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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Certain it is that Johnstone did not surrender that day


Such

was the plain sense and logic of the situation. To drive such sense into Sumner's lofty but wooden head would have been an impossible enterprise, but the mass of Northerners could almost certainly have been persuaded to a rational policy if a sudden and tragic catastrophe had not altered at a critical moment the whole complexion of public affairs.

Lincoln made his last public speech on April 11, 1865, mainly in defence of his Reconstruction policy as exemplified in the test case of Louisiana. On the following Good Friday he summoned his last Cabinet, at which his ideas on the subject were still further developed. That Cabinet meeting has an additional interest as presenting us with one of the best authenticated of those curious happenings which we may attribute to coincidence or to something deeper, according to our predilections. It is authenticated by the amplest testimony that Lincoln told his Cabinet that he expected that that day would bring some important piece of public news--he thought it might be the surrender of Johnstone and the last of the Confederate armies--and that he gave as a reason the fact that he had had a certain dream, which had come to him on the night before Gettysburg and on the eve of almost every other decisive event in the history of the war. Certain it is that Johnstone did not surrender that day, but before midnight an event of far graver and more fatal purport had changed the destiny of the nation. Abraham Lincoln

was dead.

A conspiracy against his life and that of the Northern leaders had been formed by a group of exasperated and fanatical Southerners who met at the house of a Mrs. Suratt in the neighbourhood of Washington. One of the conspirators was to kill Seward, who was confined to his bed by illness, but on whom an unsuccessful attempt was made. Another, it is believed, was instructed to remove Grant, but the general unexpectedly left Washington, and no direct threat was offered to him. The task of making away with the President was assigned to John Wilkes Booth, a dissolute and crack-brained actor. Lincoln and his wife were present that night at a _gala_ performance of a popular English comedy called "Our American Cousin." Booth obtained access to the Presidential box and shot his victim behind the ear, causing instant loss of consciousness, which was followed within a few hours by death. The assassin leapt from the box on to the stage shouting: "_Sic semper Tyrannis!_" and, though he broke his leg in the process, succeeded, presumably by the aid of a confederate among the theatre officials, in getting away. He was later hunted down, took refuge in a bar, which was set on fire, and was shot in attempting to escape.

The murder of Lincoln was the work of a handful of crazy fools. Already the South, in spite of its natural prejudices, was beginning to understand that he was its best friend. Yet on the South the retribution was to fall. It is curious to recall the words which Lincoln himself had used in repudiating on behalf of the Republican Party the folly of old John Brown, words which are curiously apposite to his own fate and its consequences.


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