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The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz
Volume Three (1863-1906)
THE peace which followed the surrender of the Confederate armies in April, 1865, was by no means unclouded. Indeed, it was not to be expected that the passionate antagonisms which for four years had arrayed the North and the South against one another in bloody conflict, would at once yield to a revival of common national feeling and mutual affection. The wounds the Civil War had inflicted upon each were still too fresh. The Southern soldier went home bowed down by the mortification of defeat, ragged, emaciated, and foot-sore, to find his home, maybe, in ruins, his family on the edge of starvation, his country partly devastated and all fearfully impoverished, his people painfully wrestling with the bewildering problem of providing for the coming day. With sullen fierceness the wrath of the Southern heart would, now and then, privately break out at the “ruthless invasion” of the Southern soil by “cruel hordes of Northern hirelings.” Meanwhile there was much jubilation at the North over the restored Union. The longed-for day when “Johnny would come home” had at last arrived. One after another the regiments of bronzed veterans, flushed with triumph, returned to the places from which they had gone forth. They were received with joyous demonstrations of welcome and speedily put to work by the activities of a prosperous country. The stories of the dangers they had braved, the valorous deeds they had done, and the victories they had achieved, imparted to every social gathering a tone of glorification. But, after all, very many of the “Johnnies” who had gone to the war, had not come home. There was a terrible number of parents who had lost sons, of wives who had lost their husbands, and of children who had lost their fathers. And there were many tales told and eagerly discussed that were more apt to stir resentful and vindictive feelings — tales of the sacrifices made and the anxieties and heartaches suffered by those who had remained at home; tales of the predatory rebel invasions from Canada, such as the raid on St. Albans; tales of rebel plots to burn down the cities of New York and Chicago, and to spread the small-pox and other contagious diseases among our people; grim and ghastly tales of the specter-like appearance of the Union soldiers who had survived the horrors of the prison-pen at Andersonville; arid, above all, tales of the dastardly assassination by rebel hands of our good, dear President Abraham Lincoln — a crime never to be forgiven.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was indeed a national calamity of most sinister effect just at that critical period. Very cool reasoners might have concluded that it would, as it soon actually did, turn out to have been the work of a handful of half-crazed fanatics of the lower order, utterly devoid, not only of moral principles, but also of the slightest glimmer of common sense — for nothing could have been more obvious to any sane mind than, that this crime could not possibly be of the least benefit to the Southern people in their desperate straits, but would only serve to inflame the feelings of their victorious adversaries against them. The well-known fantastic character of that “handsome young actor in America,” John Wilkes Booth, who was the organizer and the leading spirit of the murderous plot, might have gone far to convince the public mind that this stupid atrocity committed under such circumstances must have been the offspring of diseased brains, and could not possibly have been designed or countenanced by any person capable of sound reasoning. But the public mind was under the influence of hot feeling. Swift vengeance overtook the known murderer of Lincoln. The death of Booth was as luridly picturesque and theatrical as he himself might have desired. After a reckless flight through Maryland, across the Potomac into Virginia, constantly tortured by excruciating pain from a broken leg, Booth took refuge in the tobacco-shed of a Virginia farmer, where on the night of the 23rd of April he was detected by the pursuing soldiery. Summoned to surrender, he not only refused, but, rifle in hand, he rather challenged his pursuers to fight. The shed was set on fire, and in the flickering light of the flames he grimly received the bullet which put an end to his life. The diary which he kept as that of a public character of importance, showed that to the last his poor brain had been puzzled by the question why he should be hunted like a wild beast while Brutus and Tell figured as heroes in the history of the world. The other known members of the conspiracy, except one, were caught and held for trial, the result of which everybody foresaw.
But this did not satisfy the public. It was widely believed that the abominable crime had been the upshot of an extensive conspiracy among the principal Southern leaders — that it should be charged to the general wickedness of the rebellion and must as such be investigated, prosecuted, and punished. General Grant, one of the calmest of men, seems to have been under that impression, for he telegraphed to General Ord, commanding at Richmond, to arrest and put into Libby Prison Judge Campbell with various others, and even to arrest all paroled officers unless they took the oath of allegiance. He was prevailed upon by General Ord to withdraw that order, but he insisted that “extreme rigor will have to be observed, whilst assassination remains the order of the day with the rebels.” In a proclamation issued by President Johnson, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the intended assassination of Secretary Seward and others, were declared to have been “incited and encouraged” by Jefferson Davis, and his agents in Canada, Jacob Thompson, late Secretary of the Interior under Buchanan, and Clement C. Clay, late United States Senator from Alabama, and rewards were offered, $100,000 for the capture of Jefferson Davis, and of $25,000 each for those of Thompson and Clay, directly charging them with complicity in the murder of Lincoln.
Jefferson Davis was captured on the 10th of May, 1865, near Irwinville, Ga., by a detachment of a Michigan cavalry regiment. It was reported that trying to escape he had put on some of his wife's clothes, but that his cavalry boots had betrayed his identity. The story, although somewhat stripped of its comical aspects by subsequent accounts, was widely believed and much relished at the North where many people had during the war been accustomed to see in Jefferson Davis the personification of all that was offensive in the rebellion, and to hold him mainly responsible for all the ills it had inflicted upon the country, and were now rather pleased to see him exposed not only to detestation but also to ridicule. But the capture of Jefferson Davis was a very serious thing, and it was regarded by not a few cool-headed and long-sighted men as a very unfortunate one. It has become well known that President Lincoln wished that the downfall of the Confederacy should not deliver the Chief of the Confederacy into his hands. There was a Lincoln anecdote current at the time which seemed to have good authority behind it. It was this: After Lee's surrender a friend asked Mr. Lincoln whether, all things considered, he did not think it would be best to let Jefferson Davis get out of the country. Lincoln answered by telling a story of a Methodist preacher out West, a strict temperance man, who on a hot day was offered a glass of water with a dash of brandy in it, and who replied that he would not object to a drop of something strong in his drink if that drop could be put in “unbeknownst” to himself.
Lincoln's keen mind, no doubt, saw clearly that the capture of Jefferson Davis would burden the government of the United States with a most embarrassing dilemma. The public voice would insist upon the chief of the rebellion being tried and punished for treason. Indeed, he could not possibly be held in captivity forever without being tried. Now his crime of treason had been committed in the South. A trial for treason by a regular tribunal in the South would be a mere farce, for it seemed a foregone conclusion that no jury in the South could be found that would pronounce Jefferson Davis or any leader of the rebellion guilty of treason, unless that jury were wholly composed of negroes; and even then the outcome would be doubtful. A trial by a military commission might indeed result in a verdict of guilty; but resort to a military tribunal for the trial of a political offense after the close of the war — in fact, the greatest State trial of the century, might have looked like a stretch of arbitrary power fitting an old-world despotism rather than this new-world republic.
But the assassination of Lincoln, the charge and the widespread belief that Jefferson Davis and some other leaders of the rebellion had been accomplices of the murderer, and the existence of a vague apprehension floating in the air, that the Republic was still in some danger or other, made the resort to a military commission for the trial of the captured rebel-chiefs more plausible. The idea that those rebel-chiefs, and especially the chiefest of them, the “arch-traitor,” as Jefferson Davis was called, the personal embodiment, as he was popularly regarded, of all the wrongs and sufferings the rebellion had brought upon the country, should go scot free — so scot free — after the soldiers and their folks at home had sung so long to the tune of “John Brown's soul” — “Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree,” seemed monstrous to the popular imagination, and any method of bringing him to condign justice, that looked tolerably decent, appeared therefore acceptable. But when the news came forth that Jefferson Davis and his associates were not only to be tried by a military commission, but that the trial was to be conducted in secret, there was much shaking of heads among men who were not entirely carried away by the excitements of the time. My constant concern as to how the light in which the attitude of this republic would appear before the civilized world — an anxious consideration which was omnipresent to my mind — troubled me so much that I resolved to write to President Johnson. When, after resigning my commission in the army, I passed from North Carolina through Washington, and later at the time of the great triumphal parades of the armies of the Potomac and of the West, I had called upon him to pay my respects, he had in a confidential manner discussed with me the events of the day and repeatedly asked me to come again or to let him hear from me by letter. So I wrote from Bethlehem, Pa., on May 13th, 1865:
"Dear Sir:— Permit me to avail myself of the privilege you gave me, to write to you whenever I had anything worthy of consideration to suggest. A few days ago I found it stated in the papers that the trial of the conspirators was to be conducted in secret. I did not believe it until I now see it confirmed. I do not hesitate to say that this measure strikes me as very unfortunate, and I am not surprised to find it quite generally disapproved. Yesterday I returned from Philadelphia where I had spent two days, and I can assure you that among the firmest supporters of the administration I did not hear a single voice in favor of it. I admit, I do not know what objects are intended to be gained by secrecy. I take it for granted that they are of no futile character. But if it is important that the accused should be convicted and sentenced, and that, perhaps with a view to further developments, the testimony as it appears should be kept from some conspirators still at large, it is of vastly greater importance that the trial should be absolutely fair, not only in spirit but also in appearance.
“When the government charged, before the whole world,
the chief of the rebellion with having instigated the assassination
of Mr. Lincoln, it took upon itself the grave obligation
to show that this charge was based upon evidence sufficient to
bear it out. I am confident you would not have ventured upon
this step, had you not such evidence in your possession. But
the government is bound to lay it before the world in a manner
which will command the respect even of the incredulous.
You will admit that a Military Commission is an anomaly in
the judicial system of this republic; still I will not question here
its propriety in times of extraordinary dangers. At all events,
to submit this case to a Military Commission, a case involving
in so pointed a manner the credit of the government, was perhaps
the utmost stretch of power upon which the government
could venture without laying itself open to the imputation of
unfair play. But an order to have such a case tried by a Military
Commission behind closed doors, thus establishing a secret
tribunal, can hardly fail to damage the cause of the government
most seriously in the opinion of mankind. — This is the
most important state trial this country ever had. The whole
civilized world will scrutinize its proceedings with the utmost
interest, and it will go far to determine the opinion of mankind
as to the character of our government and institutions.”
* * *
When I wrote that letter, I had, of course, in mind the trial of Jefferson Davis and of the late Senator from Alabama, Clement C. Clay, who, when he found himself charged with complicity in the murder of Abraham Lincoln, voluntarily surrendered himself to General James H. Wilson and was incarcerated with Jefferson Davis in Fortress Monroe. The immediate accomplices of Booth were tried by a Military Court appointed for the purpose and met their fate on the gallows. But as to Jefferson Davis, it soon became painfully clear how correct Abraham Lincoln's instinct was when in his quaint way he expressed the wish that, “unbeknownst to himself,” the Confederate chieftain might escape. As an exile from his country who had sought personal safety in flight, he would have been unable to do any harm to this republic abroad, and his power would have been greatly lessened to exercise a mischievous influence at home. His prestige as a statesman and as a popular leader had necessarily suffered much by his disastrous failure in the conduct of a war which at various times inspired the hopes of his people with flattering promises of success. While in power he had provoked bitter criticism on the part of many important men in the Confederacy by what was called his self-conceit, his favoritisms, his peevish personal dislikes and grudges, his vindictiveness — in one word his wrong-headedness, — and many of the misfortunes suffered were, not always unjustly, laid to his charge. As a fugitive he would therefore soon have been reduced to a minimum of significance. But now that he was imprisoned in a dungeon, as the great representative of the “lost cause,” the prestige of martyrdom was thrust upon him. And when by some mistake or official stupidity, chains were, for a very short time, put upon his limbs, he appeared in the aureole of a hero suffering for his people unheard-of torments and indignities at the hands of a ruthlessly vindictive foe. This prestige of martyrdom gave him still a certain measure of influence upon the opinion, or the imagination, of the Southern people. He subsequently used this influence, not as General Lee did in his frank and generous way, to encourage among his friends a loyal acceptance of the new order of things and a patriotic devotion to the restored republic, but rather to foment in a more or less veiled way, a sullen animosity against the Union. He stimulated the brooding over past disappointments rather than a cheerful contemplation of new opportunities. He presented the sorry spectacle of a soured man who wished everyone else to be soured too. Thus he forced unprejudiced observers to conclude that, measured by the true standards of human greatness, he, with all his showy and by no means valueless qualities, wound up his career as a small man.
The evidence of Jefferson Davis' complicity with the assassination of Lincoln, which President Johnson had in his possession when he issued his proclamation offering a reward for Davis' capture, subsequently turned out to be absolutely worthless. It is possible that at the time when the Confederacy tottered toward its downfall and its leaders desperately grasped at straws, Jefferson Davis knew of, and to some extent countenanced, a plot to kidnap and abduct Mr. Lincoln and to hold him as a hostage. But there was nothing to show, and no shadow of probability, that he had any sympathy with Booth's murderous design. After he had been for two years a prisoner in Fortress Monroe, he was indicted and arraigned for treason before the United States Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia, and released on bail, Horace Greeley, the old anti-slavery apostle, Gerrit Smith, and Cornelius Vanderbilt being his principal bondsmen. The case, however, as might have been foreseen, was never tried, and in December, 1868, he with all his followers in the rebellion received “a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason,” suffering no other punishment than the disability to hold office imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
It cannot, therefore, be said that he and the other Southern leaders, after all that had happened, were harshly treated. On the contrary, the leniency with which the victorious Government, which had them in its power, dealt by them, is without parallel in history. What there had been of popular clamor for the “condign punishment of the traitors” soon died away, and Jefferson Davis was permitted to live a quarter of a century longer in untroubled security on his plantation in Mississippi, where he continued to nurse his grudges against an “unjust fate,” but where he was also consoled by unmeasured reverence for his mythical heroship and martyrdom, by a large part of the Southern people whom he had done so much to lead to disaster and misery.
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