Old times there are not forgotten

John Wilkes Booth, the South's romantic villain, refused to accept the triumph of Northern values. Some things never change.

By David Talbot
Published November 19, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

In the bitter aftermath of the latest red vs. blue presidential election, secession is in the air again. Liberal and conservative commentators alike compare the current great divide to the War Between the States -- only this time it's the emancipation of a sexual minority instead of racial minority that is fanning the flames, among other cultural conflicts. And it's not just Southern conservatives who are openly discussing splitting the Union. It's increasingly resentful blue-state liberals, who complain they are shackled to reactionary Southern cousins who delight in reviling big government while soaking up more than their share of public largesse.

So in the midst of these cannon blasts of fiery rhetoric, it comes as something of a relief to read "American Brutus," the illuminating new history book about John Wilkes Booth and the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. If you think our house is divided now, check out America 140 years ago.

"American Brutus" was written by political historian Michael W. Kauffman, who has studied the Lincoln assassination for more than 30 years. Kauffman is one of those ardent independent historians who seem especially drawn to sagas like the Civil War and who enliven the field with their energetic, outside-the-walls-of-academe endeavors. To research the book, Kauffman writes, "I've walked the same roads and alleys that Booth took; rowed the same waters on the Potomac, jumped to the stage of Ford's Theatre; and spent more than four hundred nights in the Booth family home. I've even burned down a tobacco barn like the one in which Booth was trapped."

"American Brutus" offers a vivid, chronological account of this epic political conspiracy -- a carefully plotted assassination that was literally staged by one of the most adored leading men of his day. (Think Johnny Depp for the title role in the movie version of the jaw-dropping Booth epic that still begs to be made.) Coming nearly a century and a half before Osama's videos, the assassination was the first act of political terror as public spectacle in American history. When Booth shot Lincoln in the balcony of Ford's Theatre, hissed "Sic semper tyrannis" and jumped to the stage, he was reenacting a scene from "Julius Caesar" that he had been playing since his boyhood as the son of the great Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, who himself was named after Caesar's slayer. His beloved sister Asia had warned John when they were young "that no actor should meddle with political affairs, the stage and politics did not go hand in hand." But Booth would make history -- his lifelong dream -- by mixing the two.

One of the main contributions of "American Brutus" is its eye-opening portrayal of a country so savagely at odds with itself that political assassination -- which late in the Civil War was still so alien a concept that Secretary of State William Seward flatly declared it was "not an American practice or habit ... and cannot be engrafted into our political system" -- suddenly became a widely discussed option. Throughout the war, as Seward pointed out, Lincoln had ridden unguarded from the White House to his country retreat, the Soldiers' Home, three miles outside Washington. Even the White House itself was barely guarded and visitors wandered unimpeded through the Lincoln family's private quarters, helping themselves to the furnishings, much to the president's annoyance.

But as the war exacted its final bloody toll, the unthinkable became all too conceivable. Lincoln's Democratic opponents, even in New York, railed against the president's authoritarian ways and warned him he could meet the same end as Julius Caesar. The rage at Lincoln was, of course, especially violent in the South. Lincoln had won election in 1860 without one Southern state -- the Republican Party did not exist in the South. And by late 1864, with over a half million dead, newspapers in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, openly discussed assassination as a way to rid themselves once and for all of a man they considered a tyrant, and pondered how vulnerable a target Lincoln would be on Inauguration Day. It must be said that by then, the Union was just as eager to lop the heads off the Confederacy's leadership, launching an unsuccessful cavalry raid in March designed to "destroy and burn the hateful city" of Richmond and kill President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet.

Lincoln's lopsided reelection in 1864, driven by the North's sudden reversal of fortune on the battlefield that began with Sherman's capture of Atlanta on Sept. 2, caused some of his opponents to charge he had stolen the election and sparked further commentary about the need for drastic measures to remove him from office. Meanwhile, stage idol John Wilkes Booth, a passionate advocate of the Confederate cause, was plotting to do just that. Working with a motley band of rebel army veterans, mercenaries and star-struck hangers-on, Booth laid plans to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners and, when that plan was made useless by the collapse of the South's military, to decapitate the federal government by killing the president, vice president and secretary of state in one blood-drenched night, and snatch a desperate, final-hour victory for the South. Talk about red America.

It's a sign of our divided times that even a history of Civil War-era America will be read by some through a political prism. Some readers will surely take note that Michael Kauffman is a graduate of the University of Virginia and a resident of southern Maryland, the rebel hotbed that bred Booth. As Kauffmann notes, Maryland gave Lincoln the fewest votes of any of the four candidates for president in 1860 -- a mere 2.5 percent of the total.

Kauffman is clearly sympathetic to the charges of heavy-booted federal rule that inflamed Booth's anti-Lincoln passions. During the war, the martial law imposed by Lincoln fell particularly heavily on border states like Maryland that were deemed insufficiently pro-Union. After Lincoln took office, Massachusetts troops swept into Baltimore, shutting down newspapers and jailing city officials, including the mayor and the police marshal, who was a friend of Booth's.

Kauffman's sympathies extend also to Booth co-conspirators, who were brutally treated after their arrest, held in hoods and quasi-medieval manacles in the suffocating confines of Navy ironboats, and then tried by a military tribune intent on dispensing swift justice. "It is not easy to put aside the barbarous image of people in hoods and chains," observes Kauffman. "Prisoners had not been treated that way since 1696, and would not be again until 2001."

Kauffman seems particularly attuned to the story of Lewis Powell, the ex-Confederate raider whom Booth assigned the task of killing Secretary of State Seward. When Powell fled the Seward home on the night of April 14, 1865, he left behind him a ghastly, blood-soaked arena (though none of his stabbing victims, including Seward, two of his sons, and a military attendant, would die of their wounds). But Powell, a war-scarred young man whose two brothers had died fighting for the South, began feeling deep remorse soon after committing his crimes. After apologizing to his victims, he calmly and bravely accepted his fate -- which came after five agonizing minutes, writhing and struggling at the end of a rope in a Washington prison yard alongside three of his fellow conspirators. Powell's final resting place remained a mystery for years, since the government was not eager to create monuments for the Southern martyrs. But when his skull was discovered at the Smithsonian in 1993, Kauffman writes that he took part in the "dignified" ceremony that finally laid Powell's remains to rest in Geneva, Fla.

Kauffman is clearly not as sympathetic to Booth, who comes across in "American Brutus" as a vain, self-pitying, manipulative glory-seeker who sought a greater immortality through political violence than he could attain on the stage. Even though he came from America's leading theater family, Booth seems to have regarded acting as beneath him. He dreamed of military heroism in the cause of his beloved South, but the closest he came to service was before the war, when he volunteered to stand guard at the hanging of John Brown to prevent supporters of the radical abolitionist from interfering with his execution. While his fellow cadets at the Maryland military school he attended fought and died in the war, Booth fretted that he was a coward and scurried about the country on mysterious espionage missions for Old Dixie that Kauffman suggests were largely contrived and aimed at the actor's self-aggrandizement.

Booth's undying loyalty to the Confederacy did not prevent him from secretly becoming engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, daughter of the staunch abolitionist senator from New Hampshire, John Parker Hale. When Booth was captured in a Virginia tobacco barn, Hale's photograph was one of five women's portraits the actor had tucked away in the pocket of his diary. Women "crowded around" the strikingly handsome, Byronesque performer "like doves around a grain basket," remarked one of Booth's friends. He strode the stage, wrote his sister Asia, "like a young god."

But by 1865, writes Kauffman, "war and politics had made John Wilkes Booth an outcast. Once a beloved stage idol, he was openly mocked by people and taunted for his convictions." It had come time for Booth to finally follow through on these convictions and show the world he was not a coward.

According to Kauffman, Booth found the resolve he needed to carry out his monumental deed on the evening of April 11, as a crowd gathered underneath a window in the north portico of the White House to hear President Lincoln speak on the recent surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Among those at the front of the crowd were Booth and his co-conspirator Dave Herold. When Lincoln told the crowd that he favored giving voting rights to those "colored" men who were "very intelligent" and who had served in the Union Army, that was all Booth needed to hear. "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through," spat Booth, as he spun on his heels and pushed his way out of the throng.

Much of Booth's anti-Lincoln zeal derived from his code of Southern white supremacy. He believed that slavery was not a sin, but a boon for black Americans, who were much better off living on a Southern plantation than in Africa. "I have been through the whole South," he declared, "and have marked the happiness of master and of man." According his sister Asia's memoir, young Booth liked to spread happiness on his family farm in Maryland by throwing candies from his saddlebag onto the ground and watching "the Nigs" scramble to pick them up. "After it Nigs! Don't let the dogs get it!" Booth would yell to the family servants. "The never-forgotten bag of candies was longingly looked for by the blacks, young and old, whenever 'Mars Johnnie' came from town or village," Asia lovingly recalled. Booth's idyllic society -- where whites and blacks, the well-bred and the common, all knew their place -- was threatened by Lincoln, a man Booth, steeped in Southern chivalry, reviled as a coarse demagogue. A reporter once told Booth that the president, who was an avid theatergoer, had "rapturously" applauded one of his performances; he'd rather have the applause of a black, snapped the actor.

Booth would have found it galling to know that among those soldiers Secretary of War Edwin Stanton dispatched to hunt him down was the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops. And the 16th New York Cavalry unit that finally cornered Booth on the Garrett farm was tipped off to his whereabouts by a black man named Dick Wilson. But by then, the assassin was a man broken in spirit, filled with dark self-pity and gnawing doubts about what he had done.

While hiding in a pine thicket in Maryland during his escape, Booth had sent his pathetic young gofer Dave Herold to fetch the newspapers so he could read accounts of the assassination, like an actor eager for his reviews. The assassin was appalled by what he read -- the press universally panned his Ford's Theatre performance. Even papers that had once flayed Lincoln now hailed him as a beloved martyr. Southern newspapers like the Richmond Whig worried about the assassination's impact on the South, calling it "the most deplorable act that has ever befallen the people of the United States." Booth was "particularly offended," writes Kauffman, by the suggestion in some newspapers "that stepping up behind an unarmed, middle-aged man and shooting him in the back of the head was somehow an act of cowardice." Booth, highly sensitive to his public image to the end, would take pains in his diary to make the case that "I struck boldly and not as the papers say."

Booth had planned to escape to Mexico, which had begun welcoming Confederate refugees. His getaway depended on the assistance of a network of Confederate "safe houses." But he found that even the most die-hard rebel families, including a cousin of Robert E. Lee's, were reluctant to help him, as Secretary of War Stanton threatened severe reprisals for anyone caught harboring the fugitive and the Union ring tightened around him.

By the end, he was filled with hopelessness. "After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair," he wrote in his diary. "And why; for doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat ... I have too great a soul to die like a criminal."

And yet that is how he died, shot in the neck by an over-eager Union sergeant named Boston Corbett while being smoked out of a burning barn. (Corbett is just one of the many bizarre and tragic characters that people the Lincoln assassination story. A born-again Christian zealot, he castrated himself to extinguish sexual temptation after the death of his young wife and newborn child.) As Booth lay dying over an agonizing two-hour period, he whispered, "Tell my mother that I did it for my country -- that I die for my country." Even in death, he had the power to win hearts. One of the women attending him cut a lock from his hair. His last "feeble pronouncement," writes Kauffman, was, "Useless, useless."

It was a line that must have echoed in the defeated South after its vast expenditure of blood and treasure in the service of a losing cause. And yet in death, Booth's power oddly grew, with legends rising up that claimed he had managed to elude his relentless Union pursuers. "There is something captivating about Booth as a historical character," writes Kauffman. "He was a romantic villain -- a strange mix that defies understanding but explains, in a way, why his story has inspired so many fanciful legends, why the ladies of Baltimore paid special attention to his grave on Decoration Day; and why his autograph is worth more today than that of his illustrious victim."

And, of course, if the South felt crushed by the superior military and industrial strength of the North in April 1865, the majority of voters below the Mason-Dixon line felt very different on the night of Nov. 2, 2004. They didn't feel useless the night they routed the Yankee John Kerry, they felt empowered -- a rush of bold feeling that called to mind another famous line of Booth's. After shooting President Lincoln in the back of the head and slashing at the Army major in the president's box who tried to seize him, the assassin leaped 12 feet to the stage below. And no, contrary to popular belief, he did not break his leg when he landed (that happened later, when his horse fell on him during his escape). It was an adrenaline-fueled man, surging with the righteousness of what he had just accomplished, who rose to his full height before the stunned audience, and raising his shining dagger triumphantly over his head, cried out, "The South shall be free!"

Nearly a century and a half after the South was defeated, it is the South's social agenda and the South's beloved president the rest of us are forced to live with.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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