primary scapegoat for the assassination while the Confederacy escaped all responsibility for Lincoln's death. The newly discovered information on the assassination requires us to revise our understanding of these momentous events, and view the Confederate government and John Wilkes Booth in a new way.
Most Americans are not actively engaged in studying the civil war and the assassination. For them, Booth will always be defined as a loner, motivated by revenge and self aggrandizement: exactly how the Confederate Secret Service wanted him to be defined. As recently as 1960, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War says of Booth, "He had first nourished the crackbrained plan to kidnap Lincoln alive…. and he conspired with a weird set of dimwitted incompetents who could hardly have carried out a plan to rob a corner newsstand."2 We do Booth an injustice by not accurately understanding his motives. Although the new information is slowly being disseminated, it will take decades before the collective consciousness of the nation begins to see Booth in the light of truth. The new information needs to be transformed from mere facts, to a new and different understanding of the man and his infamous deed.
When we consider Booth without the overlay of misinformation, we find a more sympathetic figure than history has described. To be sure, Booth committed a hateful crime that harmed our country, and particularly his beloved South. Lincoln was clearly the best friend the South could have had during reconstruction and any reasonable person would have recognized the futility of assassination so late in the war. But, there were many unreasonable people throughout the South; people who truly believed in the righteousness of their cause and that victory could be theirs if they would continue the struggle. This belief was held by many of the honored patriots of the South. Jefferson Davis, with his government in shambles and on the run for Mexico, still had hopes of continuing the struggle through protracted guerilla warfare. Lee wisely rejected that idea as he and his lieutenants considered surrender. But even Lee, one of the most beloved generals in our history, fought on when any chance of victory was lost, ordering a break-out attack just hours before he surrendered his starving army which was surrounded at Appomattox. Who knows how many lives may have been saved, had Lee accepted defeat when his lines were broken at Petersburg?
For all too many Southern patriots, belief in the rightness of their cause triumphed over their better judgment - judgment that would have shown the war was lost. Booth, through his fellow conspirator, John Surratt; had direct contact with his superiors in Richmond, but events planned in Richmond prior to April could not be recalled once the Confederate government was on the run and Richmond was in Federal hands. Even after Lee surrendered, Booth, tried to be the "good soldier" by acting on his own initiative to carry out what he perceived to be the last orders of the Confederate government. We find this hard to believe today, but from Booth's perspective, the Confederacy had not yet surrendered. After all, his president was still free; Joe Johnston's army and other Southern units were still fighting, and no one had recalled the mission of Thomas Harney, a Secret Service agent who was dispatched to blow up the White House, and kill the president along with many high ranking members of the Federal government. Although there's no evidence Booth had knowledge of Harney's specific mission, we do know he was aware of the Confederate plot to blow up the White House.3 It is not unreasonable that Booth would have learned of Harney's capture within hours of his being taken to Old Capitol prison. The fact that Booth changed his mission from kidnapping the president to killing the president as well as the vice president, and secretary of state, seems to indicate he wanted to accomplish something similar to Harney's mission, rather than the original plan aimed only at the president.
It appears Booth was not acting solely from personal motives as history has taught us; rather he was trying to affect the outcome of the conflict through a daring act requiring careful planning and considerable courage. Having lived a life of luxury with a deep loving relationship with his mother, he had more to lose than most, but was willing to sacrifice it all for his country. If his deed had been committed two weeks earlier, it might not look so obviously futile, although the Confederate chance for victory was lost long before April. I doubt that we would look at Booth's act with such harsh judgment had Lee's army still been engaged with Grant at Petersburg, and his role as a Confederate agent been fully understood. The fact is Booth's excessive patriotism, like that of so many other Southerners, clouded his judgment and deluded him into believing victory was still a possibility as noted in his diary entry of April 14, 1865: "Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done."
Booth paid a high price for his act. His death was not an easy one but it was a deserved one. His place in history will always be as villain as it should be. But, we should know the man and his deed in truth, not in lie. Rather than being a loner like Lee Harvey Oswald, Booth was a "007", sanctioned by his government. He fought for a cause he believed in, as did many other honored Americans, even though that cause was based on the evil institution of slavery. For many years after his death, Booth's grave was heavily decorated with flowers on Decoration Day, probably by fellow Southerners who may have denied him publicly, but, in their hearts, honored him for killing the man so many hated.
We are now 138 years past the assassination. Perhaps we can dare to rectify the lies about Booth's motives and hasten the day when our nation understands the truth about John Wilkes Booth. This could be accomplished to some extent if an organization such as the Maryland Historical Society placed a modest headstone over Booth's grave. This sounds like a radical idea at first, but if we begin to think of Booth in a new way, a way that is consistent with the actual history of the assassination, rather than the cover story invented by the Confederate Secret Service, then it does not sound so radical after all. Lee Harvey Oswald has a head stone and Booth deserves one also: it is simply a matter of justice. If a noted historian were to speak at the dedication of Booth's newly marked grave, the media coverage would provide an opportunity to enlighten the nation about the truth of John Wilkes Booth. I would suggest a simple inscription for his headstone - John Wilkes Booth 1838-1865-- Confederate Secret Service Agent--Assassin of our beloved 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. This should be done in such a manner as to offer no support to neoconfederate organizations that may try to make Booth a hero, for that he was not. But a Confederate patriot he was.
Just as we need to bring the nation to an accurate understanding of John Wilkes Booth, we need also to bring the nation to an accurate understanding of the Confederate government; history demands this of us. As we reassess John Wilkes Booth, we must also reassess the Confederacy that he served. And if we elevate slightly Booth's persona in history because we have additional information revealing the true nature of his motives, then we must also lower the "persona" of the Confederate government because we have new information revealing their instigation of the assassination. For those who still harbor a love for the Confederacy, this will not be an easy task. Passions deeply held die very slowly.
I believe the evidence to convict Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or Judah Benjamin for their leadership role in the dual kidnap-murder plots of Abraham Lincoln does not yet reach the level "beyond a reasonable doubt." Consequently, I am unable to condemn them personally for the assassination; therefore, I believe we must address our condemnation to the Confederate government, as it is responsible for what the Confederate Secret Service planned and carried out. This would be the case even if rogue agents within the Secret Service planned the assassination on their own authority - a situation I find totally unbelievable.
The fact that the Confederate government would authorize the killing of Abraham Lincoln is not in itself an abominable act. In war, killing the leader of your enemy can be a legitimate way to help attain victory. The Union was willing to do this in 1864 when they sent soldiers under Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to Richmond to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. But the Confederacy was thoroughly beaten by March 1865, and Confederate leaders should have recognized that fact. Sending men on such a desperate mission so late in the war goes far beyond what should have been considered by rational responsible leaders. They should have known that an assassination could only bring more suffering to their people when the inevitable defeat was realized. But as stated earlier, the South seemed incapable of accepting defeat because they believed so deeply in the righteousness of their cause: this speaks volumes of the dangers of believing beyond reason.
At this point in time, I am not sure what the consensus of historians is regarding the assassination and the respective roles of Booth and the Confederate government, but very little information has trickled down to the public at large. For instance, I have looked at three recently published history textbooks used in a local high school and community college and none of them even mentioned Booth's connections with the Secret Service. Two of them just describe Booth as a Southern sympathizer, but one actually states, "The assassination unfortunately increased the bitterness in the north, partly because of the fantastic rumor that Jefferson Davis plotted it."4 It is very disappointing when our history books print such distortions of historical events. We can do better than that.
If, as I suspect, the vast majority of historians have accepted the evidence proving that Booth was a Confederate secret agent, then we need to teach that information in the schools to more accurately portray the reality of the situation. Also, as a nation, we need to internalize that information by asking what it means to our national history. And then we need to actualize that information to demonstrate the new understanding we have discovered. I suggested we actualize the new information on Booth's relationship with the Confederate Secret Service by placing a headstone on his currently unmarked grave, a rather radical idea to be sure. But how do we actualize the new information about the Confederate government's role in the murder of Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest President?
Based on my idea of placing a headstone on the grave of John Wilkes Booth, I suppose we could do the converse and remove monuments dedicated to Davis and Lee. Although I don't advocate doing such a thing, it would be far better than what would have happened to the Confederate leaders had the truth of the assassination been discovered in 1865. Surely, Davis and Lee would have been hanged as traitors, and the healing that was so necessary for our country may have been prolonged for an even longer time. So what can we do? What act could help the country, North and South, come to full realization of the faults and failures of the Confederate government and end the charade of using John Wilkes Booth as the scapegoat for the assassination?
I am open to suggestions on this issue. The only idea that readily comes to my mind, and is grounded in the perception of one who has lived for 40 years far from my Southern roots, is this: that the legislature of any state that flies the Confederate flag on state property should pass a law requiring that the flag be flown at half mast during the month of April each year. Enactment of such a law should be prefaced with the reason that the law was passed: the Confederate government's complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This would be a noble gesture by the Southern states and would demonstrate their acceptance of the responsibility of the treasonous act committed by their government 138 years ago.
1 Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, Come Retribution - The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The University of Mississippi, Jackson and London, 1988
Tidwell, William A., April "65, The Kent State University Press, 1995
Steers, Edward Jr. Blood on the Moon, The University Press of Kentucky, 2001
Lange, James and DeWitt, Katherine, "Who Ordered Lincoln's Death?" North & South (October 1998), pp. 16-33.
Hanchett, William, "The Lincoln Assassination Revisited" North & South (September 2000), pp. 33-39
2 Richard M. Ketchum et al., eds., The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc, 1960).
3 Atzerodt, Lost Confession
4 Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, 11th ed. (Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston 1998), p. 482
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