The tragic aftermath of the Civil War
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 just days after the surrender of the Confederacy dramatically affected the course of post-war Reconstruction. Primarily, of course, it brought Vice President Andrew Johnson into power, a politician whose views and attitudes contrasted sharply with Lincoln's. The government's response to the assassination inevitably became caught up in the acrimonious controversy over the appropriate approach to Reconstruction. Colby College historian Elizabeth D. Leonard explores these subjects in detail, illuminating the key roles played by major figures in her new book Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War. At the center of her narrative is the Kentuckian Joseph Holt, who, as Judge Advocate General, was in charge of the investigation into the assassination and the trial of the alleged conspirators that followed. A lifelong Democrat with a strong sense of duty and propriety, Holt had served as secretary of war in the James Buchanan administration. The author recounts Holt's significant achievements but also shows how he committed "some terrible errors of judgment."When he was sworn in, Andrew Johnson said his policy toward the South would be "in all its essentials . . . the same as that of the late president." While we will never know what course Lincoln would have followed, Leonard points out that "even as the Bureau of Military Justice's wheels of vengeance were turning against the men whom Holt, [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton, and others believed to be the chief enemies of the nation, an only partly supportive Johnson was making his first moves toward enacting the swift, undemanding reconciliation with the South he had essentially decided to effect by executive means, with or without congressional approval." The subsequent debate within the government over what form the South and the nation would take, and the question of freedmen's rights, would be lengthy and fierce. Leonard's account of this crucial period in American history is thoughtful, compelling and insightful. Roger Bishop is a bookseller in Nashville and a contributing editor to BookPage.