"Right or Wrong, God Judge Me": The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper; When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln: Southern Reaction to the Assassination, by Carolyn HarrellSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Rhodehamel and Louise Taper, eds., "Right or Wrong, God Judge
Me": The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1997. xii + 171 pp., index.
Carolyn Harrell, When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln: Southern Reaction to the Assassination. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997. xiv + 136 pp., index.
The last several years have witnessed a continuing proliferation of books dealing with the Lincoln assassination. These range the gamut from Elizabeth Trindal, Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy (1996), to Edward Steers, Jr., His Name Is Still Mudd: The Case against Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1997), to William Tidwell's, April '65 (1995), which reiterates the claim that Jefferson Davis was the prime mover behind Booth's plans to capture President Lincoln. There have also been a number of reprints of previously issued classics including George S. Bryan, The Great American Myth with an Introduction by William Hanchett (1990), and Lloyd Lewis, Myths after Lincoln reprinted as The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth, with an Introduction by Mark E. Neely, Jr., (1994).
Another publishing trend has been the release of modern editions of previously edited works such as Terry Alford's version of Asia Booth Clarke's diary, John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir (1996) and Michael Kauffman's editing of conspirator Samuel Arnold's recollections, Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator (1995). Historians have generally applauded these new editions of older, often out-of-print and difficult to find volumes, where historically trained scholars have brought modern editing techniques to their task. These newly issued versions are destined to become the definitive editions, and it is unlikely that future scholars would see a need to tackle this task again.
The books reviewed here, John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper, eds., "Right or Wrong God Judge Me": The Writings of John Wilkes Booth (1997) and Carolyn Harrell, When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln: Page [End Page 80] Southern Reaction to the Assassination (1997), are two recent additions to this continually growing assassination bookshelf. In a similar manner, the compilation of Booth's writings also seems likely to become an essential volume for anyone seeking the assassin's motivation.
There are many strengths to Rhodehamel and Taper's work, not the least of which is the superb editing. The editors' annotations shed a great deal of light not only on the documents themselves but also on people and events. Rhodehamel, who is Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Hunting-ton Library, and Taper, who is a noted collector and owns one of the largest collections of Booth letters, also provide an excellent synopsis of Booth's all-too-brief life and career, while at the same time dealing with some of the recent historiographical controversies that have swirled around the assassination. The major one, of course, involves the already noted claim by William Tidwell and his associates that the Confederates, in response to a Union cavalry raid on Richmond designed to kill or capture Jefferson Davis, retaliated with capture plans of their own. Near the end of the war in April 1865, these plans allegedly changed to murder when Thomas Harney was dispatched to blow up the White House. When Harney was captured before accomplishing his goal, Booth decided to duplicate the plot as best he could by killing Lincoln and members of his cabinet.
To their credit, the editors are very judicious with these claims, a caution that is certainly welcome. Tidwell is not a sensationalist in the sense that some previous authors have been and he would admit that his view of the assassination is based on circumstantial evidence, although he believes the evidence is so overwhelming that it proves the case. While he may try to make this clear in his writing, conspiracy charges when repeated often enough tend to become accepted as well-established fact rather than tentative speculations.
One previous sensational author, the late Otto Eisenschiml, who raised questions about Secretary Stanton and the Radical Republicans' involvement in Lincoln's murder in two books, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937) and In the Shadow of Lincoln's Death (1940), always claimed that he was merely raising questions. He feigned surprise when critics accused him of suggesting that the radicals were responsible for Lincoln's death. Unfortunately, to this day there are many people who still believe that Stanton betrayed Lincoln, based largely on Eisenschiml's unsubstantiated and discredited musings, which were repeated often enough to be treated as fact. Page [End Page 81]
Therefore, it is refreshing to see the editors write of Booth's alleged participation in Confederate plots:
This is not to suggest that there were not plots to capture Lincoln, indeed there were several other plans besides Booth's. At a minimum the actor was on the fringes of Confederate intelligence, and by his own admission, he carried quinine to the Confederacy. He also was not reticent in telling those with whom he came in contact what he was up to, including fellow actor Samuel Knapp Chester, whom he tried unsuccessfully to recruit to the scheme. His lack of discretion, a trait which would hardly be an asset in modern intelligence agents, does make it likely that he would reveal his plans to Confederate officials if he had the opportunity to do so.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to argue that Booth's plot was known to Confederate officials and quite another to substantiate the claim that they were the driving force behind it. Again, as the editors note,
When one turns to the writings of Booth, the assassin left nothing behind to indicate Confederate involvement in his plans. Admittedly, however, there might be a couple of reasons for this. First, wise plotters do not leave a long paper trail that can be traced back to them. Second, while this is the definitive compilation of Booth's writings, the record is undoubtedly far from complete, and it is easy to understand why. Above and beyond the normal attrition Page [End Page 82] to which all historical documents are subject, it is highly likely that significant numbers of Booth's letters were destroyed. No one wanted the authorities to believe that they were associated with the assassin, and thus some material might well have been consigned to the flames. That is exactly what John Matthews did with a letter that Booth left with him to be given to the editor of the National Intelligencer. Matthews destroyed the letter, and his later attempts to reconstruct its contents are dubious, undoubtedly relying on his access to other published Booth materials with which he was familiar.
We know that in 1873 Edwin Booth and a servant boy destroyed his brother's remaining possessions. The scene had an almost surrealistic quality to it:
While Booth's remaining writings are sparse, they are nonetheless revealing. One image that clearly emerges is that of a Southern patriot rather than a madman. The former image of the insane actor, which can be seen even in the titles of books such as Stanley Kimmel's The Mad Booths of Maryland (1940), is really no longer tenable. His undelivered "speech" bristles with his love for the South and his disdain for the abolitionists. It also demonstrates that part of Booth's hatred was personal, for he was a friend of Thomas Gorsuch, son of Marylander Edward Gorsuch, who was killed in the Christiana Riot in Pennsylvania when he attempted to recover his runaway slaves. When a jury acquitted the murderers the South was outraged.
Booth's November 1864 "To Whom It May Concern Letter" was even more explicit in his hatred of Lincoln. As Booth wrote of his capture plot, "Nor, do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make Page [End Page 83] for her [the South] a prisoner of this man, to whom she owes so much of misery." By that time the actor had already been working for several months to put together a group to carry out his plans.
Of course, one of the major remaining questions concerns why Booth acted out his impulses. The sentiments that he espoused could just as easily have been expressed by tens of thousands of Southerners. Yet Booth was only one of a small handful of people who tried to capture the President and the only one, in the end, who resorted to murder. We can very easily lose sight of the real assassin if he is seen simply as the tool of impersonal forces. The historian is left to ponder what caused Booth to kill Lincoln as opposed to the tens of thousands of potential abductors and murderers who took no action.
While Booth may have been plotting Lincoln's capture, perhaps not unexpectedly there is much more in his letters about his acting career than about his plans to deal with Lincoln. The star system had already emerged in the nineteenth century, whereby the star received top billing above both the play and the playwright. Thus, Booth was constantly writing about his acting offers to Joseph Simonds, who lived in Boston and became his business manager, not only for his theatrical career but also for his subsequent oil investments. On many occasions, the actor also handled his own engagements and bookings.
John Wilkes Booth had clearly been successful in his profession, making a great deal of money and generally playing to favorable reviews. This also belies the idea that he was in the shadow of his father and more famous brother and that he killed the President in a fit of sibling rivalry to carve out a niche of his own. There were weeks when his acting made him close to a thousand dollars and his salary of $25,000 to $30,000 was a princely sum, the equivalent of $300,000 today.
The actor did view his wealth as "one of the means, by which I serve the South," and he seems to have spent much of his resources in the pursuit of capturing Lincoln. The point is, however, that he was a very wealthy individual with the personal resources to pursue his goal. In the end, with his funds depleted, he borrowed $500 from Michael O'Laughlen (although he still possessed several thousand dollars in Union securities, no less), which is hardly strong proof that he was financed by thousands of dollars in Confederate Secret Service gold.
His writings also provide other intriguing glimpses of the actor. One of these is his apparent infatuation with a sixteen-year-old Page [End Page 84] Boston girl, Isabel Sumner. The two exchanged photographs, and Booth presented her with a ring with the inscription J.W.B. to I.S. When he was ill she sent flowers and even traveled once to New York to meet him, although it is unlikely her family was aware of this liaison. What is surprising is that Booth, the dashing matinee idol who apparently had so many women during his lifetime, was so smitten by a teenage girl.
In a diary entry written shortly before his death at the hand of federal troops on April 26, the assassin complained, "I think I have done well, though I am abandoned with the curse of Cain upon me." While John Wilkes Booth may have had the perception that Lincoln's death had made him a universal outcast, Carolyn Harrell in When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln demonstrates that this perception was not totally accurate, at least as far as Southerners were concerned. In four relatively brief chapters Harrell examines the South's image of Lincoln and the reaction to his death in the Upper South, Deep South, and the Border States. While Southerners may have been somewhat hesitant to express their opinions openly, the author examines an impressive number of letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspapers where they often did express their feelings.
Any examination of Southern sentiments reveals that the vast majority of Southerners viewed Lincoln in the same manner as did Booth. In fact, William Wilkens Glenn, who like Booth was a Mary-lander, penned an April 16, 1865, entry in his journal that was very similar in tone to the assassin:
This Southern perception about Lincoln had existed at least since his nomination as the Republican candidate for president. In 1860 the San Antonio Ledger and Texan, in a rather typical attack, called Lincoln "a bold, vulgar, unscrupulous abolitionist, without any experience in administrative affairs." When he won the election, the Nashville Union and American greeted his inaugural address with the comment that it was "a declaration of war against the seceded states," which was echoed in the Richmond Dispatch, "The inaugural address ... inaugurates Civil War."
As the fighting went on and the destruction grew along with the Page [End Page 85] casualty lists, Southerners increasingly blamed Lincoln for all of their troubles. Particularly upsetting was the Emancipation Proclamation, with the Richmond Enquirer noting of the president, "What shall we call him? Coward, assassin, savage, murderer ...? Or shall we consider them all as embodied in the word 'fiend' and call him Lincoln, The Fiend?" When Richmond fell to Union troops in April 1865 and President Lincoln visited the devastated city and sat at Jefferson Davis's desk in the Confederate White House, one Richmond woman wrote:
It is hardly surprising that most ex-Confederates could not find it in their hearts to mourn for the slain president. However, since Union forces now occupied many areas of the South, the inhabitants were forced to make at least an outward show of respect, with tolling bells and church services. In a number of Southern cities residents were forced to sign condolence books, which were forwarded to Washington as part of the national observance. However, in many areas, worship services were not well attended. One such gathering in Richmond brought out a half-dozen attendees whose minister announced to his congregation that they had been ordered to meet by the authorities, that they had fulfilled their duties, and who then dismissed them with the singing of the "Doxology."
Harrell argues that a breakdown by region is a key to analyzing Southern reaction. She finds that in the Upper South there were actually many who acted with shock and regret, even if they could not find much sympathy for the president. A goodly part of this reaction, however, came from the realization that the entire South might be held responsible for Booth's actions and be punished accordingly. Additionally, there was a perception that Andrew Johnson might be worse than Lincoln would have been.
Indeed, this theme that Johnson might be worse for the South was rather widespread and cut across geographical regions. In part it was probably due to the fact that Johnson, a Southerner from Tennessee who had remained loyal to the Union, was viewed as a traitor to his heritage. Admittedly the dead Lincoln could cause no further harm, and it was Johnson and the Congress that controlled Page [End Page 86] the South's fate. However, since it is a theme that cut across regional boundaries, it probably merits further investigation.
In the border regions, where loyalties were much more divided, so too were reactions. Those who were Confederate supporters reacted with joy to news of the President's death, but did so privately, often expressing the same anxieties as their counterparts in the Upper South that the entire region might suffer because of Lincoln's murder. In this region, Union supporters mourned the President, with some expressing the concern that Johnson might prove to be an unworthy successor.
The Deep South, however, was where much more bitter and perhaps truer sentiments were expressed. In Savannah, William Starr Bassinger commented:
Texas, where Union troops had the least control, witnessed the most virulent anti-Lincoln sentiments. Kate Stone expressed such views in rather typical fashion when she wrote, "All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations." Texas newspapers were also extreme in expressing their viewpoints.
This Texas reaction does raise some questions about Harrell's analytical framework of analyzing reaction strictly on the basis of region. One wonders if the reaction in Texas was so extreme simply because the state was located in the Deep South or rather because the lack of Union control allowed free rein to true sentiments. Had the Union forces not been in control of other areas, such as Richmond, it seems likely that more bitterness toward Lincoln might have been expressed. Regional differences might not have been so apparent had the Southern regions stood on an equal footing.
In fact Harrell's work, like many other investigations of public opinion, including my own much more modest efforts with this topic in Beware the People Weeping (1982), raises a larger question Page [End Page 87] about methodology. Absent modern opinion polling (and even those results are often open to questions and interpretation), can historians really investigate public opinion in a meaningful manner? Does an investigation of even hundreds of sources guarantee that we fully understand opinion at a particular time? The historian is usually trying to reconstruct events from a record that is less than complete, and in investigating public opinion, there is a constant struggle to ensure that generalizations are accurate and not simply a product of the records that have survived.
Harrell admits in her conclusion that there may have been other factors that differentiated public reaction. These include class differences between slaveholding plantation owners and those who did not own slaves, newspaper editors free of government control and those whose freedom to print depended on saying the right thing, as well as women who stayed home and the men who went to war. Since Harrell does not pursue most of these topics in any depth, she seems to point the way for future investigation. Indeed, and this is not always a defect in a volume, the brevity of this book leaves the reader wanting to know more.
Regrettably, there are also some lapses in this volume which must be noted. There are a number of typographical errors (pps. 22, 38, 47, 83) and on p. 28, the name Gideon Welles is misspelled Wells, and the quote should read, "Damn the rebels, this [not it] is their work." Even more jarring is the assertion that, "On 9 January 1861 rebels fired on Fort Sumter, initiating the Civil War." This confuses the firing on a relief ship, the Star of the West, an event which occurred under Buchanan's administration and which did not precipitate conflict since the President chose to do nothing about it. Lincoln also did not die on the day of Henry Ward Beecher's speech at Fort Sumter (April 14, 1865), but rather on the 15th, and Fort Jefferson is not in South Florida but in the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico. If a second edition is issued, hopefully a good copy editor may work with the author to correct these problems.
As Lloyd Lewis noted in Myths after Lincoln (1929), John Wilkes Booth in killing Abraham Lincoln became a mythological figure in the same manner that the President did. One hundred and thirty-four years after the events at Ford's Theatre, we still sift the assassin's writings seeking his motives while others, including family descendants, attempt to exhume his remains to prove he did not die in Garrett's barn. If Booth hoped to gain undying fame for his actions, that part of his dream was achieved. Lincoln became the savior of the Union, and Booth's name was forever entwined with Page [End Page 88] him. As Lincoln gained historical immortality so did Booth, and his collected words will live on in the work of Rhodehamel and Taper.
To some Southerners, Booth remained a hero. In 1868, a poem "Our Brutus," whose authorship is uncertain, was set to music to extol the assassin's act, while a folk poet penned a song entitled "John Wilkes Booth Came to Washington." As late as 1906, a citizen of Alabama, Pink Parker, purchased a monument in the shape of an obelisk and erected it on his lawn with an inscription which read in part, "IN HONOR OF JOHN WILKS (sic) BOOTH/ FOR KILLING OLD/ABE LINCOLN." It took many decades before the South could begin to convert Lincoln into a national figure in whom Southerners could find something to admire.
Lincoln historians have often raised the question, has the Lincoln theme been exhausted. Perhaps the question is of even more interest in the assassination field, which is a much narrower subset of the major discipline. Historians lament that we have said just about all that can be said on the subject. While Lincoln historians may be no more prone to this introspection than those of any other field, one suspects that medieval historians, for example, do not constantly agonize in the same manner about the state of medieval studies.
In the conclusion to When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln Carolyn Harrell cites the dean of Lincoln scholars, Richard Current, on this very issue: