April 14, 2015

In memoriam: Abraham Lincoln; and, what if?

Semi-regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big Civil War buff. I’ve been on two vacations where a fair amount of the focus was Civil War battlefields and historic sites. My college minor was in history. And, it’s always been an interest of mine.

And, as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War wraps up, today is, of course, the 150th anniversary of what was arguably the most tragic day in American history — the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. There's no other word for it, given that he was followed by Andrew Johnson, the man many historians consider the worst president in U.S. history.

Here's how papers covered the assassination. The Newseum has a special on the coverage by the New York Herald.

Another interest of mine is alternative history, best exemplified by three books whose titles start with the phrase “What If.” That is, what if “X had happened instead of Y?” Or, as in events like April 14, 1865, “What if X had never happened?”

I’ve discussed this a bit in previous Lincoln posts, such as my recent one calling for a National Appomattox Day, or my second, morecritical critique of the Spielberg’s Lincoln movie.

Namely, it’s the idea that, while Lincoln would have been a better Reconstruction president than Andrew Johnson, he might not have been that great, an arguable issue. He might have stuck with his “rosewater” Reconstruction too long. He might have had some tangles with Congressional Radicals himself — and they might have done, as with Andrew Johnson, and refused to seat Congressional Southerners until the approval of the 14th and 15th amendments.

Lincoln in the famous Gardiner
photograph of Feb. 5, 1865.
Library of Congress 
Would Lincoln have reacted more swiftly, with Army troops, to the rise of the Klan than did Johnson? Although Radicals pushed Johnson, and this was part of the motive for the Tenure in Office Act, designed to keep Secretary of War Stanton in his job, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, not any member of Congress. So, there was only so much the Radicals could do — or could have done if Lincoln were president and dragging his own feet. It’s an open question.

Johnson’s version of Reconstruction was to make his pre-war Southern “betters” kiss his hand asking for pardons, then, when that was done, be even more racist than many of them. Lincoln, with less regard for social niceties, and living in the North, wouldn’t have had that motive, but he might have somewhat naively believed, for too long, that many upper-class Southerners were more benighted than reality showed.

I discussed this briefly about Lee in my Appomattox piece, noting that he stood idly by at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 when wounded, thirsty black Union soldiers were shot to death. I noted this (linked there) in my review of Michael Korda’s pseudohistorical biography of Lee, that he wasn’t as kind a pre-war slaveowner as Korda would have us believe. Speaking of the Klan, I’ve noted in various blog posts that Lee was the first person to be offered its headship. Only when he said no was Nathan Bedford Forrest contacted.

So, like John F. Kennedy and the Jackie-constructed Camelot myth, Lincoln was probably lucky  to die when he did, especially with Stanton’s epitaph of “Now he belongs to the ages.”

I think he would have been slow to pivot on his Reconstruction plan. I think he would have done little more to help freed black than Johnson did, and certainly would not have extended Gen. Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” for Sea Island blacks, or anything similar, to the larger population of newly freed slaves.

He might have tried to make economic Reconstruction of the South more orderly than the actual mix of carpetbaggers, scalawags, redeemers and others, and might or might not have succeeded.

The tragic part, besides his own death, his martyrdom, and his apotheosis, is that the wrong Johnson was his vice president, to extend the Kennedy analogy. Lyndon Johnson could have given a fine start to Reconstruction indeed, had he been president 100 years earlier.

Lincoln is arguably our greatest president, but, although not as much dependent on mythos as JFK, he was perhaps, in the historical sense, lucky to have died when he did.

Meanwhile, Lincoln has been commemorated in various ways in the arts, starting with two great poems by Walt Whitman. Here is my follow-up "in memoriam" about that.

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