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assassination of president Lincoln

Sometime around 1869 the Devrees household in Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois welcomed a new child into the world. The infant was born into a large farming family: his siblings included a Thomas, a William, an Alice, a Francis, and a George. His name, however, marked him out: he was christened John Wilkes Booth.

150 years ago today a rather better known John Wilkes Booth – a renowned Shakespearean actor and ardent sympathiser with the slaveholding South – shot Lincoln at point blank range at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Booth, having inflicted a mortal wound, leapt from the President’s box and made his escape. Troops soon tracked the fugitive down to a Virginia farmhouse where he was killed. The death of a president marked one of the final acts of a four year long Civil War.

Martyred on Good Friday, Lincoln soon attained a kind of secular sanctity, his blood fertilising the nation’s spiritual rebirth. In death he became a symbol of liberty and Union. In life, however, his presidency had divided white Americans.[1] After Booth fired the fatal bullet Booth was reported to have cried out in Latin ‘thus always to tyrants’: the same words supposedly uttered by Brutus after he slayed the aggrandizing general Julius Caesar. Americans steeped in Ancient History feared the descent of republics into empires. For them, Brutus was a hero (Booth’s English-born father was named after him) who in killing a wannabe dictator, had mounted a doomed bid to save Roman freedom. As a Civil War president, of course, Lincoln presided over the most dramatic extension of liberty in American history: proceeding over the years slowly (too slowly, for many) towards ending slavery. But for plenty of citizens, black freedom meant white enslavement, and when the President curtailed the liberty of some of his opponents – he suspended Habeas Corpus, for instance, and shut down a few newspapers – they cried despotism.[2] In slaying a dangerous tyrant Booth claimed to be acting in their name.

Dozens of Lincoln’s enemies honoured his assassin in the same manner as the Devrees family. A quick search via the Federal census records on the Ancestry website reveals roughly a hundred American families who appear to have named children after Booth in the post-war years.[3] Unsurprisingly, about 90% heralded from the southern states, but a small handful, like the Illinoisans, were northerners – probably ‘Copperhead’ opponents of the Union cause seeking solace in small acts of defiance. Most of the northern Booths came from counties close to slaveholding areas – places where sympathies for the Confederate cause ran deep – and I haven’t found a single instance of a postwar New Englander (citizens of the old antislavery heartland) sharing a name with Lincoln’s killer. Notably, in borderlands like Missouri – where neighbour clashed with neighbour and the Federal government fought to contain dissent – the practice was particularly common. Some of the records leave little to the imagination when it comes to the parents’ political loyalties (John Wilkes Booth Sharp, born in Georgia, circa 1871), but others (Washington Booth Stamton, born in Baltimore, circa 1871) hint at an attempt to induct Booth into a pantheon of American heroes. The true heir to the father of the republic, the latter implied, was the actor-assassin, and not the martyred president.

These families, in preserving the memory of Lincoln’s killer, were writing a history of the Civil War in which liberty was the victim rather than the victor. As late as the 1890s the odd new-born in the South was given Booth’s name, though the practice seems to have become less common after the restoration of white supremacy in the 1870s. This may be a result of changing enumeration practices, but it might owe something also to the late nineteenth-century “reconciliationist” remembering of the Civil War as a noble struggle between two valiant adversaries, and not as an ideological conflict over slavery, race, and citizenship. The first professional historians writing around the turn of the century cast Lincoln as a magnanimous commander-in-chief whose slaying served as an excuse for the imposition of a supposedly Carthaginian peace on the Confederacy.[4] Booth here was no longer the defender of liberty but a man whose rash crime ushered in the phantom horrors of Reconstruction. It might have been unwise to use his name.

But in the decade or so that followed the Civil War Booth’s name, it seems, could be a badge of pride rather than a mark of shame. Historians don’t need any reminders that this was a violent time – the death of a president paled in comparison to the thousands of murders perpetrated by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan – but when Lincoln is remembered as a figure of national unity we risk forgetting that for many years he was loathed as well as loved.

 

Table: American men with “Booth” in their forename(s) born between 1865 and 1880 (source: Ancestry.co.uk)

State State’s Wartime Status Booth in some part of forenames
Georgia Confederate State 15
Mississippi Confederate State 10
Missouri Slaveholding Union State 9
Tennessee Confederate State 8
South Carolina Confederate State 7
Illinois Union State bordering slave state(s) 7
Arkansas Confederate State 6
North Carolina Confederate State 6
Kentucky Slaveholding Union State 6
Pennsylvania Union State bordering slave state(s) 6
Texas Confederate State 4
Alabama Confederate State 3
Virginia Confederate State 3
Maryland Slaveholding Union State 3
Louisiana Confederate State 2
Indiana Union State bordering slave state(s) 2
West Virginia Slaveholding Union State 1
California Union State 1
New York Union State 1
Wisconsin Union State 1
Iowa Union State bordering one or more slave states 1

[1] The often mixed reaction to the President’s death is explored in Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln (New Haven, 2015).

[2] As our Ph.D. student at Sheffield Belle Grenville-Mathers has shown, fears of ‘Caesarism’ ran through Reconstruction politics.

[3] There are, no doubt, a few false positives here; it’s possible that some of the Booths were named after family members, for instance. But the regional concentration of Booths (as well as Buths – many citizens were semi-literate – and Wilkes / Wilks) in the South and Border States after 1865 is too striking to be an accident.

[4] Their interpretation is captured in D. W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 blockbuster Birth of a Nation. Yet the postwar settlement, as plenty of historians have shown since, was anything but. Most of the so-called horrors of Reconstruction amounted to the extension of the franchise to black men and its removal (for a time) from some Confederate veterans.

Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the Civil War-era United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter@andrewdheath.

Tags : Abraham LincolnAmerican Civil WarassassinationJohn Wilkes Boothnaming practices
Andrew Heath

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