John Wilkes Booth and his brother serve as a pattern for the Civil War. Find out more.
|To what do we attribute war? Some look at it as an internecine struggle multiplied out to overwhelming proportions. With the increasing levels of distrust in modern man, it is an aspect of our lives that cries out for explanation and clarification. Unfortunately, it often cries out from beyond the grave.
The American Civil War has long been thought of as a brother-to-brother confrontation. There was high-level distrust across the country. Some thought that Mary Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s wife, was a spy. Nothing was ever proven. More people died in the Civil War than all of America’s other wars combined.
Over time, we learned to trust each other. Southerners got over the impression that the North was trying to change their way of life. With the long tenured servitude of black Americans, in many ways nothing changed. In some ways, the Civil War was a tax war. Southerners knew that the Republican platform called for a fifty percent excise tax on all imports. The south would have to buy from the North.
What probably came closest to breaking the trust was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Again, there was brother-to-brother-that had gone on for decades. Everyone knows Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. We know he was an actor. His brother, Edwin was a more prominent Shakespearean actor. The level of family dysfunction went to their father Junius Booth who was also an acclaimed Shakespearean actor.
Junius told his wife he was going on an extended theatrical visit to North America. By extended we really meant extended. He never came back. He left out the part about taking his mistress. Several years and children later, his original wife would press for divorce and substantial property settlement.
When Junius, the father, went out on tour, they had a problem that would have to be dealt with. Junius was a lush and missing performances seriously cut into the family’s revenue stream.
It was decided that the oldest son, Edwin, would go with him. This seemed to solve the problem quite nicely, but Edwin in all his travels never got an education. Other sons tried to fill Edwin’s shoes, but none seemed up to quelling the drinking problem.
Edwin did get an acting education. He learned from his Father. He picked up dialects from travelling up and down rivers. Most believe that Edwin was by far, the better actor.
There was a problem that would have to be worked out. John Wilkes wanted to act. He didn’t have near the credentials. Many would agree he lacked talent. He worked for near starvation wages with local companies to attempt to learn. He did have one thing going for him—his ruggedly handsome good looks. He looked like his father, when he was young. Having another Booth carrying the family name became a problem. He tried acting with just his middle name, John Wilkes. He was still pretty identifiable.
At the time, Edwin was taking care of the whole family and so a solution had to be found. Edwin took the established cities of the Eastern Corridor like Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia. They were the only ones with established theatre communities. They could be reached with little and relatively easy travel. John could have the rest of the United States. Most actors contracted for a percentage of the gate, so with small crowds, actors worked for little.
Edwin liked this. John just sort of tolerated it. He spent a lot of times in the south. John pretty much did stay out of Edwin’s territory. Edwin did extremely well. After a while, Edwin decided to experiment and return to England. This is where the true Shakespearean actors lived. His wife went with him.
The trip was a disaster. Some say there were political things going on. Others said that because of good weather, people stayed away from the theater, preferring the beach. Whatever the reason, Edwin was soon financially embarrassed. He tried getting money from his other brothers and found that they had gambled it away. John was the only one to send him the money. It was pretty evident that John had made successful in-roads on Edwin’s territory.
Over the years, John and the rest of the family had grown apart. John had spent a lot of time in the south and had picked up a lot of their sensibilities. Most of the remainder of the family was avid Unionists and friends of abolitionists. This was not a forgone conclusion. Living close to the Maryland border, there was profound southern influence. It is said that the only reason Maryland did not vote to secceed is that substantial parts of the legislature were kidnapped in a Lincoln plot.
One time in expressing his southern thoughts, Edwin would tell him that his views were not welcomed in the home of a union man. Abraham Lincoln came into discussion. Said John, “He plans to make himself King.” A later argument would revolve around a discussion about southern operatives attacking northern cities with arson. John thought it was relevant strategy after Sherman’s sacking of Atlanta. Edwin lost his cool. They had both seen the draft riots and had experienced the subsequent lawlessness. Edwin decided he had gone to far.
He threw John out. It bothered John tremendously. He went to his married sister’s house, Asia. While there he had to be treated with lancing of boils. He wrote letters detailing a plot against the president.
Booth granted that it seemed insane to give up a comfortable living in the north for his southern sympathies. This wasn’t necessarily a thing of rational belief. It was personal.
Mary Todd Lincoln wanted to see a play called Our American Cousin. They had seen it before. It had been expected that the Lincolns would choose to see a play about a fictional play about the retaking of Fort Sumter.
The play itself had a history. Laura Keene had rewritten the play and claimed copyright infringement against the extended members of the Booth family. Edwin, who had had an affair with her threatened to disclose that she had a previous marriage that ended in abuse and that she had ran off without the benefit of divorce. This was pretty scandalous stuff for the time, so she backed off.
The night of April 15’Th 1865 was a spectacular night. Gaslights were lit. Candles were burned. The war was over. The President and first lady were in rare good spirits.
At one point in the play, the leading lady was supposed to enter like a three-year-old colt. She managed this. A wave of applause would disrupt everything. The leading man would stage whisper, “Didn’t that line go well.”
The lady would curtsy and face the audience. “Don’t flatter yourself. The President has just arrived.”
At the beginning of Act Two, Mary leaned close and grabbed her husband’s hand. Asked Mary, ” What would Miss Harris think?”
Said Lincoln, “ She won’t think anything of it.” Those were the last words he said.
The assassination left people totally confused. Some thought they had seen a mysterious character stalking behind the President. They assumed it was part of the play. Obviously the knife was not a stage prop. Some identified the ruggedly handsome John Booth. The shot, the leap to the stage and escape were done by the count of eight. Booth limped. He had broken his ankle on the leap to the stage.
Many were detained for questioning including the family and the theater owner. John Ford would be detained for a month. Edwin received death threats. He would announce his retirement from the theater. That retirement would only last about six months. He really had no other skills to offer the world. His first play would be Macbeth, not his favorite, Julius Caesar.
John Ford would try and reopen the theater. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War would send three dozen soldiers to stop the show. Congress would take steps and eventually buy the theater.
You look at all the parts of this drama and it all fits together like a play. Edwin and John didn’t like each other. They saw their worlds quite differently—Edwin the Unionist and John the Southern extremist. You might say, “Why should all of this play out like this. That’s not logical.” That may be true, but it is not part of the human condition.
Do arguments have to drive families and nations apart? What part does a little forbearance play? Is it necessary to continually write this script for humanity? I am not sure of the answer, but I know it has gone on since early biblical time.
God wants a better script. He didn’t put us on the planet to decimate people and the planet. His Kingdom will be a Kingdom of Peace where there will be no more tears and sorrow.
Whose script are we living? Righteousness comes from God and not us. We do right out own script. Sometimes we have not done a good job. There is more than directing are way than directing our anger. We keep reliving the same plot line over and over. I think it is time to look again.