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A Country Lawyer and “The People”

By Jay Holmes

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth murdered United States President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. Many of us left middle school with the notion that Lincoln’s assassination occurred shortly after the end of the American Civil War, but that is not true. To understand the assassination we need to clarify the actual end of the Civil War. . . .

April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia to United States General U. S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. To my frustration, the surrender of Lee is often pointed to as the “end” of the US Civil War, but that is quite inaccurate. Well over 120,000 confederate troops remained under arms and under effective command across the Confederate South after the surrender of Lee’s Army.

May 10, a full month after the surrender of Lee’s Army of Virginia, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured. He nearly escaped captivity dressed as an old woman, but an attentive Union officer noticed that the hobbling old woman was wearing riding boots and spurs.

May 26, more than a month after Lincoln’s assassination, Confederate General Kirby Smith surrendered his 43,000 man Army of the Trans-Mississippi.

June 23, over two months after Lee’s surrender, the last Confederate general, Brigadier Stand Watie, surrendered his forces. Watie was a Cherokee Chief in charge of a very effective Confederate cavalry brigade that included warriors of the Cherokee, Creek, Osage and Seminole Indian tribes.

Brigadier Stand Watie

November 6, the last confederate warship, the Shenandoah, surrendered, but smaller bands of holdout Confederates continued raids across the South for several months.

August 20, 1866, a year and four months after Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, the American Civil War officially ended when US President Andrew Johnson signed a peace declaration.

Many of us grew up with the notion that Lincoln was assassinated on a peaceful, post-war weekend by the hand of a bitter, Confederate sympathizer in a futile act of vengeance after the war ended, but that notion is false. The country was, in fact, still at war. That fact is important in understanding the motives of John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth

Booth was, indeed, bitter, but he was not yet convinced that the Confederate’s chances for success were gone. He was strongly anti-abolitionist and opposed Lincoln’s plan to allow freed slaves to vote. He hoped to throw the Union government into confusion and allow the Confederate armies and government to regroup and regain some measure of initiative.

Booth had actually planned and organized a band of conspirators to kill not only the President, but to also simultaneously kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The “hit man” assigned to kill Johnson lost his nerve and did not conduct the planned attack. The attack on the Secretary of State did come to fruition, but failed. The Secretary of State and other members of his family were wounded.

Had the plot been carried out as planned, Booth’s dream of disrupting the Union government would not have seemed so far-fetched. In my view, whatever confusion might have occurred in the halls of government would not have prevented the Union Army from completing the successful prosecution of the war, but I reach that conclusion with a Northern mind and as a child of the 20th Century. Booth and his co-conspirators saw it differently. There still remain a few Americans that see it differently today.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Lincoln’s death is often viewed as the end of the Civil War epic, but I view his sad passing as a symbol of the continuance of something larger than Lincoln or the Civil War, itself. American readers may remember reading the Gettysburg Address, the speech Lincoln delivered at the commemoration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. I have always held dearly one particular part of that address. In some very dark moments in my life, these words have brought me comfort. I hope that you find value in them, as well.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

~~Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Pennsylvania, United States of America

We need not travel to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s memory or the sacrifice of those who fell there. We act in honor of his memory and on behalf of our own best angels when we act in accordance with the simple principles of freedom and justice.

image by Sallicio, wikimedia commons

image by Sallicio, wikimedia commons

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14 thoughts on “ A Country Lawyer and “The People”

  1. Once again, the history lesson amazes me, Holmes. No. I had no idea Booth’s assissination attempt was an act of war.

    The words from the Gettysburg address raise a question that’s bothered me for some time. In the late sixties and seventies, I was adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam — but not, in any way, hostile about or toward the brave young men drafted to fight in that war. My dilemma then (and, now) is the sense that we weren’t “in it to win it” in any significant way. Young lives were sacrificed with no end game goal. Was my thinking scewed on that war, too?

    And, does our current situation in Afghanistan have the same potential? It often seems to be more of a political hot potato than a mission with a defined goal that warrants loss of lives. (My apologies if you’ve already addressed this is a prior series. Just point me toward the posts, and I’ll read them.)

    • Hi Gloria. I’m sorry to say that Holmes has been called away, and his access to the blog will be either non-existent or spotty for a while.

      I can’t speak for Holmes, but I can say that I have spoken with him on the same topic.

      I speak for myself when I say that I have had no conversations with anyone, nor have I read anything on the topic, that leads me to believe that we are doing anything in Afghanistan politically except dicking around and wasting money and lives from a lack of “in it to win it” commitment. There are definitely ways we could win this thing, but they wouldn’t sit well with certain members of the voting public, and that is, ultimately, most politicians’ paramount concern. Generally, at this point, many of the politicians in power value their moral superiority images with their voters and with other countries over the lives of our soldiers. I would refer you to We.Are.At.War. for more info on what’s going on in Afghanistan.

      I would emphasize again that that is my OWN opinion, and I am NOT speaking for Holmes. I’m sure Holmes will enjoy answering your question himself when he is able to do so.

  2. Thanks for a good article, Jay. Couple of thoughts to mention:

    There has been much speculation that Booth was an unwitting tool of Charles Sumner and Edwin M. Stanton, both rabid in their desires to see the Confederacy severely punished, which was not likely with Lincoln as President.

    Although I don’t remember the specifics, I believe a Confederate detachment in South Texas defeated a Union army a couple of months after Lee’s surrender.

  3. One of Holmes’ finest, which I probably say every time but it does not make it any less true. I revisited some of this history in Doris Kerns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” about a year ago as well as watched, again, Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS. I was struck then and now about the similarity of Washington politics, in particular the rancor. To me, one the main things Holmes’ post illustrates is how confusing the U.S. Civil War has always been in the minds of Americans.

    Best to Holmes and safe return.

  4. The thing that is lost about the Civil War is the undrlying cause was State’s Rights. Slavery was the issue that caused the hostilities. The North was opposed to slavery because it had a manufacturing base. The South was agrarian and the linchpin in the system was the labor of endentured Blacks. The South wanted to continue slavery and the North opposed it. The South believed that the needs of the individual states trumped the wishes of the Federal Government. The conflict still continues in another form. The Republican Party, which opposed slavery, wants less Federal interference and wants the individual states to take over education, security of the retired, taxation and return to a strong Woeld presence. The Democrats, who were dominant in the South, now see the Federal government as the last resort for the disenfranchised and as a provider of services that the States cannot efficiencently oversee. The fact is the War continues, the players are the same but they’ve switched sides and the bloodshed is negligible.

    • Indeed, not only does the War continue, but it began long before the Civil War with the competing urban and rural interests influencing the establishment of our Constitution. Thank you for your comment, Tom.

  5. A great article Holmes/Piper. I’m ashamed to say my knowledge of the Civil War is so thin I though Lincoln was killed after the fighting ceased. I just know you are chastising me now. Fortunately I have 10yr old so I will get that portion of my education served in the coming years.

    Lincoln’s address is one of the great speeches. Sadly, principles are rented more than bought. Fortunately, few of us have to make such sacrifices as those at Gettysburg, but upholding their principles in our daily lives supports a society that works by all they fought for.

    Safe travels.

    • No need to hang your head in shame, Nigel. Most Americans think Lincoln was killed after the fighting ceased, too…. “Sadly, principles are rented more than bought.” Too true!

  6. I truly feel blessed to be privy to Holmes’ essays. I can’t tell you how much I have learned by reading your posts. This post reminds me of my frustration with convenient history teaching that is often taught in schools. “Lincoln’s death ended the Civil War.” That is still being taught today. I hope not in high school, so I can’t comment on that. But I know it is still taught in 5th grade and during middle school. I believe the earlier we teach a more honest version of history, the more we honor our children, the ethics of teaching and the future of our nation.
    Thank you Holmes for another enlightening post! 🙂

    • Hi Monique. Holmes isn’t able to reply himself. You say it well when you call it “convenient history.” So much of what is taught in schools is the Reader’s Digest version and spun to promote whatever is politically correct in the moment. Frustration doesn’t even begin to cover it. And I don’t think school history teachers do this on purpose all of the time. I think they are teaching what was taught to them, and if they are not passionate about history themselves, they rarely find out anything different to pass on to the kids.

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