John Wilkes Booth and the Outcome of the War Between the States

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During this sesquicentennial of the War Between the States a very old question arises:  What was the impact of John Wilkes Booth on the outcome of the War Between the States?  My response is none.

The assassination of Lincoln by Booth certainly shocked the nation.  A President had never been assassinated before, and to have it happen while the President was at ease, enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater, added an element of the grotesque that magnified the horror.  Booth, unknown to all but his closest intimates, had been a Confederate sympathizer throughout the War.  Whether his murder of Lincoln was an act of impulse or a carefully planned conspiracy remains a subject of heated debate.  Nevertheless, whether he decided that evening or after days or weeks of deliberation, Booth, using two pistols, ended the life of Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln and his entourage occupying a theater box on stage, and presenting a target that Booth could not, and did not, miss.  Booth himself being shot to death immediately thereafter ensured that he took whatever planning he engaged in with him to the grave, and made this assassination an endless source of conspiracy theorists ever thereafter. The aptly named play The Marble Heart, starring Booth, will remain forever etched in American memory, along with the date of November 9, 1863 when the first president of the United States to be assassinated died.

Hannibal Hamlin, forgotten Vice-President, thus became President.  On his narrow shoulders many have heaped blame for the defeat of the Union.  Rubbish!  A careful examination of the historical record reveals that he acted in a way almost certainly no different than Lincoln likely would have.

1.  Appointment of Grant as General in Chief–  Grant at the death of Lincoln was in the midst of preparing his crushing defeat of Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  After that, Lincoln, if he had been alive, almost certainly would have appointed Grant as General in Chief as Hamlin did, especially since Lincoln had ever been a supporter of Grant who he viewed as a fighting general who won his battles.

2.  Replacing Meade with Hooker-Hamlin had always been a supporter of Hooker, so his replacing Meade with Hooker is something where Lincoln may not have followed suit.  However, considering the lackluster record of Meade after Gettysburg and Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with Meade, Lincoln would likely have replaced Meade, even though the commander of the Army of the Potomac was likely to be a mere chief of staff for Grant.  After Hooker’s well publicized victory at Lookout Mountain during the battle for Chattanooga, he was a logical choice to replace Meade.

3.  Replacement of Grant after SpotsylvaniaSome historians have argued that Lincoln, unlike Hamlin, would not have replaced Grant after Spotsylvania.  Perhaps, but unlikely considering the 35,000 Union casualties that Grant had amassed in a little over two weeks and the cries throughout the North of Grant the Butcher.  Grant in his  memoirs  indicated that his relief was not unexpected, but that he thought that Lincoln would have resisted the calls to relieve him.  That contention is of course speculative, especially considering Lincoln’s frequent sacking of Generals.  In any case few historians have been able to argue convincingly that Grant’s strategy of wearing down the Army of Northern Virginia was likely to have succeeded prior to the Fall elections even if Grant had been kept in command.

4.  Hooker-Many have argued that Lincoln would not have kept Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac after the relief of Grant, but that speculation ignores the facts as they existed in June of 1864.  Sherman was busy with his campaign in the West and promptly refused to take up the post of General in Chief when it was proffered to him, both out of loyalty to Grant and out of a desire not to leave the Western theater of war.  When Halleck then accepted reappointment as General in Chief he did so with the condition, which he insisted on, that he would remain in Washington coordinating all the Union armies and that he would not, as Grant had, assume day to day command of the Army of the Potomac.  Unless Hamlin wished to reappoint Meade, and there is every reason to be believe that Meade would have refused the offer, he had no alternative but to keep Hooker in command unless he wanted to lose at least a month in this critical campaign while a new general learned how to command the unwieldy Army of the Potomac.

5.  Pause-With the relief of Grant it was assumed by many officers that Hooker would retreat to Washington for a period of rest and refitting for the Army.  Instead, Hooker remained in place, intending to continue the move on Richmond once he had made good the casualties sustained by the Army under Grant.  In the meantime he made it clear that he had no intention of continuing the futile frontal assaults on Confederate entrenchments that had brought his predecessor to grief.  He intended a war of maneuver that would bring him slowly to the outskirts of Richmond where he could implement a siege.  He believed that McClellan had missed a golden opportunity to do this in the Peninsula Campaign two years previous, and he intended to take advantage of the fact that the Army was only forty six miles to the  city that had eluded it for so long.  However, it took a month for Hooker to be prepared to move, and Lee used that time to rebuild his own army.

6.  Split in the Republican Party-From the time that he became President, Hamlin made no secret of the fact that he intended to run for President in 1864.  His adherence to the radical wing of the Republican party was sealed when on May 1 he let it be known that he favored votes for blacks, at least for black Union veterans.  This made him a hero to all abolitionists, but repelled many War Democrats and moderate Republicans.  Lincoln would have faced opposition if he had lived, assuming he had been re-nominated, which was by no means certain, but even the historians most favorable to Hamlin regard his announcement as a mistake.  However, Lincoln would have faced his opposition from the radical wing of his party which was rapidly becoming the dominant faction within the Republican party.  At any rate, Hamlin went into the fall election knowing that a third party, the National Union party,  had nominated Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s former Postmaster General, for President and Andrew Johnson, a Democrat appointed war governor of Tennessee by Lincoln, as Vice-President and would drain votes from him.  As a gesture to moderate Republicans, Hamlin chose Senator Edwin D. Morgan of New York as his Vice-Presidential candidate.

7.  Democrat Surprise-Nominating the relieved Ulysses S. Grant as the standard bearer of a party pledged to peace negotiations was one of the most bizarre, and yet brilliant, moves, in all of American political history.  Grant when asked by a reporter about the platform plank calling for immediate peace negotiations to end the War, revealed his  political innocence when he said that he had not read the platform, but that if he were elected he would base his policy regarding the War on the conditions he found when he became President.  Clement Vallandigham, who was designated as the future Secretary of War in a Grant administration, was the guiding force behind the Grant campaign, Grant choosing not to believe the numerous well founded stories in circulation that Vallandigham had engaged in treasonous contacts with Confederate agents.  Grant in his memoirs indicates that he chose to run because he had become convinced that the War was being so badly mismanaged that Union troops were now dying futilely in a War that could not be won.  How much of this is after the fact justification has been a continuous subject for debate since the ending of the War Between the States.

8.  September Hope-  The fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, along with Hooker’s grinding advance to Cold Harbor, only 10 miles from Richmond, seemed to indicate that the Union was on the verge of victory.  Negotiations were underway between the Republicans and the National Union Party by which Montgomery Blair would drop out once guarantees were given that negro suffrage would be left to each state.  Hamlin was reluctant to agree to that, but the negotiations seemed to be making progress, until the month of disaster dawned.

9.  Cold Harbor-Hooker after arriving at Cold Harbor decided upon a daring plan, leaving half of the army facing Lee in entrenchments while he took the other half across the Chickahominy River, linked forces with General Butler and marched on Petersburg.  How Lee got wind of this plan is still somewhat mysterious, Lee merely referring to “a patriotic agent” who somehow advised him of Hooker’s plan.  At 3:00 AM on October 12, Lee led all of his army out of the entrenchments, their place being taken by hastily gathered together militia, and marched to intercept Hooker’s Army as it crossed the Chickahominy.  Endless opportunities for disaster awaited Lee on his march, but as morning dawned he launched his attack on the half of Hooker’s army as it straddled the Chickahominy.  By the end of a very long day, a quarter of Hooker’s army was killed, wounded or captured, with Lee’s army between the half of Hooker’s army still in entrenchments facing Richmond, and the demoralized fragment south of the Chickahominy.  The next day there were calls by some of the Union commanders to renew the fight arguing that the half of the Union army in the entrenchments still was not at a numerical disadvantage to Lee’s force and was fresh.  However, Hooker, after the second major military disaster at the hands of Lee in his career, had enough.  He retreated to the Union supply base at White House on the Pamunkey River, while the portion of his army that had crossed the Chickahominy retreated with Butler’s men to Fortress Monroe.  Lee was left master of the field.

10.  Aftermath- The rest of the story is well known.  Hamlin dropped out of the race and threw his support to Blair in hopes of having a President elected who would continue the War.  All in vain.  Grant swept in with 52% of the vote and 151 electoral votes and with the Democrats taking control of the House while the Republicans kept the Senate, albeit with a diminished majority.  Hamlin brought Sherman to Washington to try to launch an offensive before Grant was inaugurated, but Sherman made it plain that no offensive could be launched until spring, especially with the morale of the Union army hitting rock bottom in expectation that the War was ended.  Prior to Grant taking office Sherman resigned his commission, refusing to served under his old friend who he now regarded as little better than a traitor.  After Grant was sworn in he did make an effort to continue the War, but his own party blocked any further appropriation bills for the War in the House.  Seeing no alternative, Grant called for a truce and negotiations which led to the Treaty of London and the recognition of Confederate independence, Grant demanding, and getting, retention by the Union of West Virginia, East Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri as the price for such recognition.  This led to future conflicts between the two nations, but that is outside of the scope of this paper.

Over the last few decades there has developed a genre of fiction known as alternate history where a change in one event causes a massive change in history.  A popular subject of this game of “what if”, is speculation about Lincoln living past November 9, 1863 and leading the Union to victory.  Such fiction can be fun to read, but such exercises in make believe are no substitute for hard historical fact.  When he died Lincoln faced a daunting task:  to defeat the Confederacy militarily prior to facing the voters in November.  He had less than a year to accomplish what he had been unable to accomplish in two and a half years.  Hamlin was unable to do it, and I submit there is no good reason to believe that Lincoln would have fared any better.


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  1. Y’know, Don, if the lawyer thing doesn’t pan out, I think you may have a calling in the alt-history genre.

  2. By promising “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” Lincoln indicated that he would attempt to make Reconstruction as lenient as possible for the defeated South. Booth did the South wrong, by denying them that opportunity.

  3. “Booth did the South wrong, by denying them that opportunity.”

    General Joe Johnston told Sherman after Sherman told him of the assassination that people in the South had just begun to realize that Lincoln was now the best friend they had.

  4. Not bad at all. It does at least serve as a reminder that the course of history is not deterministic, but depends on both the unpredictable choices of each person and on circumstances beyond our control. Surprisingly to me, people just will not give up on the idea that the fads of today will continue to shape history until the end of time.

    So, for example, “gay marriage” has been gaining political and cultural support for about the past 15 years. Therefore we know that it will become the law of the land, will be embraced by all people, will come to be seen as healthy and wholesome, and it will be here in 20 years, in 50 years, in 100 years, and in 500 years. Our ancestors embraced fads that faded away, but our fads will endure forever. Our ancestors thought they saw how history would unfold, but they were wrong, because they were not as smart as we are — they couldn’t even use their thumbs to send a text message! And above all, I am such an important person that the whole course of history pivots around my life. That’s why something must happen during my lifetime to show how special I am. If it isn’t the undeniable discovery of alien intelligent life, or the definitive proof of ghosts, maybe it will be the Second Coming of Christ, or the crucial time when we as a species save (or doom) the planet. At the very least it will be the time when we all abandon ancient sexual ethics, right?

    Or maybe, maybe, not.

  5. Lincoln died on 15 April 1865 (Holy Saturday) and Hannibal Hamlin’s term as Vice-President had expired on 4 March of that year. thus, Andrew Johnson, elected as Vice-President the preceding November (1864) succeeded Lincoln as 17th President

  6. Over the last few decades there has developed a genre of fiction known as alternate history where a change in one event causes a massive change in history. A popular subject of this game of “what if”, is speculation about Lincoln living past November 9, 1863 and leading the Union to victory.

    It’s a good idea to read all of an article before commenting.

  7. Lincoln indicated that he would attempt to make Reconstruction as lenient as possible for the defeated South. Booth did the South wrong, by denying them that opportunity.

    It is difficult to argue there was a way to have a non-Carthaginian peace. The disposition of the much of the political class and the white public in the South was manifest in the black codes enacted in 1865/66, then in the political terrorism practiced in the 1870s, then in the mix of mob violence and legal chicanery practiced during the last quarter of the 19th century, elements of which continued to the end of the 2d World War. The situation might have been ameliorated if the Congress had not insisted on stiffing Confederate veterans of their severance bonuses and Confederate bondholders of their principal. First the Confederate veterans were abandoned and then the freedmen were. Disastrous performance all around.

  8. I can’t imagine the Union agreeing to pay either Confederate bondholders or Confederate veterans. Some Confederate veterans did receive on the state level pensions; I believe Arkansas was the first former Confederate state to do so beginning in 1891. Ensuring the civil rights of blacks in the South while knitting the Union back together would have been an almost impossible task. However, winning the Civil War was quite an arduous task and Mr. Lincoln accomplished it. If any man could have done it, he could have, although I just am not sure that any man could have.

  9. Do not know what would have been feasible, other than it might have required that the central government follow the Hapsburg practice and have a more comprehensive agrarian reform. In the Hapsburg dominions, the peasantry now emancipated were given allodial rights over the rustical land. There might have been enough available arable land in the plains to undertake something like this without dispossessing Southern farmers and planters. It might have also required asymmetric federalism, as long term trusteeships were maintained in the South with a federal officialdom far larger than had ever been the case before – with courts, police forces, the preparation of electoral rolls, election contests, and schooling for freedmen all under federal supervision for an indefinite term of years. And, of course, paying the bonuses and the bondholders.

    It is interesting to posit what that would have looked like: large scale exodus from the South to the Plains on the part of black homesteaders and then migration southward from the settled north as land prices fell in response to labor deficits.

  10. I have long thought Art that the best option would have been to establish three black states out West. The United States Colored Troops could have formed the nucleus of military settlements. The Federal government could then have announced that any blacks who wished to settle in the black states from the south, their passage would be paid and free land given. This would have given blacks an option and perhaps have ameliorated their treatment in the South, where their labor was still all important in many states. It would have also ensured permanent black representation in Congress. A great alternate history novel waits to be written on this theme!

  11. Public reactions are inscrutable. The scandal of the appellate judiciary causes very little evident public discontent. The dysfunctions of the family courts, ditto. The abuses of the Internal Revenue Service revealed in the last year (and the complicity of the Justice department thereto), ditto. Campaign finance shenanigans of both Clinton and Obama, ditto. Clinton and Obama’s bald and transparent lying over Benghazi, ditto. OTOH, George W. Bush’s rapport with much of the public was ruined by the effects of Hurricane Katrina, even though deficits in the quality of public works in New Orleans would have accumulated over decades and implicated state and local officials, even though the New Orleans city government had masses of school buses never used for evacuations, even though the police chief in New Orleans does not report to the President, and even though the landfall was in Mississippi (which, strangely enough, did not suffer the social disorders which overtook New Orleans).

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