On the 9th of this month America passed a milestone. That day marked 150 years since Generals Lee and Grant met at Appomattox Court House and signed the papers that ended the bloodiest war ever waged in our history - the Civil War. There was nothing civil about that war as we saw brother fighting against brother and the death toll mounted. Beyond the death tolls, there were the wounded that spent the rest of their lives living without arms, legs, eyesight, or a combination of those injuries.
Nobody knew what PTSD was and so those brave men on both sides dealt with the nightmares that follow such wars without the help of trained counselors. The anger and the distrust that each side held against the other along with strongly held political beliefs meant that for many the Civil War had not ended - only the hostilities. Some would argue that even today there are many who haven’t accepted the outcome of the war.
This past Tuesday we also saw the 150th anniversary of the assassination of the sixteenth president of the United States. Less than a week after the war had ended the president and his wife decided to attend a theater production of “Our American Cousin,” starring noted actress Laura Keene at Ford’s Theater that fateful Friday evening.
As the president sat in the box with Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone and his guest, a noted actor with strong Southern leanings by the name of John Wilkes Booth sneaked up the stairs and into the presidential box. As Miss Keene was performing a monologue portion of the comedy, Booth fired his pistol into the brain of Lincoln and to escape climbed over the railing of the box, leaping to the stage. Since his spur caught on the bunting decorating the box he fell onto the stage breaking his leg. \He rose, faced the stunned audience and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants), and made a hasty retreat to a waiting horse for his get-away ride.
Lincoln was taken across the street to a boarding house where he died the following morning, April 15, 1865. Word spread of the assassination and the attempts on the lives of other leaders of the United States. The hunt was on and the conspirators were captured, tried, convicted and hanged within 90 days of the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Upon Lincoln’s death, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, commented that Lincoln, “Now belongs to the ages.” Some believe that Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the angels.” Either way, Stanton was correct. With Lincoln’s death, he quickly was elevated to a status slightly below that of sainthood. Leaders that die at the height of their popularity do well in history, to be sure.
Lincoln’s goal in fighting the Civil War was to preserve the Union. The issue of slavery was the issue that created the problems and the people concerned with wanting to protect the idea of stronger states rights over a stronger federal government had their arguments and their talking points, to be sure.
Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union. The South wanted him to fail and many in the North thought he would. To be sure, many were astonished that the North won the war and that Lincoln had actually persevered.
As we mark this week and remember the sacrifices of those who fought in the battles of the Civil War and as we honor the memory of the first president assassinated in our nation, we need to see if we have learned from the lessons of our history.
I think it is safe to assume that few of the soldiers fighting in those conflicts of that war would have, or even could have imagined, that 150 years later there would be a black president and a black attorney general. That there would be black justices of the Supreme Court and there would have been a black secretary of state. They would be shocked to learn of black members of congress and the senate along with numerous black leaders elected at state and local levels. They would be surprised that women and other minorities were also being elected.
I think they would have also been shocked and saddened that the 1960s saw the Civil Rights movement because many of those “honored dead” would have thought those issues would have been resolved with the end of the Civil War. Many of the men who died would have wondered if they had “died in vain for the cause they so nobly advanced.”
We need to do better in America with our race relations and we need to start listening more to the leaders who choose to help unite us rather than listening to those who choose to profit from trying to divide us by race.
Years ago an episode of “The Twilight Zone” showed Civil War soldiers walking down a long road. The episode finally showed that the men were walking to heaven and an onlooker who had been watching the Yankees march past her southern home, was greatly angered. Then Lincoln walked past her and stated there were no others following him as he was the final casualty of that war.
May they all rest in peace.