Thursday, February 07, 2008
I think it can be safely argued that the Kennedy assassination, regardless of who actually fired the shots, did more to alter history than Lincoln’s murder. Start with this premise. It’s more than probable that Ulysses Grant would have been the Republican nominee and won the 1868 election, setting up the same existing chain of men who occupied the White House through John Kennedy. Had Kennedy survived and won a second term of office, it becomes less certain who would have succeeded him in 1968. Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy advisor, claimed years later that J.F.K. planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam during his second term in office. One thing is likely though, regardless of the validity of that claim, it would have been less likely that Richard Nixon would have been elected in 1968. It necessarily follows then that no Nixon, no Watergate, no Gerald Ford, no Jimmy Carter, no Ronald Reagan, at least not in 1980, no George W. Bush, no Bill Clinton, at least not in 1992, and finally the likelihood that none of those currently running for the office would now be seeking the Presidency.
You can use your own imagination to speculate over how different American society would have been had Lincoln and Kennedy lived, but the only likely historical change caused by Booth firing a derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head is that Andrew Johnson never would have made it into the Oval Office. I wonder, too, if Lincoln, had he served out a second term, might not have faced the same hostile reaction from Radical Republicans who may have deemed Lincoln’s own reconstruction plan too forgiving of the former Confederacy. Johnson, afterall, claimed he was following Lincoln's intended blueprint. We’ll probably never know, uncertain as we are of Lincoln’s post-war intentions, but a policy of leniency set the wheels in motion for what eventually led to epic battles between the Executive and Legislative branches and ultimately to Johnson’s impeachment trial.
Whereas Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed “lone gunman,” was taken into custody within a remarkably (conspiracy theorists would substitute the word “suspiciously”) short period of time, Booth was on the lam for twelve days. I suppose that was considered a remarkably short period of time then for detectives and soldiers to track him down. Those who pursued Booth through Prince George’s and Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac and into Caroline County, Virginia at least knew who they were looking for at the start of their chase.
I spent twelve hours on a Saturday a few years back riding in a tour bus with close to fifty other people tracing Booth’s attempt to flee, supposedly to Mexico. The tour, sponsored by the [Mary] Surratt House Museum is wildly popular, requiring reservations months in advance. Whereas the Museum once conducted two tours a year, one in the spring and fall, the venture has been expanded to four in the spring (sorry folks, they’re all sold out, including May 3rd) and two in the fall. A word to wise if you ever go. You better have some knowledge of the Lincoln assassination before stepping foot on the bus, because you won’t get an introductory crash course from the guide.
Last March and April I wrote a series of posts called “Radar Love in the Heart of Dixie,” a series that traced my own journey through Civil War Virginia. One of the articles I never got around to writing happened to be on the subject at hand, John Wilkes Booth’s final destination. That destination provided no refuge for a wounded, disillusioned, desperate, quivering, and friendless rabbit, who found himself trapped inside a flaming barn, surrounded by Union troops, a flaming barn through which Boston Corbett would administer the coupe de grace.
That destination is exactly 9.3 miles north of Bowling Green, Virginia and one-tenth of a mile south of mile marker 122 on Rt. 301 North. The site of the former Garrett farm stands in the middle of a green swath of land that separates traffic headed in opposite directions and the adage about looking four times before you cross two lanes of highway needs to be strictly adhered to. With a posted speed limit of 65 miles an hour, you’d miss the historical marker posted next to the breakdown lane if you blinked. Heck, you don’t even have to blink; just have your mind locked on reaching your destination or engage in conversation with a passenger and you’ll shoot right by it.
Once reaching the island you follow a path that leads into a strand of trees and keep following that path for a very short distance until you come to a sign that warns of a prison term and an incredibly steep fine if you decide to go souvenir hunting. I’m not joking when I say that murderers have served less time.
Imagination and the ability to visually conceptualize are important qualities when visiting Garrett’s farm. The area where the barn once stood is reportedly under the high speed lane carrying cars south on 301. I don’t suppose the State of Virginia could or would want to do better. Even by today’s standards, with the theory of a megalopolis stretching from Maine to Florida inching closer to reality with each passing year, the area is isolated. Perhaps all the better to keep Garrett’s farm from becoming a shrine to a megalomaniac and historic shame hidden from view.