Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 12, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

AFTERNOON

Inside the White House, just a few blocks from where John Wilkes Booth is walking the streets, a beaming Mary Lincoln holds a slim leather-bound copy of Julius Caesar. She is in a good mood for a change, and the new book is certainly helping her disposition. The president will be thrilled by her purchase. This is most important to Mary Lincoln. Even in her lowest moods, she craves the attention and affection of her husband.

Lincoln’s fondness for all things Shakespeare is well known. While he enjoys lowbrow entertainment, like the comedian Barney Williams, who performs in blackface, he never misses the chance to attend a Shakespearean tragedy. During one two-month span in the winter of 1864, he saw Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and, of course, Julius Caesar.

The actor playing all the lead roles was Edwin Booth, John’s older brother. In addition to his acting, he did the Lincolns an inadvertent favor by saving the life of their eldest son. When twenty-year-old Union officer Robert Todd Lincoln was shoved from a crowded railway platform into the path of an oncoming train, it was Edwin Booth who snatched him by the coat collar and pulled him back to safety. Robert never mentioned the incident to his father, but his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, personally wrote a letter of thanks to the actor. Edwin’s brother’s reaction to this incident has never been determined—if he knew at all. This is the second remarkable coincidence linking Robert Todd Lincoln to John Wilkes Booth, the first being his infatuation with Lucy Hale, Booth’s fiancee.

Robert is due back in Washington any day, as is Grant. Lincoln’s spirits will soar at the sight of both men, but in the meantime Mary cannot wait to see his face light up when she presents him with Julius Caesar.

Lincoln is fond of two books more than any other: the Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works. Like his dog-eared Bible, Lincoln’s volume of Shakespeare has become frayed and worn over the years. This brand-new copy of Julius Caesar will certainly keep the president’s mood upbeat, which, in turn, will do wonders for Mary’s morale. Their euphorias and depressions are so closely intertwined that it’s hard to say which one’s emotional peaks and valleys influence the other more.

Lincoln is not at the White House right now. He’s taken a walk over to the War Department, where he sits on a comfortable sofa, hard at work on the business of healing the nation. His first test is immediate. The Virginia legislature is about to convene in Richmond. These are the same elected representatives who once voted to leave the Union. Now this “rebel legislature” will meet in the giant columned building designed by Thomas Jefferson, determined to rebuild the shattered state and return it to its former glory.

On the surface, this is a good thing. Lincoln himself urged the legislature to convene during a visit to Richmond the previous week, saying that “the prominent and influential men of their respective counties should come together and undo their own work.”

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the brilliant Ohio lawyer who is for whatever reason not on Booth’s list of targets, and in whose office Lincoln now sits, is strongly opposed. He tells Lincoln that to “place such powers in the Virginia legislature would be giving away the scepter of the conqueror, that it would transfer the result of the victory of our arms to the very legislature which four years before said, ‘give us war.’”

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton

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Lincoln disagrees. He is reluctant to see the United States Army turned into an occupying force, policing the actions of legislatures throughout the South. But he also realizes that by allowing Virginia’s lawmakers to meet without close Federal observation, he is setting a dangerous precedent. There would be nothing to stop other southern states from passing laws that conspire against the Federal government—in effect, keeping the Confederacy’s ideals alive.

Stanton and Lincoln were once sworn rivals, two opinionated and charismatic midwesterners who came to Washington with their own personal visions of what the country needed. They are physical opposites—Stanton’s stump to Lincoln’s beanpole. Stanton didn’t vote for Lincoln in 1860, but that didn’t stop the president from crossing party lines to name him attorney general, then secretary of war. Lincoln’s low wartime popularity was matched only by that of Stanton, who was relentless in his prosecution of any Union officer concealing Confederate sympathies. “He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar without ceasing,” Lincoln once said of Stanton. “I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed.”

As General Sam Grant glibly described Stanton: “He was an able constitutional lawyer and jurist, but the Constitution was not an impediment to him while the war lasted.”

Stanton, with a graying beard extending halfway down his chest, has the sort of strong-willed personality that terrifies timid souls. The Civil War may be over, but Lincoln has made it clear that the secretary of war will be instrumental in helping the country rebuild. He trusts Stanton’s counsel and uses him as a sounding board when tough decisions like this must be made. In many ways, Stanton does not behave as if he is subordinate to Lincoln. He expresses himself without fear of edit or censure, knowing that while Lincoln has strong opinions of his own, he is a good listener who can be swayed by a solid argument.

Now Stanton paces before the couch where Lincoln reclines, compiling his detailed argument against allowing the Virginia legislature to meet. He warns of the laws that might be passed, limiting the freedom of former slaves. He notes that the legislature has proven itself to be untrustworthy. And he reminds Lincoln that during his recent visit to Richmond the president made it clear that the Virginia lawmakers were being given only conditional authority—but that these same untrustworthy men are surely capable of ignoring those limits once they convene.

At last, Stanton explains his idea for temporary military governments in the southern states until order can be restored.

Lincoln doesn’t speak until Stanton finishes. Almost every single one of Stanton’s opinions runs contrary to Lincoln’s. Nonetheless, Lincoln hears Stanton out, then lets his thoughts percolate.

As Stanton looks on, Lincoln slowly rises off the couch and draws himself up to his full, towering height. He walks to the great oak desk near the window, where he silently composes a telegram withdrawing permission for the Virginia legislature to meet. For those representatives who have already traveled to Richmond for the session, he guarantees safe passage home.

Lincoln hands the telegram to Stanton, whose thick beard cannot hide his look of satisfaction after he finishes reading. Calling the wording “exactly right,” he hands the telegram to his clerk.

During the course of the Civil War, Lincoln’s use of telegrams—his “t-mail”—made him the first leader in world history to communicate immediately with his generals on the battlefield. He has sent, literally, thousands of these messages through the Department of War. This is his last.

On the walk back to the White House, Lincoln composes another sort of note in his head. It is to Mary, a simple invitation to go for a carriage ride on Friday afternoon. His words are playful and romantic, a reminder of the way things were before the war, and before the death of Willie. Their eldest son, Robert, is due home from the war any day. Surely, the cloud of melancholy that has hovered over the Lincolns is about to lift.

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