Amendments and Aftermath

As a result of the Civil War, several amendments were added to the Constitution. The Senate and House passed the Thirteenth Amendment, eliminating slavery in 1864 and 1865, respectively, while the country was still waging war. Those states that had seceded had to approve of the amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union.

After the war, the Republican majority in Congress pushed through the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined American citizenship to include all former slaves and declared that individual states could not unlawfully deny citizens their rights and privileges. As might be expected, passing this amendment took deft political maneuvering, as almost every Southern or Border State initially rejected it. Just like the amendment that had preceded it, seceding states had to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment to be readmitted. The required three-fourths of the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment on July 9, 1868, though the measure had passed Congress two years earlier.

The Fifteenth Amendment, granting African-American men the right to vote, also took a two-year path to ratification. It was presented to the states in 1868, and Southern states grudgingly passed the measure. Years later (in the 1890s), former Confederate states required African-Americans to take literacy tests as a requirement for voting. Since few slaves were literate at the time, this all but eliminated voting among this group until a more modern civil rights movement protested these strictures in subsequent years. Interestingly, this amendment said nothing about affording women the right to vote, an issue that wasn't addressed until 1920.

In addition to the legislative fallout from the war, the economic toll was substantial. The war took more than 600,000 lives, destroyed property valued at $5 billion, and created social wounds that never completely healed. It did, however, end slavery, making many believe the moral objectives of the war were indeed accomplished.

One Fateful Night at the Theater

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife, along with General and Mrs. Grant, were to attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Those attending Lincoln's cabinet meeting earlier in the day reported seeing him cheerful and happy, for the surrender at Appomattox had taken place days earlier.

That night, although the Grants could not attend, the Lincolns went to the theater with their other guests. At approximately 10:30 p.m. and at a planned moment when all eyes were focused on the stage, John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer, crept into the poorly protected presidential box and fired his pistol at Lincoln's head just once. The president slumped into his seat, unconscious, while Booth leaped to the stage shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis,” the Virginia state motto, which means “Thus ever to tyrants.”

Though he had injured his foot, Booth ran away.

A Nation Grieves

Lincoln's body was taken to a lodging house across the street, where Mrs. Lincoln, cabinet members, and friends waited through the night for doctors to perform a miracle that never happened. On Saturday, April 15, 1865, Lincoln was pronounced dead, and within hours Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president. This marked the first presidential assassination in the United States.

Lincoln's body lay in state in the East Room of the White House. On April 19, he was given a military funeral in Washington, and two days later, his coffin was placed on a special train that carried his body back to Springfield, Illinois, for burial in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The slain president's funeral procession retraced the route he'd initially taken to reach Washington for his inauguration in 1861.

John Wilkes Booth

Booth, it was discovered, was a vengeful, half-crazed actor from a fairly famous theatrical family who had planned for some time to kidnap the president and take him to Richmond. There, he hoped to exchange him for captured Confederate prisoners of war. However, when that city fell and with the conflict now resolved, Booth resorted to murder, claiming that he was God's instrument to punish Lincoln for all the trouble he had caused the country.

On the same day that Booth shot Lincoln, friends of Booth made attempts on Secretary Seward's life, but he lived. In fact, one friend was to have carried out a plan to assassinate Vice President Johnson, but decided against doing so.

Booth escaped with the help of friends and an unsuspecting physician who tended his injuries, but he was discovered twelve days later in a shack near Bowling Green, Virginia. When he refused to surrender to authorities, they set the barn ablaze. Some say that Booth was struck by a sniper's shot, and others assert that he pulled a gun on himself. Regardless, Booth was dragged out of the inferno and died shortly thereafter. His coconspirators went on trial for aiding the assassin. They were tried, and convicted, by a military tribunal rather than a civil court.

If John Wilkes Booth felt his pro-Southern objectives were accomplished, he was mistaken. Lincoln's tragic death galvanized the country, plunging it into profound grief. Had Lincoln been able to lend his steady, reassuring hand to the Reconstruction process, tensions would have certainly healed sooner between the two factions. Booth took down a great leader at a time when the country still needed him, and every citizen paid a price for that act of vengeance.

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