The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory

The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory

The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory

The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory

Excerpt

The murder of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, struck the American psyche like a hammer blow—opening a wound that in many ways has never completely healed.

No previous president had ever been assassinated (though three have been killed since). And coming as it did at the end of a brutal, punishing four-year war, and in the midst of widespread national rejoicing at the restoration of peace, Lincoln's murder seemed so gratuitous, so irrational, and so utterly un-American that it defied logic, tradition, and even prayer. Yet because the harrowing crime took place just before the most sacred holidays in the religious calendar, it also seemed to some almost divinely ordained—as if it had occurred as national punishment for the sins of slavery and fratricidal conflict. As the historian Allan Nevins reminds us, Lincoln's slaying “was clearly a sequel of the war, a product of its senseless hatreds, fears and cruelties.”

Indeed, historians have often treated the Lincoln assassination as a sequel—an epilogue—to the story of the Civil War. Few have attempted to show how Americans responded to the crisis at the . . .

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