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Bookshelf: Abraham Lincoln, 150 years after the assassination

The original print of the

The original print of the "cracked-plate" portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on Feb. 5, 1865. It was the last formal portrait of Lincoln before his assassination. Photo Credit: TNS / Olivier Douliery

The Secretary of War's words, sent via telegram to the Union commander of New York City, needed no embellishment: "Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after 7 o'clock." Lincoln had been shot at point-blank range the night before as he attended a play at Ford's Theater in Washington. Taken to a boardinghouse across the street, he was laid diagonally on a bed too small to fully accommodate his six-foot-four frame, where he lingered, unconscious but breathing steadily, for some nine hours until his death.

Lincoln's murder -- he was the first U.S. president to be assassinated -- sent a nation already reeling from years of war into even greater uncertainty and shock. Was it a Confederate plot? (Secretary of State William Seward was also targeted, but survived a knife attack in his home.) Lincoln's killer, John Wilkes Booth, remained on the loose for several weeks as his fellow conspirators were rounded up in a dramatic government operation. (Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, was himself later gunned down.)

The 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death comes this April 15th, and publishers have already gotten a jump on books marking the occasion. In the anthology "President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning" (Library of America, $29.95), leading Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has assembled a valuable casebook on "the crime that propelled Lincoln into the pantheon of myth." Culled from official communiqués, diaries, poems, legal documents, newspapers, and trial reports, the documents here are powerful and raw. We hear the chilling words of the assassin himself, taken from his journal, justifying his crime: "I can never repent it, though we hated to kill: Our country owed all his troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment."

But to Lincoln's legions of supporters, especially blacks in north and south, his death was an appalling development. Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, and his death was charged with religious overtones. For fiery abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, the loss Lincoln was "a personal as well as national calamity." Yet, as historian Martha Hodes shows in her fine study, "Mourning Lincoln" (Yale, $30), the nation's response to the death of the president was an altogether more complex, subjective phenomenon.

In these pages, "mourning Lincoln" becomes something rather less than universal as we hear ordinary citizens -- men and women; northern and southern; pro- and anti-Lincoln -- express contradictory reactions as a nation groped toward understanding the violent event.

Abolitionist Sarah Browne of Salem, Massachusetts, could write that Lincoln's assassination "froze the blood of the nation, which now flows in one current." In the south, however, the embittered Rodney Dorman, a prosperous attorney, celebrated Lincoln's killer as "a great public benefactor."

But for still others glee turned to wariness. Some southerners, otherwise scornful of Lincoln, were fearful that the loss of a President who spoke of "malice toward none" meant a more punitive peace for the south: "Old Abe with all his apeishness, was a kind hearted man and disposed to treat us generously," lamented a North Carolina slave owner.

Lincoln's physical features -- his striking height, long legs and loping gait were a crucial aspect of his image. In the excellent "Lincoln's Body: A Cultural History" (Norton, $28.95), Richard Wightman Fox looks at the symbolism of Lincoln's literal and metaphoric body. Fox shows how Lincoln turned his ungainly features into an asset, a corporeal manifestation "of republican simplicity and American self-making."

Fox provides a fascinating account of Lincoln's deathbed scene -- he was even vigorous in dying, "an indomitable leader determined to serve the Republic until his last heaving breath" and the funeral commemorations, which galvanized the north. Black crepe appeared everywhere, as Lincoln's embalmed body embarked on an 11-city, 1,700-mile railroad journey to Springfield, Illinois. "A repetitive national farewell," Fox writes, "it celebrated Lincoln's love for the people and their love for him."

Even before his body was interred in his hometown, the contest had begun to claim Lincoln for the ages. For African-Americans, Lincoln was nothing less than a martyr who had given his body to the cause of emancipation. But, as Fox shows, over time the image of Lincoln the conciliator came to the fore as "southern whites themselves warmed to Lincoln -- as long as he was taken as the reunifier of the nation, not as the champion of black rights." These tensions played out in the myriad monuments built to honor Lincoln, and, as the author suggests, have never been quite resolved. Lincoln's body, now as it was then, is still up for grabs.


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