CIVIL WAR AND EASTER
CIVIL WAR AND EASTER
by William H. Benson
April 20, 2006
The calendar said it was Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865. While truce flags snapped in the breeze outside, Lee met Grant in Wilmer McLean’s brick home in the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
In the artist’s rendition of that moment, a solemn Grant, seated at his own table and dressed in blue, looks on while Robert E. Lee, dressed in gray, signs his signature to the document that specified the terms of surrender that Grant had dictated. Standing beside Lee was his secretary, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, also in gray. Behind Grant were eight Union officers, all in blue, and among them was Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, with his wavy blonde hair and drooping moustache.
And then the calendar said it was Holy Week, and the President, Abraham Lincoln, admitted to his wife Mary Todd and others that he had had a vivid dream that had deeply shook him. In that dream he had left his bed, awakened by sobs. Lincoln had walked into the East Room and found a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. He had asked one of the guards, “Who is dead in the White House?” The soldier replied, “The President was killed by an assassin.” A loud burst of grief from the crowd then awakened Lincoln.
Mary Todd exclaimed, “That is horrid! I wish you had not told it.”
Lincoln calmed her, “Well, it is only a dream, Mary. Let us say no more about it, and try to forget it.” But Lincoln was shook to his depths. Later to his aide, Ward Hill Lamon, he quoted Hamlet’s words: “To sleep; perchance to dream! ay, there’s the rub!”
Despite the dream, that final week of Lincoln’s life, he was cheerful. The war was over. The Union was preserved. The bloodshed had ended. And the strain was lifted from his shoulders. He should be cheerful. But the final photograph of his life, taken that week by Alexander Gardner, showed a haggard face with eyes sunk deep, and a mass of wrinkles around the eyes. The face told of the years of sadness.
The calendar said it was Good Friday, April 14. That day a ceremony was held at Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor. Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Anderson raised Old Glory high atop the flagpole, for it was he who had lowered it on April 14, 1861 when he and his Union troops had surrendered to the Confederates after a ferocious cannon attack.
Reverend Henry Ward Beecher spoke at this national event, and he blamed the war on a small ruling class of the South and predicted that the common people of North and South would join and rule the country. Psalms of thanksgiving were then read: “The Lord hath done great things for us: whereof we are glad. . . . Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.”
In Washington the President and Mary Todd had plans to attend Fort’s theatre that evening to see the British play Our American Cousin. It had been well publicized that they would be there. Ulysses and Julia Grant were to go with them, but at the last moment they begged off. Instead Maj. Henry Rathbone, acting as Lincoln’s bodyguard, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined the Lincolns.
John Wilkes Booth, the hard-drinking actor and Southern sympathizer, stepped into the President’s theatre box, shot at Lincoln’s head, stabbed at Rathbone, and jumped over the rail onto the stage, catching his spur in the Union flag on the way down and ripping it. Breaking his left shinbone above the instep on landing, he struggled to his feet and shouted, “Sic simper tyrannis,” Virginia’s state motto. “Thus be it ever to tyrants.”
The President was carried across the street to Mr. Peterson’s home, and there he lingered until Saturday morning, April 15 when he breathed his last and his heart quit beating. The clock said it was 7:22 a.m.
That day a lot of Sunday sermons were tossed aside once the news of Lincoln’s passing was received.
The calendar said that it was Easter Sunday, April 16. Many of the sermons that day drew parallels between Lincoln and Christ, for both had a Judas. Often Matthew 9:15 was quoted: “And Jesus said unto them, ‘Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.’”
And then someone remarked, “A tree is best measured when it’s cut down.”