Lincoln, the Civil War & a 1956 “Human Wormhole”

An amazing short clip has surfaced on YouTube of a 1956 episode of CBS’s I’ve Got a Secret game show where they brought on the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Watch it Here! This kind of historical human wormhole (during the Age of Television there was someone alive who saw Lincoln!?!) is always fascinating! There were at least two or three women who were drawing state Confederate Widow’s pensions as of a couple years ago. Teenaged girls who married ninety-something men during the Great Depression precisely for that reason: to collect that pension. During the Depression before any safety net for the elderly or Social Security this was a win-win for the girl and the dying veteran. He got someone to care for him in his final days, she was guaranteed a check for life. Back to this game show. What struck me (aside from all the cigarette shilling) is at the 2:30 mark where the program host says the secret-to-guess (Lincoln’s murder) “had not to do with the Civil War”. He then sort of awkwardly backtracks and adds “well, uh, let’s say indirectly“. The idea that you’d even need to hesitate over that question is remarkable to me! Yet, this is a very typical response concerning the Lincoln assassination both in the 1950s and today.  Keeping Lincoln’s assassination in a neat little box of national tragedy: completely removed from the bloodiest 4 years in American history.

Photograph of Lincoln’s body as he was embalmed.

Its unfortunate that the Civil War in popular memory has been so separated off into this bizarre, isolated, collective place of battlefields, generals, flags, and cannons.  Slavery? Oh that’s a separate box.  Voting rights for African-Americans? Different box. Lincoln’s assassination? Work of a deranged madman like John Hinkley. The adjectives used to describe the Civil War are invariably “tragic”, “sad”, or “heroic”.

Imagine switching on the television tonight and discovering that President Obama was just shot in the head, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been hacked with a knife while sleeping in her bed, and a person-of-interest has been taken into custody confessing he was under instructions to kill Joe Biden. Would we hesitate to call that Domestic Terrorism? Would we separate it from the world events happening around us? John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices were pro-Confederacy conspirators who hatched this plot in order to create terrorism in the truest sense of the word. The idea was that the Top 3 in line of succession to the US Presidency being slaughtered on the same night would plunge the federal government, Union Army, and general populace into such chaos that it would create an opening for some or all of the Southern states to re-establish home control. What was the tipping point for Booth to justify this plot? In John Wilkes Booth’s own words following Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Lincoln’s assassination was a last-ditch act of war. The Civil War. The Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s assassination was in response to citizenship for African-Americans. There is no “indirectly” here.

Spectators watch the hanging of Mary Surratt & Lewis Powell. July 7th, 1865. Both were convicted of being part of John Wilkes Booth’s terrorism plot to kill the President, VP, and Secretary of State on April 14th.

2 responses to “Lincoln, the Civil War & a 1956 “Human Wormhole”

  1. I just learned recently that the Lincoln assassination was just one part of such an attempt, and it shocked me that I had never heard that (or didn’t remember it).

    Yes, sounds like the definition of terrorism. Of course, if our military did the same thing in Iran (for example), I doubt that the T-word would be used. “Terrorism” is in the same box as “genocide”: people use it or don’t for their own political agendas.

  2. I agree, and like genocide often there is an extreme collective memory loss about that period. The Civil War–I believe–had this cultlike “oh it was so TRAGIC” Victorian fence put around it as a collective (white) coping mechanism.

    I completely agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates on this one. I don’t believe the Civil War was tragic anymore than I believe the American Revolution was.

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