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Today's culture similar to Civil War era's divide

Oct. 17, 2011 at 5:17 a.m.

One reason we study history is to help us understand our current civilization through the lens of what has happened in past civilizations.

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat It." A historian who is an acknowledged expert on an iconic event in American history, one who may offer a measure of validation to Santayana's sentiment, will be in Victoria as the second speaker in the 2011-2012 Victoria College Lyceum Lecture Series.

Terry Alford, an expert on John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination, is scheduled to be on campus in VC's Johnson Symposium at 7 p.m. on Thursday as part of "The Civil War in Texas: Changing Interpretations After 150 Years" conference hosted by the VC/UHV Library. The conference will commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war's beginning. Alford's appearance is with support provided by the Kathryn O'Connor Foundation.

Arguably, the American Civil War is still being fought in the pitched battles that characterize our politics in the year 2011. The "red states" versus "blue states" construct we hear so much about implies a cultural, economic and social divide that existed in 1861 as it does in 2011. Alford will discuss the events surrounding the killing of Lincoln, and weigh in on the cultural chasm separating the South from the North at that period in time, which most historians ascribe as a motivating factor in Booth's actions. He will also offer enticing details from Booth's colorful life story.

Booth was surely the most famous of all presidential assassins prior to the commission of his act. He was a well-known actor of great popularity - the Brad Pitt of his day. He was a prolific performer, who appeared in scores of productions in the years leading up to the assassination. To those who knew him personally, he was a popular and sought after companion. When it became known that Booth was Lincoln's killer, his friends and acquaintances alike expressed shock that he could commit such a terrible deed. Alford explains in his introduction to John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir, which he edits, that newspapers at the time ascribed a variety of motives to the act - including the supposition that he was an agent of the Confederate government.

Born in Maryland in 1838 to a well-known theatrical family, by 1860 Booth was an outspoken admirer of the South and it's secession from the Union, and with equal passion despised Abraham Lincoln. History books record how Booth and his brother Edwin, also a well-known actor, argued about the issues surrounding the war. Edwin, a Union sympathizer, eventually banned his younger brother from his home. Like in other states near the line of demarcation between Union and Confederacy, Marylanders were divided in their sympathies.

The assassination took place in April 1865, which was in the waning days of the war. Indeed, it occurred five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac. It was soon discovered that Booth's action was part of a larger conspiracy to also assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward (the next two in the line of succession to the presidency), in order to throw the Union government into a state of chaos and motivate the Confederate forces to keep fighting. While the plot failed - Seward was only wounded and Johnson's assassin-to-be lost his nerve without making an attempt - Booth's success in his part certainly didn't achieve its objective as the war officially ended within a matter of days.

It's part of the historical record, and the legend surrounding this event, that Booth, aided by various Confederate agents, evaded capture immediately after the assassination. He escaped to a tobacco farm in Virginia where, less than two weeks later, he was tracked down by a detachment of Union soldiers dispatched to find and bring him to justice. Preferring death to capture, Booth refused a demand to surrender and was shot and killed by one of the soldiers. While this ended one of the most infamous episodes in American history, it certainly didn't end the conflict of cultures and societies that was one of its root causes.

Please plan on attending the Lyceum 7 p.m. Thursday, to hear from Alford on Booth and the assassination of Lincoln. Seating at the Johnson Symposium is limited so please contact the Victoria College marketing department for tickets.

Dave Ticen is the chairman and a long-time member of Victoria College's Lyceum Committee. Ticen works as a librarian in charge of user education at the VC/UHV Library.

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