Thursday, April 16, 2015

Booth destroyed South's best hope

On April 14 150 years ago, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who was watching a play in Ford's Theater. It was the first presidential assassination in U.S. history, but it wouldn't be the last.

Booth, a Southern sympathizer, apparently believed that killing Lincoln would aid the Confederacy, whose largest armies had surrendered in the previous two weeks. Lincoln had toured the nearly demolished Confederate capital just 90 miles away in Richmond. The South was in ruins; its armies were defeated; hundreds of thousands of its soldiers were killed; its agricultural economy was ruined, its barns, fields and plantation houses were smoldering.

In killing Lincoln, Booth did exactly the opposite of his intentions. Instead of helping the Confederacy, he hurt it. Weeks earlier, at his second inauguration, Lincoln spoke of how he hoped to bring the seceding states and the loyal states back together after four years of horrific warfare. He promised a post-war policy "With malice toward none, with charity for all," He would work "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Lincoln's death changed the post-war policy. The vengeance that Lincoln had opposed was imposed as retribution for his death. Although the paroling of Confederate soldiers and their generals and political leaders was generous and perhaps unprecedented in the history of warfare, little was done to resurrect the South's devastated economy. Its agricultural base was destroyed. The fertile Shenandoah Valley was left in ashes. Its railroads were ruined. Its Confederate money was worthless. And an occupying army of Union soldiers stoked resentment among grieving widows and orphans and frustrated veterans. For nearly 100 years after Reconstruction, Southerners kept former slaves and their descendents subjugated and politically powerless.

Had Lincoln shaped Reconstruction, he might have formed policies that would be more palatable to the former Confederates. He might have helped former slaves and former slave owners to see their mutual interest in redeveloping the South. Had he lived, northern politicians would be less interested in seeing the South suffer for its sins.

But John Wilkes Booth, with one gunshot, hurt the South he loved far more than he hurt the North he opposed.

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