- Lincoln’s Assassination by Edward Steers Jr., and: Lincoln and the War’s End by John C. Waugh
John C. Waugh opens Lincoln and the War’s End by describing the nation’s collective relief over the reelection of Abraham Lincoln. In referencing the New York Herald, Waugh specifies that “the whole North was never more united upon any question than it is at this moment upon the subjugation of the rebellion” (1). To many, Lincoln’s 1864 victory signified the coming of the conflict’s conclusion, as the northern people had affirmed their commitment to the cause of reunification. It is in this context that both works under consideration, the aforementioned Lincoln and the War’s End, as well as Edward Steers’s Lincoln’s Assassination, analyze the closing months of the war. On the theme of the Confederacy’s imminent collapse, Waugh weaves together the finality of Union policy that places Lincoln in firm control of overseeing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and preparing the nation for Reconstruction. Steers, [End Page 99] on the other hand, carefully explains the way John Wilkes Booth transitioned from his initial plot to kidnap the president to one of murder, as he recognized that the southern nation was essentially defeated. As both these works are also part of the Concise Lincoln Library, they are equally worthy additions as they cover their material succinctly and with great clarity. Taken together, they admirably cover the final few months of the war from two different vantage points.
Approaching its title literally, Waugh’s work roughly covers the period of Lincoln’s reelection until his untimely death, ending on the somber realization that Booth robbed Lincoln of seeing his work completed. Waugh demonstrates the president’s confidence in the final days of his life. Emboldened by his reelection and the military progress of both William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln actively campaigned on behalf of the Thirteenth Amendment, seeing it as the natural conclusion to the Emancipation Proclamation, which he believed lacked constitutional staying power. Noting the existence of the original Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1861 to protect slavery, Waugh shows how the conflict had advanced to the point at which Lincoln could abandon compromise and capitalize on the spoils of war and implement his true vision for the nation’s future, one that no longer involved slavery. Sensing the Confederacy’s desperation, he was then able to easily rebuff any concessions at the Hampton Roads conference, as there was simply no room for negotiation without a full reunification of the nation. In a position of military strength, Lincoln could make that demand comfortably as he forecasted the South’s eventual capitulation. As history would have it, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox only two months later, virtually ending all hostilities.
Lee’s surrender in April 1865 would bring about another development as well, forcing Booth to reconsider how he could assist the Confederacy, whose fortunes were now rapidly dwindling. Lincoln’s Assassination masterfully describes Booth’s actions and motivations, combining beautiful storytelling with solid historiographical analysis that challenges past works and clarifies points of popular misconception. Steers begins by noting that Booth’s original plan to kidnap Lincoln was both plausible and rational, derailed only by the fall of Richmond as it sapped the plot of its original strategic significance. Failing to deliver Lincoln to Confederate authorities when it mattered, Booth radically altered his plan to murder him, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Steers dispels several myths as he carefully leads the reader through the entire process of the assassination plot. He contends that Lewis Thompson Powell and George Atzerodt were in fact intelligent and competent coconspirators, and he maintains the culpability of both Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd in Booth’s conspiracy. Yet, at the heart of Steers’s monograph lies...