I hate to admit it, but ever since I was a youngster first excitedly immersing myself in the mysteries of the Lincoln story, I’ve always been intrigued, above all, by that most compelling and inescapable of Civil War-era might-have-beens: What would have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated some 150 years ago on April 14, 1865?
When I was a kid, I dreamed repeatedly about rushing into the Ford’s Theatre presidential box myself and heroically shouting: “On your guard, Mr. President! The crazed actor John Wilkes Booth is on his way here to shoot you! Let me help you escape while the going is good!”
Somehow, I always woke up before Lincoln could come to his senses, heed an 11-year-old’s warning, tear himself away from watching “Our American Cousin” and sensibly retreat from imminent, fatal danger.
That’s why I was so intrigued when, in assembling a book of citizen correspondence with Lincoln for my 1993 book “Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President,” I came across an unpublished note that had arrived at the White House a month before the assassination. For had Lincoln heeded its advice, he might actually have thwarted John Wilkes Booth’s plot — or at least survived until another murder scheme could be hatched. Here was real, long-lost evidence that Lincoln might have prevented his own murder. And it was no dream. I call it the most amazing unknown story of this period.
The letter in question came from one Carlton Chase, bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, and he had a proposal for how the country — and its president — should observe the upcoming religious holiday. Lincoln ought to “appoint Good Friday, the fourteenth of April next — to be observed as a day of Fasting and Prayer throughout the United States.” Bishop Chase was certain that his idea “would be agreeable to Christian people of all denominations.”
As it turned out, however, it was not agreeable to Abraham Lincoln. He declared no fast day for April 14. Instead, he and his wife went to Ford’s Theatre to watch a rollicking British comedy. Though a man of deep religious conviction, he apparently did not believe a national day of self-denial was appropriate so soon after Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox — even on the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion. It was time to laugh and celebrate, not fast and pray.
It was, in retrospect, the worst decision Lincoln ever made — the stuff that “what if?” dreams are made of. And maybe the best unknown yarn of the final days of America’s bloodiest conflict. Ironically, in ignoring the bishop’s advice, the martyred Lincoln became a Christ-like figure himself.
2015 Lincoln Prize winner Holzer’s latest book is “President Lincoln Assassinated!!” (Library of America)
On Oct. 19, 1864, the last Confederate commerce raider sailed from Madeira on what would become the most remarkable cruise of any Confederate ship. And it would become an even more remarkable end to the Civil War.
The British-built ship’s target was the American whaling fleet in the far North Pacific, Bering Sea and the Arctic. Since the beginning of the Civil War, a handful of Rebel commerce raiders had captured, burned or bonded more than 200 U.S. merchant ships, causing insurance rates for cargo and crafts to increase to the point where owners found it difficult to justify sending their ships to sea and merchants worldwide refused to transport their goods in American vessels.
As it headed south through the Atlantic, Shenandoah captured seven merchant ships before taking its first whaler on Dec. 5. That ship was burned, and the prisoners were landed on the remote island of Tristan da Cunha. A problem was discovered with Shenandoah’s propeller shaft, and the most-secure repair facility was in Melbourne, Australia. Burning another merchant ship on the way, Shenandoah pulled into Melbourne on Jan. 25, 1865, and spent 25 days there. Australians cheered or condemned it, according to their feelings about the war on the other side of the world. The officers were the guests of the exclusive Melbourne Club for a private dinner, and a ball was held in their honor at Craig’s Royal Hotel in the goldfield town of Ballarat.
Repairs completed, the ship left on Feb. 18, 1865. It captured four whaling ships on April 1 in the harbor of the island of Pohnpei in the Carolines before heading to the whaling grounds. From May 27 until June 28, Shenandoah captured, burned or bonded 25 more whaling ships, most near the Arctic Circle. These encounters proved to be the last combat actions in the Civil War, thousands of miles from Richmond, Washington or Appomattox.
Shenandoah then headed back into the Pacific. On Aug. 2, it met a British merchant ship that had proof the war was over. After disarming, Shenandoah headed to Liverpool, England, by going around the southern tip of South America and after circumnavigating the globe — the only Confederate ship to do so. Pulling into Liverpool with its flag flying, Shenandoah lowered the flag on Nov. 6, 1865, and the ship was turned over to the British government. This proved to be the last Confederate combat unit to surrender.
The crew was released and Shenandoah was then turned over to the American consul. The ship was sold at auction on March 26, 1866, and bought by the Sultan of Zanzibar. It sank in the Indian Ocean on Sept. 10, 1872.
So if your friends ask where the last shots of the American Civil War were fired, tell them the Bering Sea, off Alaska. And if they want to know the location and time of the last Confederate surrender, tell them Liverpool, England, seven months after Appomattox.
Rawls is co-chief executive of the American Civil War Museum
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general who never had independent command in a major battle, but his daring style of commanding cavalry in smaller incidents has made him better known than other more important generals. When Shelby Foote became the star of Ken Burns’s “Civil War” series and named Forrest and Abraham Lincoln as the two geniuses of the Civil War, Forrest’s mythical reputation seemed sealed. He was the unbeatable “wizard in the saddle,” his slave trader past, Fort Pillow Massacre horror and KKK ties ignored.
Forrest’s victories are well known — Brice’s Crossroads, for example — while instances of defeat are not. As the Civil War was drawing to a close, however, even Forrest could not halt the inevitable. He failed to prevent two of the final defeats the Confederacy suffered, defeats few now remember.
Beginning on March 22, 1865, less than a month before the war ended, Union Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, a topographical engineer by military profession, led a raid into Alabama with the purpose of capturing Selma, the site of the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry. His aim was to destroy the foundry’s capability for supplying the Confederate military. Wilson commanded some 13,500 horsemen, while the Confederates under Forrest had only 5,000, the kind of odds Forrest supporters have long argued that the Confederate regularly faced yet overwhelmed.
Such was not the case this time. On April 1, 1865, Wilson clashed with Forrest at Ebenezer Church, Ala., 18 miles from Selma. A Union saber attack resulted in Forrest’s wounding, though he killed his attacker and got away. Then the Federals drove him back into the three-mile-long entrenchments around Selma, which the Union cavalrymen gained knowledge of from a designer of the construction plans. Wilson’s three-pronged attack broke through the manned entrenchments. Forrest was able to escape in the confusion after the battle, but Wilson had soundly defeated him. There were 2,700 Confederate losses to 359 Union casualties.
The Confederates thus suffered the destruction of the army under Forrest’s command. Wilson and his men burned the Selma industrial works and captured Montgomery, Ala., Columbus, Ga., and finally the fleeing Confederate president Jefferson Davis. As for Forrest, he surrendered.
It was at Selma, the site of the later civil rights event of the 1960s, that Nathan Bedford Forrest, the allegedly unbeatable general and the commander at the Fort Pillow massacre of black troops, met defeat. In recent times, another battle of Selma has taken place, this time over a statue erected to honor Forrest — even though he lost the battle there and he could hardly be linked to the modern civil rights movement.
Marszalek is Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association’s Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University
The curtain rose on the final act of the Civil War in Virginia on April 2, 1865, with the Federal assault on weakened Confederate lines at Petersburg. This attack, often overlooked in histories of the war, was one of the most successful of the four-year conflict.
For 10 months, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had held the siege lines around Petersburg, protecting both that city and vital supply lines into the Confederate capital at Richmond. While Southern armies were suffering defeat elsewhere, around Atlanta and in the Carolinas, Lee’s stubborn defense of Petersburg gave the Southern cause what little hope that remained.
The thrashing of Confederate forces defending Five Forks on April 1 left Lee’s army in dire straits, cut off from its best line of retreat southward. Lee anticipated his Union counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, would take full advantage of the situation and launch an assault on the lines around Petersburg. Lee tried to move troops to meet the expected attacks, but he no longer had the manpower to stave off disaster.
Despite the Federals’ advantage in men and supplies, Union soldiers preparing for battle on April 2 viewed the assault with trepidation. The Southern trenches were formidable. An officer in the Union 9th Corps would write, “There can be no doubt that few of us expected to emerge alive from this affair.”
The veteran 6th and 9th corps led the Union assault, stepping off about 4 a.m. The advance was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment that disrupted the Confederate defense. Although the 9th Corps attack became bogged down amid the elaborate fortifications around Fort Mahone, the 6th Corps assault would achieve spectacular success.
The 6th Corps infantry quickly breached the Confederate lines opposite Union Fort Welch. The outnumbered Confederates fought back with fierce determination, and a vicious hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Capt. Charles Gould, the first Federal to make it into the Southern lines, was bayoneted through the face. He would earn the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Despite the ferocity of the Southern defense, the result was inevitable — the Confederate line was irretrievably broken. That night, Lee would abandon both Petersburg and Richmond, beginning a retreat that would end with the surrender of his army at Appomattox on April 9.
Today, the site of the Union breakthrough is preserved through a partnership between two private-sector organizations: the Civil War Trust and Pamplin Historical Park. The two organizations have joined forces to protect the Petersburg breakthrough battlefield and restore it to its wartime appearance and install interpretive trails. On April 2, for the 150th anniversary of the battle, the trust will unveil a new 1.5-mile walking trail on its 470-acre Petersburg breakthrough property.
Campi is policy and communications cirector of the Civil War Trust