The assassination of Abraham Lincoln

There was a large section of the Democrats of the North who were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war. These chose General McClellan as their candidate against Lincoln, who was re-elected in 1864. Fremont had been nominated by dissatisfied Republicans, but he withdrew before the election. Lincoln had an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College, but the popular vote was as follows: Lincoln, 2,216,067; McClellan, 1,808,725. Electoral vote: Lincoln, 212; McClellan, 21.

This showed a closer division than might have been expected. McClellan received almost the same number of votes that Lincoln got in 1860, while Lincoln gained less than 400,000. The slavery question was still in politics. The Emancipation Proclamation had not been received well in some portions of the North, where the question of slavery was of less importance than that of preserving the Union, and it was feared it would prevent a restoration on any terms. It appeared to Mr. Lincoln that re-election by Republican votes alone was impossible, so he determined to secure the nomination of a War Democrat for Vice-President. He first offered the nomination to General Butler, who declined it, and then to Andrew Johnson, who accepted it. Johnson was a man of little education, but of great will power. He had been Governor of Tennessee, Senator, and then Military Governor, rising from the tailor's bench in a little mountain town.

Great was the joy in the North over the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee. Just four years had the fighting lasted, and peace was welcomed with the wildest enthusiasm, only to be dampened by the murder of the President. On the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, in Ford's Theatre, Washington, John Wilkes Booth, the actor, entered the box where the President was seated, shot him, and jumped to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" He broke the bones of his ankle in the jump from the box, but managed to escape and, by aid of confederates, crossed the Potomac and got into Virginia, but in a few days was discovered. Refusing to surrender, he was shot. On the same night that Lincoln was shot, Secretary Seward was stabbed seriously, and Grant escaped only by absence from the city. Lincoln survived until Saturday morning, April 15, 1865, but died without recovering consciousness.

Terrible was the wrath of the North over the event, and the best men in the South regretted it equally, for all had come to respect Lincoln, and they realized that his murder would be laid upon the South, which would suffer accordingly -- a presentiment that was correct. It developed that there was a small conspiracy involved, but that it included no one outside of Washington and was not inspired by any Southern leaders. Just how much each of the parties to the conspiracy knew is uncertain. The meetings were at the home of Mrs. Surratt. The others who were found to be most closely involved were men named Harold, Payne, and Atzerott, who, with Mrs. Surratt, were executed. Others who in any way aided Booth to escape were punished severely.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)