It's one of those events where you wonder, what would history have been like if Lincoln had lived? He was espousing a "Let 'em up easy" philosophy toward the South, and his Second Inaugural Address had spoken of charity and mercy. Maybe he could not have prevented the harsh Reconstruction that came after, but he was a master politician, and I'm betting he could have done things very differently. The brief freedom that African-Americans enjoyed before being hit with Jim Crow laws for generations could have been a true freedom if Lincoln had lived. Sadly, we'll never know.
Imagine the scene: after four, bloody years of civil war, the North was celebrating victory. They were celebrating their own survival and the survival of the Union. They were saddened by the many dead, but at least they had not died in vain. There would be hard work ahead, but for this glorious week, it was time to be joyous.
On Good Friday, the perfect play to see was Laura Keane's Our American Cousin. It was fun fluff and just right for the people's mood, and Lincoln's, too. An avid theatergoer, he appreciated any work that could make him laugh.
My family was on vacation in Washington, D.C., years ago, and we saw Ford's Theater and the Peterson rooming house across the street where Lincoln was taken. Of course 19th-century medicine had no hope of saving him, and maybe even today's medicine couldn't have helped. The Victorians were used to death. Infant mortality and women dying in childbirth was commonplace, and there was an entire 'death industry' that Mark Twain satirized in Huckleberry Finn: mourning clothes and jewelry, black crepe for houses and carriages, taking pictures of the dead (you might never have had a picture when you were alive, but once you croaked, call the photographer!), 'death' paintings, poetry, black wreaths on the front door, the blinds and drapes drawn, and no social activities for at least a year. Lincoln's catafalque and the train taking him home to Illinois would be swathed in black.
The religious took a negative view of watching a play on Good Friday, and others thought the day significant as Lincoln was deified for future generations. As Walt Whitman would write, there was the scent of lilacs in the air, and the joy of that victory week turned to sorrow and outrage. It was a severe psychological blow: it was the first time an American President had been assassinated. The previous Presidential death was William Henry Harrison, but he'd taken ill, and Victorians were used to that. In an era of medical quackery and no pencillin or antibiotics, taking ill often meant death. Assassination was a different story.
While in the midst of enjoying the fruits of victory came the bitter taste of ashes.
February 9, 1809--April 15, 1865