The Party of Lincoln or the Party of Booth?

An illustration published in May 1863 of the Richmond Bread Riots. Library of Congress.

Ever wonder why a draft from the Bank of Ontario was found on the corpse of John Wilkes Booth? The Montreal branch of the bank was one of the places that Robin Philpot, my Canadian publisher, pointed to when he took me on a tour of the Confederates’ Montreal hangouts. I also saw the grounds where the Royal Theater once stood. Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis were greeted with a rousing rendition of “Dixie” when they attended a performance after the war.

Davis received a hero’s welcome when he joined his spouse, the destitute Varina, and their children. They had been brought to Montreal where they were housed handsomely in a home owned by publishing magnate, John Lovell. One of those Montreal visitors was John Wilkes Booth, who, while living there, boasted about a scheme to kidnap President Lincoln.

Members of the Confederacy found a home in the “secesh friendly” Montreal, which preferred a divided America to one that was always threatening them with invasion. Their presence there is covered in a new book entitled Montreal City Of Secrets, by Barry Sheehy. The book includes archival pictures of members of the Confederate Secret Service and those of other big shots associated with the rebel regime.

The Confederacy lingers in the country’s imagination. Removing the statues of Confederate heroes was opposed by sixty-three percent of voters in Virginia’s recent election. Is that because the full story and history of some of those who defended slavery hasn’t been aired? The Confederacy has been romanticized by historians who are awed by those whom they consider great men, and by Hollywood movies, like “Gone With The Wind,” where slaveholders are referred to as “Knights and Ladies,” and the only harm to a slave occurs when Scarlett, regarded by some as an early feminist, slaps Prissy, an image that might mirror the relationship between Black and White feminists over the last hundred or so years.

Defenders say that we can’t impose the standards of today on the practices of slave owners. Bunk! Tell that to the White Pennsylvanians who tried to intervene as Robert E. Lee forcibly returned Blacks–men, women, and children–to the South.[1] They still talk about the resistance in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which I visited. Tell that to the thousands of Africans who resisted from before the time that the ships set sail. There were hundreds of ship rebellions on the Atlantic. Hollywood only gives us one, “Amistad.” Or tell that to the Northern crowds who greeted Andrew Johnson’s tour of the North with shouts of “Hang Jeff Davis” or “New Orleans,”[2] referring to the massacre of 41 Black men in New Orleans, July 30,1866, who had assembled to protest the legislature’s denying them the right to vote.

The great artist Thomas Nast memorialized this massacre in his masterpiece, “Massacre of the Innocents.”

Do you think that White women would support such Knights and Ladies if they knew that Jefferson Davis, whom Sam Houston referred to as “Lucifer,”[3] was five minutes from firing on thousands of hungry White women during an uprising led by two unsung heroines, Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, who, according to Varina Davis, was built like an Amazon? They were in the midst of looting bakeries for food, which gave the riot its name, the Richmond Bread Riots of 1863.

Would some of the bloom on the Confederate Romance fade if some defenders of the statues knew of the horrendous actions of future Confederate generals and leaders in the Black Hawk War (1832), where unarmed Native Americans were massacred, or how about their aggression in Mexico, which was so brutal that an Irish contingent defected and was hanged as traitors? In the battle of Vera Cruz (1847) Robert E. Lee and other “Knights” did battle with child cadets, Los Niños Héroes, ages 13-19, who were defending their homeland. One of the children leapt to his death while embracing the Mexican flag. Even some of the most progressive of American historians ignore this history.

It’s become fashionable for some members of the Southern elite to still regard John Wilkes Booth as a hero.[4] Before he killed Lincoln, Booth could be seen getting drunk and shooting pool at Montreal’s Dooley’s bar.

He was present three days before he murdered Lincoln, when in a speech the president called for “intelligent” Blacks and Black soldiers, who served the Union, to receive voting rights. Booth allegedly turned to a member of the audience and said “That means Nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make.” [5]

As Republicans continue to suppress the votes of minorities, shouldn’t they consider whether they are members of the party of Lincoln, or members of the party of Booth? Or have they become so addicted to wedge issues that they have to reach the bottom before they start climbing back up?

Ishmael Reed’s novel, “Conjugating Hindi” will be published in February by Dalkey Archive Press.


[1] “They took up all they could find,” wrote Chambersburg resident Jemima Cree, “even little children, whom they had to carry on horseback before them. All who could get there fled to the woods, and many who were wise hid in the houses of their employers.”

Captured slaves (or in this case, captured free citizens of color) had become an issue for the Confederate government. It wasn’t, however, because the practice was found deplorable. It so happened that when black people were captured, instead of being returned to their owners, Confederate officers were keeping them, turning them into personal body servants.…

[2] The Swing Around the Circle: Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride that Destroyed a Presidency Nov 26, 2008 by Garry Boulard

[3] One of Houston’s daughters writes :  “How well I remember his look when the roar of the cannon at Austin announced that our State had seceded ! and his sorrowful words to my mother, ‘ My heart is broken.’ The words were true; he never was himself again.”

“He was sorely shaken what to think in the chaos of new things. At one time we find him saying : ‘The time has come when a man’s section is his country. I stand by mine. . . . Whether we have opposed this secession movement or favoured it, we must alike meet the consequences. It is no time to turn back now.’

Yet at the very end he declared to the minister who attended him : ‘My views as to the propriety and possibility of the success of this wicked revolution have undergone no change.’ Of Mr. Davis he had said, as reported by a questionable witness : ‘I know Jeff  Davis well. He is as ambitious as Lucifer, and as cold as a lizard.’” Cold as a Lizard | American Civil War Forums – Civil War Talk Dec.2008

[4] “Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance,” San Tanenhaus and Jim Rutenberg The New York Times,25,2014

[5] The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865 edited by Harold Holzer & Craig L.Symonds


Ishmael Reed’s latest play is “The Conductor.”