The Darkest Dawn:
Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy
Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005
$ 35.00. 362 pages. ISBN 0-253-32599-4.
Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio
Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Montréal
A scrapbook of years of collected data on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Goodrich’s The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy provides readers of American Civil War history with a concise and detailed account of perhaps the most significant event in nineteenth-century American history. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14th 1865 at Ford’s Theater during a performance of Our American Cousin continues to raise different interpretations of the day’s event. Lincoln’s assassination remains important because it continues to demonstrate how susceptible to violence a political leader can be during political turmoil. Economic and political uncertainty generated by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation created great panic throughout the southern states whose economic future remained unstable because slavery was abolished.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation delivered on January 1, 1863 gave every African American slave their unconditional release from bondage and slave states the opportunity to join the union freely without any restrictions if they agreed to pledge allegiance to the non-slave practicing north. Although slave states would be allowed to enter the union, many plantation owners became apprehensive considering that they lost their main source of income. The American south considered Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation a detrimental threat to everything they had ever known and worked for. For many southerners Lincoln became the enemy they could not survive under and whose elimination from the presidency would be their only method of survival. The main fear that plantation owners had was that their already declining estate would be completely worthless because they would have no workers. The only method the south had of avoiding disaster was to hope that abolitionist groups would slowly dissolve and that slavery would be restored.
Thomas Goodrich defines John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln as the darkest dawn because it sent widespread panic across the United States. American history later saw similar occurrences with the assassination of other leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and the attempted murder of Ronald Regan. What Goodrich suggests is that Lincoln’s murder set a precedent that all leaders are at risk of being usurped by extremists at anytime to advance their goal. As the performance of Our American Cousin was proceeding, Lincoln sat ‘[w]ith his right elbow resting on the arm of this chair and chin lying carelessly on his hand … [t]he laughter subsided, … [and] a sharp crack sounded. As the noise echoed throughout the otherwise silent theatre, many thought it was part of the play. But, just as quickly, most knew it was not’ . The noisy echo that sounded across Ford's Theater forever changed how America would view itself and its leaders. Furthermore, since Lincoln’s assassination, the United States national security has been greatly strengthened to protect the safety of its national leaders.
Lincoln’s assassination caused great turmoil across the United States. Large protests and riots began across Washington. The following is an excerpt of Walt Whitman’s description of a Washington protest:
The infuriated crowd, through some chance, got started against one man, either for words he utter’d, or perhaps without any cause at all, and were proceeding at once to actually hang [Booth] on a neighboring lamp post, when he was rescued by a few heroic policemen, who placed them in their midst and fought their way slowly and amid great peril toward the Station House … [T]he attack’d man, not yet freed from the jaws of death, looking like a corpse—the silent resolute half-dozen policeman, with no weapons but their little clubs, yet stern and steady through all their eddying swarms—made indeed a fitting side-scene to the grand tragedy .
Walt Whitman’s account of one of the many Washington riots demonstrates the tremendous following Lincoln had in abolitionist circles and how his supporters would undertake any measure to ensure that his assassination would be vindicated. The Emancipation Proclamation drew Lincoln large support from African American communities across the United States. W. Emerson Reck has noted that ‘[t]he colored people especially—and there were at this time more of these persons than of whites—were overwhelmed with grief’ [‘Spring Cleaning Brings Lincoln Item to Light’. Ford’s Theatre Archives, Washington, DC., cited 124].
The pro-slavery south held a radically different view of Lincoln’s death. Witnessing the slow disintegration of their economy and family estate brought about by the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line chanted ‘[a]ll honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations’ . Most Virginians cheered ‘I’m not glad. But, somehow, I can’t be sorry. I believe it was the vengeance of the lord’ . John Wilkes Booth therefore became a hero across the American south that considered Lincoln’s death a way of re-establishing slavery.
A funeral for Abraham Lincoln was held across the United States. Termed 'The Mid-Week Sabbath’ by historians, it was a period in American history when millions across the United States mourned Lincoln’s death. What was perhaps the most monumental funeral in American history too place at noon on April 19, 1865 as the White House closed to conduct the funeral for the sixteenth president of the United States. A correspondent from the New York World painted a beautiful picture of Lincoln in his coffin with a rather bloodless hue but ‘always sallow’ . The New York World reporters’ use of the words ‘always sallow’ connotes how Lincoln was always sickly yellow or pale while alive because of his endless struggle of advancing the United States. In San Francisco the more than one thousand mile long procession was possibly the largest and most elaborate funeral the West Coast has ever seen. Boston orator Edward Everett Hale stated that Lincoln’s funeral produced the single largest church-going day in Church history. Such mass support demonstrates how Lincoln was a national hero across both the north and some southern states whose popularity was never to be matched. Millions around the United States gathered to honor the president who has become conceivably the most well-respected, fair and influential in the nation’s history.
A well-researched and interesting study, Thomas Goodrich’s The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy is certainly an important contribution to American history. Although many books exist on Lincoln’s assassination, none tells this story as brilliantly and intimately as does Goodrich. Filled with first-hand accounts of the few existing records of Lincoln’s life and death, Goodrich’s book places the readers of American history in the midst of both pre- and post-Civil-War America. Goodrich’s study is an effective one that draws stark juxtapositions of how Lincoln was a hero in the abolitionists’ camp and how John Wilkes Booth was a hero in most slave states. What is particularly interesting about Goodrich’s book is that it demonstrates how a nation like the United States that prides itself on unity was once divided by politics, economics, and greed. Goodrich notes that the United States was ‘a deeply wounded nation turned savagely on itself’  during the era that defined its national identity. The United States has, since the Civil War and Reconstruction era, become one of the world’s strongest nations with strong economic bonds across every state within its borders.