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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Union Club in Boston - Formed in the Darkest Days of the Civil War

Dr. Edward Everett, former President of
Harvard, then the Union Club.
April 10 - This evening Alice and I went to the Union Club for a Surf and Turf dinner. This private club has a distinguished history, of special note as we are between two 150th anniversaries - of Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9 and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14.

The club was founded not much more than two years earlier, in late 1862, by Bostonians who were concerned about the future of the American Union.

Article I of the club says: "The condition of membership shall be unqualified loyalty to the Constitution and Union of the United States and unwavering support of the federal government in efforts for the suppression of the Rebellion."

The club's first elected president, Dr. Edward Everett, was a man of great distinction - former president of Harvard, Governor of Massachusetts, Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Senator. The club was formal inaugurated on April 9, 1863 and Everett made a lengthy speech for the Union.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Two years later, to the day (i.e., yesterday, 150 years ago) Confederate General Lee surrendered his huge Army of Northern Virginia, which had been surrounded by Union General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Court House in Appomattox, Virginia. This made inevitable total victory by the North in the Civil War, although the war did not end immediately.

John Wilkes Booth - a famed 26-year-old actor who took the side of the Confederacy - responded to the increasingly bad news for the South by meeting with six friends. They decided to kidnap the president and abduct him to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. They fixed a date on March 20, 1865 and lay in wait… but Lincoln failed to appear as he was scheduled.
Lincoln was assassinated five days after Lee's surrender.

Booth’s revised plan was the assassination of Lincoln, to give hope to those continuing to fight on desperately for the Confederacy. 

He found out that Lincoln was to attend Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln was in a private box next the stage, with his wife Mary and a young couple - Army Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (Rathbone’s fiancĂ©e, daughter of one of New York’s senators).

Booth entered the box and fired a single shot (a one-ounce ball) at the back of Lincoln’s head with his .44 Deringer pistol at point-blank range. He then knifed Rathbone, who came toward him, and jumped onto the stage shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”) – the Virginia state motto. Booth broke his leg in the jump. He hobbled out of the theater and escaped on horseback.


The audience thought at first that the assassination was part of the play. When Mary screamed, only then did those present realize what happened. A 23-year-old young Army doctor (Dr. Charles A. Leale) went to the presidential box and found the president slumped in his chair, struggling to breathe and in paralysis. 

Booth had been recognized and he fled with David Herold across the Potomac to Virginia, where he was hunted down to a farmhouse. The soldiers torched it. Herold surrendered. Booth stayed inside until the heat became too intense. When he became visible, a sergeant shot him and Booth lived only three more hours.

Several soldiers carried Lincoln to a red brick boarding house across the street. When Dr. Robert King Stone, the Lincoln family physician, arrived in his carriage, he pronounced that nothing could be done for Lincoln, who had already been suffering from the health effects of being a wartime president. He had fainted two months earlier in an argument with his Attorney General over pardons for desertion.

The president’s body was taken to the White House and was in due course carried to the Capitol rotunda to lay in state. On April 21, Lincoln’s body was put on a train to his hometown of Springfield, Ill. Tens of thousands of Americans lined the railroad route. He was buried next his son Willie, who predeceased him, at Oak Ridge Cemetery, near Springfield.

Four co-conspirators including David Herold were convicted of conspiracy to murder and were hanged for this on July 7, 1865. The four included Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where the seven conspirators first met.