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A Note to Readers
You are about to read a true story that took place more than 140 years ago—the story of one of America’s saddest events. Just days after the end of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. President Lincoln had led this country through the bloodiest war in its history. He had reason to hope that the nation would be united again.
Abraham Lincoln was betrayed by his countrymen. He died within months of his fifty-sixth birthday and before he could complete his life’s work. The tragedy that befell Lincoln should be known by every American. His life and death continue to shape us as a people, even today. America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth, it is influenced by evil. John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger. I think that Abraham Lincoln is one of our strongest, bravest, and most exemplary leaders. As you read about his last days, I hope you will come to understand what made him great.
Before I began researching this book, I thought I understood the story of President Lincoln’s assassination. But even though I used to teach history in a high school, there were aspects of the events that were new to me and that will be new to you. This is a story of courage, cowardice, and betrayal. President Lincoln’s great courage was met with the bitter anger and hatred of people who could not accept that the Union army had won the war. As you read about this time in our country’s history, think about what we can learn from this event.
I love American history. I collect letters signed by presidents and photographs and drawings depicting presidents and important events. One of my favorites is a signed photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Looking at that photograph of President Lincoln, I wonder what he was thinking. In this book I have used his words and many other primary sources to bring his last days to life. Here is the story of the best kind of American. I am proud to share it with you.
Saturday, March 4, 1865
Abraham Lincoln, the man with six weeks to live, is anxious. The speech he is about to give is vital to the peace of the country. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter took place in South Carolina in April 1861, the United States has been a “house divided,” locked in a civil war between the free North and the slaveholding South. Led by South Carolina, a total of eleven slaveholding states in the South have left the Union and formed a separate nation, the Confederate States of America. The states that seceded felt that maintaining the institution of slavery was essential to their economy and they were willing to leave the Union rather than outlaw slavery.
Lincoln tried to stop the states from leaving, but they refused his peaceful appeals. When Confederate troops fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter, Lincoln had no choice but to go to war. This civil war has not only divided the nation, it has also split countless families, pitting fathers against sons, and brothers against brothers. It is a situation that even affects Lincoln’s family. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, has relatives fighting for the Confederacy. Much blood—too much blood—has been shed in this terrible conflict. Lincoln sighs, hoping that it will end soon, and with the Union victorious.
Fifty thousand men and women are standing in pouring rain and ankle-deep mud to watch Abraham Lincoln take the oath of office to begin his second term.
Lincoln steps up to the podium and delivers an eloquent appeal for reunification in his second inaugural address.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” the president says humbly. As he speaks, the sun bursts through the clouds, its light surrounding the tall and outwardly serene Lincoln.
Although Lincoln does not know this, 120 miles south of Washington, at the important railroad and communications center of Petersburg, Virginia, a siege that started in June 1864 is nearing its end. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, has been pinned in and around the city for more than 250 days by Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee knew if he didn’t defend Petersburg, the road to the Confederate capital of Richmond would be wide open. The capture of Richmond by Union troops would be a powerful symbolic victory, telling everyone that the end of the Confederacy was near. So Lee ordered his army to stay, dig trenches, and fight.
But now, in April 1865, Lee’s army is weak. At this point, if Lee remains and continues to defend Petersburg, his forces will be destroyed by Grant’s Army of the Potomac, which grows stronger in men and guns with each passing week. Lee knows that Grant is preparing for an overwhelming attack. Lee plans to have his army slip out of Petersburg and escape south to the Carolinas before that happens. If he succeeds, Lincoln’s prayer for a reunified United States of America may never be answered. America will continue to be divided into a North and a South, a United States of America and a Confederate States of America.
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Lincoln’s inaugural speech is a performance worthy of a great dramatic actor. And indeed, one of America’s most famous actors stands just yards away as the president speaks. Twenty-six-year-old John Wilkes Booth is inspired by the president’s words—though not in the way Lincoln intends.
The president has ambitious plans for his second term in office. Ending the war and healing the war-torn nation are Lincoln’s overriding ambitions. He will use every last bit of his trademark determination to see these goals realized; nothing must stand in his way.
But evil knows no boundaries. And a most powerful evil—in the person of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators—is now focused on Abraham Lincoln.
The Beginning of The End of the War
Sunday, April 2, 1865
There is no North versus South in Petersburg now. Only Grant versus Lee—and Grant has the upper hand. Like many of the generals on both sides, Lee and Grant served together in the Mexican War. Now, in the Civil War, these former comrades-in-arms are enemies.
Lee is fifty-eight years old, a tall, rugged Virginian with a silver beard and formal air. Grant is forty-two and Lee’s exact opposite: dark-haired and sloppy in dress, a small, introspective man who has a fondness for cigars and a close relationship with horses. When Grant was a baby, his mother’s friends were shocked to see that Hannah Grant allowed her son to crawl between their horses’ feet!
Like Lee, Grant possesses a genius for warfare—indeed, he is capable of little else. When the Civil War began, he was a washed-up, barely employed West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War who had been forced out of military service, done in by lonely western outposts and an inability to hold his liquor. It was only through luck and connections that Grant secured a commission in an Illinois regiment. At the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee in February 1862, Grant and his army delivered the first major victories to the Union. And Grant kept on winning. As the war continued, Lincoln gave him more and more responsibility. Now Grant is general in chief—the commander of all the Union armies from Virginia down to New Orleans.
At Petersburg, the Confederate lines are arranged in a jagged horseshoe, facing south—thirty-seven miles of trenches and fortifications in all. The outer edges of the horseshoe are two miles from the city center, under the commands of Confederate A. P. Hill on the right and John B. Gordon on the left.
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The day before, at the decisive Battle of Five Forks, Union General Phil Sheridan and 45,000 men had captured a pivotal crossing, cutting off the main road to North Carolina.
It was long after dark when word of the great victory reached Grant. Without pausing, Grant pushed his advantage. He ordered another attack. He hoped this would be the blow to crush Lee and his army once and for all. His soldiers would attack just before dawn, but he ordered the artillery fire to begin immediately.
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The Union attack is divided into two waves. Major General Horatio Wright, leading the 24,000 men in his Sixth Corps, charges first and shatters the right side of Lee’s line. Wright’s attack is so well choreographed that many of his soldiers are literally miles in front of the main Union force. As Wright’s men reorganize to prepare for the next stage of attack, the rest of the Union army strikes.
Meanwhile, Lee and his assistants, the generals James “Pete” Longstreet and A. P. Hill, gaze out at Wright’s army from the front porch of Lee’s Confederate headquarters, the Turnbull house. The three of them stand there as the sun rises high enough to confirm their worst fears: every soldier they can see wears blue.
A horrified A. P. Hill realizes that his army is being crushed, and he jumps on his horse to try to stop the disaster in the making. He is shot and killed by Union soldiers.
Lee faces the sobering fact that Union soldiers are just a few short steps from controlling the main road he plans to use for his retreat. He will be cut off if the bluecoats in the pasture continue their advance.
Fortune, however, is smiling on the Confederates. Those Union soldiers have no idea that Lee himself is right in front of them. If they did, they would attack without ceasing, because any soldier who captured Lee would become a legend.
The Union scouts can clearly see the small artillery battery outside Lee’s headquarters, and they assume that it is part of a much larger rebel force hiding out of sight. Rather than rush forward, the scouts hesitate.
Seizing the moment, Lee escapes north across the Appomattox River and then turns west. His goal is the Richmond and Danville Railroad Line at Amelia Court House, where he has arranged to store food and supplies. He issues orders to the commanders of his corps to follow. At one point, Lee pauses to write a letter to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, saying that his army is in retreat and can no longer defend Richmond. Davis and the Confederate government must abandon the city or risk capture.
The final chase has begun.
Copyright © 2012 by Bill O'Reilly