Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The bullet shot that shook America

Five days after winning the American civil war against the Confederates, US President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate supporter while watching a play in Washington

Illustrations: John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln; the vigil near Abraham Lincoln's bed as his life ebbs away 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln entered the Ford’s Theatre at Washington late to watch the play ‘Our American Cousin’, it was stopped while the orchestra played ‘Hail to the chief’. Around 1700 members of the audience stood up and applauded.  Soon Lincoln and his wife Mary settled in their box even as the play resumed. The others in the box included a young army officer named Henry Rathbone and his fiancĂ©, Clara Harris.

At one point when lead actor Harry Hawk said a funny line, the audience burst out laughing, including Lincoln.

At 10.15 p.m., a nationally known actor John Wilkes Booth stepped up behind Lincoln. Using a .44 calibre pistol, he shot at Lincoln. Later reports suggested that the bullet entered Lincoln's skull behind his left ear, passed through his brain, and fractured both orbital plates.

Lincoln slumped over and then fell backwards.

Rathbone immediately rushed at Booth but the latter stabbed him on the shoulder.  Then Booth jumped onto the stage, from a height of 12 feet, and shouted the Latin phrase, “Sic Semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”).

The audience thought it was part of the play till Mary screamed. As for Booth, although he broke his leg, he managed to escape.  

Meanwhile, Charles Leale, a young doctor, who was in the audience, rushed to the box. He saw that Lincoln was struggling to breathe. Then several people carried Lincoln to a boarding house on the opposite side. Sometime later, the Surgeon General Joseph K Barnes arrived and he, along with a few other doctors, including Lincoln’s personal physician Robert K Stone inspected Lincoln and concluded that he could not be saved.

There was a vigil. The Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and War Secretary Edwin M Stanton arrived. And many other officials and people’s representatives came to pay their respects.
Just before 7 a.m. Mary sat at Lincoln’s side and kissed him and murmured sweet but despairing endearments. Finally, Lincoln was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, at the age of 56.

The body was taken to the White House where an autopsy was done. Mary asked the surgeons for a lock of Lincoln’s hair which was duly given. As they were removing Lincoln’s brain, the bullet fell into a basin. Suddenly, the team stopped and stared at it in silence. It would be a bullet that would traumatise a nation for generations to come.

The killing took place just five days after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. It ended the four-year-old American Civil War.

All over the country flags flew at half mast and all the shops were closed. People reeled from the shock of the assassination.

On April 18, Lincoln’s body was placed in the Capitol rotunda. Thereafter, after three days, it was taken on a train to a cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, 2700 km away. Incidentally, Springfield was where Lincoln lived before he became president.

Many thousands of Americans lined the route. Along the way, the train would stop and bands would play and people sang hymns. Lincoln was buried alongside his son  Willie, who died of typhoid fever in 1862.
World leaders mourned his death. Lord Russell, the British Foreign Secretary said it was a calamity, while China’s Chief Secretary Prince Kung said, “I am shocked and startled.” The Ecuadorian President Gabriel Garcia Moreno was more vocal: "Never would I have thought that the noble country of Washington would be humiliated by such a black and horrible crime; nor should I ever have thought that Mr Lincoln would come to such a horrible end, after having served his country which such wisdom and glory under so critical circumstances.”
Meanwhile, the search for Booth began in right earnest. More than ten thousand troops were involved. Huge rewards were offered: $50,000 (this was equivalent to $800,000 in today’s money). Booth had escaped on a horse. After being treated by a doctor Samuel A Mudd for his broken foot, he took refuge in tobacco farmer Richard H. Garrett’s house in Virginia by saying he was a wounded Confederate soldier.

But he was discovered on April 26. Soldiers surrounded the barn. But Booth refused to come out. He shouted, "I will not be taken alive!"

The barn was set on fire. Booth rushed out with a rifle and a pistol. But Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth in the back of his head, in a manner similar to the way Booth killed Lincoln.

He was taken to the steps of the barn. Booth, who was only 26 years old, told one of the soldiers, "Tell my mother I died for my country." He passed away two hours later.  

The Background

The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. It was about the enslavement of black people. The secessionists of the South advocated for states' rights to uphold slavery. The loyalists of the North proclaimed their support for the Constitution.

War broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Among the 34 U.S. states, seven states said they were seceding, and formed the Confederate States of America. However, this was not diplomatically recognised by the US government  or any foreign country.

The Union and Confederacy quickly raised volunteer and conscription armies that fought mostly in the South. The end result: 750,000 people dead, more than the number of U.S. military deaths in all other wars combined.

The war ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Confederate generals in the southern states followed suit. Much of the South's infrastructure was destroyed, especially the transportation systems. The Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished, and four million black slaves were freed.

During the Reconstruction Era that followed the war, national unity was slowly restored, and the government expanded its power. Civil rights were guaranteed to freed black slaves through amendments to the Constitution and federal legislation. 

(The Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India)

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