On April 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by his son Tad, visited the recently captured Confederate capital, Richmond. It was just days before Lee would surrender to Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Rumors spread quickly through the city that Lincoln was coming. A large number of former slaves began to follow Lincoln as he strolled down the ruined streets. His unusual height, stove pipe hat, and distinctive beard made him easily recognizable. As the crowd increased, many reached out to shake the President’s hand. Others shouted the praise of “Father Abraham” who had come to set them free. One elderly black man fell at Lincoln’s feet and began to kiss his boots. Lincoln was embarrassed by the display. “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument, but you may rest assured that as long as I live no one shall put a shackle on your limbs.”
President Lincoln arrived at the “Confederate White House” formerly occupied by Jefferson Davis. There he and Union General Godfrey Weitzel discussed the present situation. Weitzel recalled, “I had considerable conversation with him in regard to the treatment of the conquered people. The path of his answers was that he did not want to give me any orders on that subject, but as he expressed it, ‘If I were in your place, I’d let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy.’”
Lincoln’s homespun statement to Weitzel mirrored the sentiment he had expressed eloquently in his recent second inaugural address. “With malice toward none; with charity toward all,” he desired “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln wanted no retribution. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” he once said.
On the night of April 9, 1865, the city of Washington D.C. was raucous with celebration. Lee had surrendered. The rebellion had ended. The war was over. A crowd gathered on the White House lawn hoping for a word from the President. Lincoln appeared at a window along with young Tad who was waving a captured Confederate flag. He told the people to return the next night and he would make a speech.
The crowd that came the following evening was so large it overflowed the White House lawn and blocked traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, the speech Lincoln gave was not what the people expected or desired. Instead of a bold declaration of triumph, he made an appeal regarding reconciliation with the seceded states. Many in power in Washington were seeking revenge. Some in Congress were advocating the mass disfranchising of all who fought for the Confederacy, and the confiscation of property for reparations. Lincoln wanted the wayward states returned without reprisal. The disappointed crowd soon grew bored and began to wander off as Lincoln spoke.
Good Friday, April 14, five days after Lee’s surrender; Lincoln escorted his wife Mary to Ford Theatre to see the popular play, Our American Cousin. During the third act, an actor named John Wilkes Booth crept unnoticed into the back of the President’s box. Booth was originally from Maryland, but had sympathy for the Southern cause. He shot Lincoln in the back of the head before leaping to the stage below shouting the motto of Virginia, “sic semper tyrannis,” which translates, “thus always to tyrants.”
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln proved to be one of the great tragedies as well as strange ironies of history. With Lincoln’s influence gone, the South was not in any way “let up easy.” In the years following, vindictiveness rather than charity dominated both sides and produced great suffering during the difficult period known as Reconstruction. John Wilkes Booth murdered the Great Emancipator who refused to allow the slave states to secede from the Union. But he also silenced the most powerful champion of benevolence in the post-war nation. He killed the dearest friend and best hope the South had for a peaceful restoration to the Union.