Wednesday, January 18, 2017

American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (WGBH Educational Foundation/PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS American Experience broadcast on “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” which was actually filmed in 2009 (do they rerun this every time there’s a Presidential transition?) and written, produced and directed by Barak (no “c”) Goodman. I was worried that they’d try to remodel the history of the Lincoln assassination and pass John Wilkes Booth off as one lone nut, when in fact Lincoln was killed as part of a conspiracy by Confederate diehards hoping to achieve by decapitating the U.S. government what they had failed to win on the battlefields of the Civil War. Goodman’s program noted that in mid-August 1864 Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose his re-election campaign to Democratic nominee George McClellan, the bizarrely incompetent general who’d done his best (inadvertently) to lose the Civil War on the battlefield and was now running as a peace candidate — until the big campaigns of Generals Grant and Sherman in the south, and particularly Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on August 31, 1864, convinced Northern voters that the war was just about won and they should stay the course.

The conspiracy included three actual assassins: Booth, who was picked to kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre because as an actor who had frequently performed there his presence there would not attract suspicion (anyone seeing him around the theatre would presumably think he was just rehearsing for a future production); John Powell, who assaulted Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and literally severed his cheek from his face, but Seward survived (and not surprisingly the original newspaper accounts of Lincoln’s assassination directly made the connection between it and the attack on Seward), though with a bad facial scar he had for the rest of his life; and George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve and got drunk instead. (As I noted in my comments on the movie The Conspirator — about the trial of boarding-house owner Mary Surratt for allegedly being part of the conspiracy, though the only evidence they had against her was a number of the conspirators were living at her boarding house and her son John was involved — one of the many ironies of the assassination plot was that Johnson, a notorious alcoholic who got his Presidency off to a bad start when he delivered his first speech after Lincoln’s death clearly “under the influence,” escaped the plot because his would-be assassin was also fond of the bottle.)

One point Goodman made was that Booth identified himself with the historical Brutus, the lead assassin of Julius Caesar; Booth’s father had been named Junius Brutus Booth (and he too had been an actor, as were Booth’s brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr. — indeed Goodman points out that the Booth family was one of those in which brothers took opposing sides in the Civil War: Edwin played most of his engagements in the North and supported the Union, while John Wilkes played in the South and endorsed the Confederate cause). Goodman depicts the Booths as an acting dynasty, like such later families as the Barrymores, the Powers and the Fondas, though he does not mention that Edwin Booth was considerably more popular — indeed, at the time a lot of people thought John Wilkes Booth had killed Lincoln just to do something that would make him more famous than his brother. (The 1955 film Prince of Players, a biopic of Edwin Booth with Richard Burton playing him, is largely about the career fallout and blacklisting Edwin suffered after his brother killed Lincoln and he was blamed.) Indeed, The Conspirator included a bonus DVD that had one of the most bizarre historical artifacts ever: a postcard advertising a production of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar with all three Booth brothers appearing. No fiction writer would dare make up a tale of one of the most notorious political assassins of all time acting in a play about another of the most notorious political assassinations of all time!

The show was generally well done, though it made the conspiracy seem less extensive than it really was and it ducked the question posed by the film The Conspirator, which was largely about the decision of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to try the alleged conspirators not in a regular court but in what amounted to a military tribunal. It also covered the enormous outpouring of grief that accompanied the special train that took the coffins of Lincoln and his son Willie (who’d died in 1862) from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois — though it also mentioned that the Union victory in the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination did not heal the political polarization that had brought on the war in the first place and still hung on when Andrew Johnson (picked by Lincoln as his running mate as a gesture of unity to the South, since he was a Senator from the secessionist state of Tennessee but had refused to leave the U.S. Senate when his state seceded) pursued such a “soft” Reconstruction policy, including signing on to the Southern states’ “Black Codes” aimed at returning African-Americans to near-slave status, that Northern Republicans accused him of Confederate sympathies and ultimately impeached him when he fired Edwin Stanton (whose honest management of the War Department was credited by a lot of Northerners with having made the Union victory possible) from his Cabinet.