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Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice To our own lips.

Abraham Lincoln death mask and what was in his pockets the night he died in 1865, kept at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.

Lincoln’s avengers : justice, revenge, and reunion after the Civil War New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c 2004 Elizabeth D. Leonard Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 Assassination Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xviii, 367 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 305-355) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

John Wilkes Booth, half-length portrait, facing left and holding a cane…Library of Congress photo

Did the federal government mete out justice or revenge in response to Lincoln’s assassination? On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt was put in charge of the investigation and trial. He first set out to punish all of Booth’s accomplices and then wanted to go after Jefferson Davis, whom he felt had instigated the assassination – despite stern opposition, not least of all from Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

A scathing attack on the ineptness and military ineffectualness of the Lincoln administration. The cartoon derives its title from an indiscreet letter written by secretary of war Edwin McMasters Stanton to past President James Buchanan immediately following the Union army’s defeat at the Battle of Bull Run. Stanton wrote, “The imbecility of this Administration, culminated in that catastrophe (Bull Run), and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace never to be forgotten are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy, as the result of Mr. Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.” William Pitt Fessenden (far left) cranks out greenbacks from “Chase’s Patent Greenback Mill.” Fessenden succeeded Salmon P. Chase as Treasury secretary. He says, glaring at the figures seated around the table, “These are the greediest fellows I ever saw. With all my exertions I cant satisfy their pocket, though I keep the Mill going day and night.” Seated at the table (clockwise from top left) are Stanton, Lincoln, secretary of state William H. Seward, Navy secretary Gideon Welles, and two unidentified contractors. At left a messenger hands an envelope to Stanton, announcing, “Mr. Secretary! here is a dispatch. We have captured one prisoner and one gun; a great Victory.” Elated over this minuscule achievement, Stanton exclaims “Ah well! Telegraph to General Dix [Union general John A. Dix] immediately.” Meanwhile, Lincoln is guffawing because he is reminded of “a capital joke.” (See “The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldiers Votes,” no. 1864-31, for the allusion.) Seward, with a bell in one hand, hands an envelope “Fort Lafayette” to a young officer or cadet, saying, “Officer! I am told that Snooks has called me ʺ Humbug’–Take this warrant and put him in Fort lafayette–I’ll teach him to speak against the Government.” Seward was criticized for arbitrarily arresting civilians and incarcerating them in federal prison at Fort Lafayette. Beside Seward Gideon Welles ineptly works out a problem. “They say the Tallahasse sails 24 miles an hour!–Well then, we’ll send 4 Gunboats after her that can sail 6 miles an hour, and that will just make enough to catch her.” At center bottom, the two contractors ask for more greenbacks…Library of Congress print


Elizabeth D. Leonard tells the story of the two assassination trials. She explores the questions that made these trials pivotal in American history: Were they to be used to make the South pay for secession? Were they to be fair trials based on the evidence? Or were they to be points of reconciliation, with the South forgiven at all costs to create a solid union?

Members of the Military Commission for the trial of Lincoln Conspirators Left to Right: 1. Judge Joseph Holt, 2. Gen. Robert S. Foster, 3. Col. H. L. Burnett, 4. Col. C. R. Clendemin…Library of Congress photo

Leonard writes about the oft-conflicting quests for justice, revenge and peace in the troubled early years of Reconstruction. Moving from Lincoln’s assassination to Grant’s inauguration, Leonard exhumes Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to serve as the book’s focus. Holt had the task of prosecuting the alleged conspirators in the assassination plots against Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, as well as Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz.

A metamorphosis print on the hanging of Jefferson Davis “Metamorphosis” prints usually consist of folding flaps, each printed with part of a design and which, when opened sequentially, show several consecutive scenes. This example is an imaginary view of the hanging of Confederate president Jefferson Davis…In the first scene, Davis holds one hand to his chest and his other hand out, asking pardon… Library of Congress print

The understudied Holt a former slaveholder and Kentucky loyalist, but also a staunch and vengeful Unionist makes a fascinating central figure, and early on Leonard betrays her “sympathy and compassion” for the man. The book is  Holt’s legacy, which encompassed a dedication a zeal that bred the enmity of such powerful men as Andrew Johnson and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.

Next, Davis sits weeping on his coffin, a noose around his neck…Library of Congress print

“If, like Lincoln himself,” Leonard writes, “he must stretch both law and convention in some measure to save the Republic, Holt was quite prepared to do so.” Her analysis of the motivations of Holt’s main foil, Johnson, is sparse but she significantly challenges the received wisdom that Johnson carried on Lincoln’s legacy arguing that Johnson was a much more avid supporter of “undemanding reconciliation” with the South.

In the final scene he hangs, his face hooded, from the gallows as crows (or vultures) fly overhead…Library of Congress print

By arguing what “Lincoln might have done,” Leonard deals in counterfactuals and that is what finally defeats the book as history and consigns it to the category of polemic. Its other glaring weakness is its failure to examine the assassination in light of recent scholarship that suggests the very strong likelihood that Lincoln was murdered by elements in the north to hide war profiteering and other crimes.

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