April 14 – 16, 1865
The President was dying.
As the grim news spread through Washington City, angry crowds spilled into the cold, muddy night. Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theatre, on Tenth Street. The wounds were mortal, people were saying. There was no way he could survive. The war was over, the South utterly vanquished, yet somehow its withered hand had reached up into the nation’s capital and extracted this bitter revenge. The crowds became mobs, looking for somebody to hang. Some wanted to burn Ford’s to the ground. Others marched toward Old Capitol Prison, where many leaders of the late rebellion were still being held. Rumors passed from mouth to mouth: The Vice- President had been murdered in his rooms at Kirkwood House. The Secretary of State had been stabbed to death in his mansion on Lafayette Square. Confederate troops were advancing on the city. Or Union troops: nobody seemed to know for sure, and a coup d’état had been rumored for years. Outside Ford’s Theatre, a man in the blood-spattered uniform of an army major and a doctor carrying a candle fought their way into the street. A group bearing Lincoln’s unmoving body followed behind. Mrs. Lincoln, face like chalk, clutched her husband’s stiff hand. People leaned in, trying to see or touch. Men groaned. Women wept. A soldier banged on the door of a row house across the way. They carried the President inside and shut the door. People craned to peer in the windows. Minutes later, Secretary of War Stanton, the most feared man in Washington, arrived in an unguarded carriage and raced inside. Other officials followed. Furious soldiers took up positions on the sidewalk but seemed to have no clear orders. They battered members of the crowd for practice. Other men went in. The people who had been closest to the body passed on the story: the President’s head was a mass of blood.
Meanwhile, the hue and cry had been raised. That actor fellow. Wilkes Booth. He had shot the President and leaped to the stage, then escaped on horseback. Somehow the mob was armed now, looking for someone to whom they might do mayhem. Booth would be best, but any Southern sympathizer or paroled Confederate soldier would do, or, in the absence of so obvious a target, any man dressed in gray, or a Catholic, or a darkie. In the confusion, Stanton took command. He ordered the city sealed. Trains were stopped. Guards allowed no one across the bridges. Telegrams were sent to military commanders in Virginia and Maryland, warning them to watch for men on horses fleeing Washington. On the Potomac River, a steamer was prepared as a floating prison should any of the conspirators be apprehended, the better to protect them from the mob: good order required that they be hanged swiftly by soldiers rather than by citizens.
The Union had been struck a hard blow, and wanted revenge.
From Philadelphia to New York to Chicago, newspapers were out with special late editions, their entire front pages devoted to the shooting. Some headlines pronounced the President already dead. Editors who had been Lincoln’s sworn foes eulogized him as the nation’s savior; others, who had openly despised Mrs. Lincoln, assured the nation that they stood beside the First Lady in her impending widowhood. In the war-ravaged South, where few telegraph lines were intact, the news moved more slowly. Lincoln’s longtime bodyguard, Allan Pinkerton, was in New Orleans, and would not learn of the shooting for several days. In the cities of the North, vengeful citizens marched. Church doors were flung open so that people might pray for the President’s recovery. But the prayers, like the mobs, seemed fruitless. Everybody knew that it was too late. Little squares of black crepe began to appear in windows, signaling a nation already mourning.
That was Friday. By Saturday, however, the rumors began to change. Perhaps all was not lost. The doctors had cleaned the wound repeatedly and removed the clotting blood. And a miracle was occurring. The President’s indomitable will was asserting itself. He was breathing strongly on his own, his eyes were fl uttering open, and the damage to his brain appeared less severe than first thought. The telegraph flashed the news across the country: Lincoln lives! True, Vice-President Andrew Johnson was dead, and the Secretary of State so badly wounded that he might not see another day, but Abraham Lincoln, savior of the nation, seemed to be improving.
He had been shot on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, he rose.
By the middle of the week, the President was sitting up, meeting with his staff, once again in charge of the affairs of the nation. Across the country, people cheered. Those who felt otherwise kept their disappointment to themselves, content to bide their time.
November 19, 1866
The night riders were gaining.
Bending low, the black man spurred his tiring horse down the tangled leaf- strewn lane. On either side, fields thick with brightleaf tobacco stretched into the chilly Virginia darkness. Just a few miles ahead loomed the lower slopes of the Shenandoah, with its welcoming forest. If he could only reach the tree belt, he would be safe. A few miles to the north, an entire brigade of Union troops garrisoned the town of Winchester, but with three hooded pursuers only a few hundred yards behind, his chances of reaching either sanctuary were small. He had a pistol in his saddlebag and a knife in his belt, and he knew that if he slowed to draw either, the night riders would have him.
That would be bad.
In a hidden pocket sewn beneath the lining of his right boot was the message. If he was caught and searched, the night riders might find it.
That would be worse.
He rode faster. The autumn drizzle turned to steam on the horse’s burning flanks. He heard a low crackle that might have been distant lightning or a nearby gunshot. He rounded a bend, jumped a fallen tree, nearly spilled on the other side. Very soon his mount would collapse.
Pounding hooves and shouting voices carried across the night air. The riders were close behind. He searched for a turnoff but found none. Had he possessed a sense of irony, he might have considered that not far to the south was Appomattox Court House, where, a year and a half earlier, Lee had surrendered the Army of Virginia, ending the Civil War but setting off the more secretive conflict in which he himself was now playing so carefully scripted a part. But there was no time for such musings. The moon had burst from the clouds, and lighted the path to escape.
Up ahead, the road split into two branches. He took the southmost fork, which led, if he remembered correctly, to a shattered plantation and an old church. His pursuers, he reasoned, would break into two groups to make sure that they did not lose him. He could make his stand in the church, or even the plantation house, if he just got there ahead of them. He was not a great shot, but from hiding he could certainly handle one or two men coming up the road toward—
The sudden hard burning in his leg, followed by the horse’s shriek, told him that bullets were being fired. He heard the fl at clap of the gun as the horse threw him. He hit the frozen earth hard. More shots followed. Just before he passed out, he realized that he had been chased into a trap, forgetting, in his desperation to escape the men behind him, to worry about what might be waiting out front.
HE OPENED HIS eyes, and was aware at once that the burning in his leg was worse. He groaned and tried to shift, only to realize that a boot was pressing into the wound. He was propped against a tree, hands bound behind him. Through the haze of pain, he was able to make out a small group of men, all of them hooded. The man with his foot on the wound was thickset, and wore a blue mask. Beside him was a taller and thinner man, head covered by a burlap sack with eyeholes cut into it.
“He’s awake,” said the man in blue.
“Course he is,” said the man in burlap, “seeing as how you’re pretty much breaking his leg.”
The heavy man stooped. He was sodden with sweat. “Whatcha doin out here, boy? There’s a curfew.”
The black man grimaced, and dropped his eyes. “Sorry, suh.”
“Say that again.”
The man in the blue mask stood up and walked over to the others. The black man laid his head against the tree, glad to be free of the pain. His eyes were glazed, but his hearing was fine.
“I don’t like how he sounds,” said the man in blue, who seemed to be the leader. “He’s faking. He’s not one of ours. He’s one of them Northern niggers.”
“I’ve seen this boy,” said the man in brown burlap. “He’s a Dempsey boy.”
The leader’s face was invisible inside the blue hood, but, even so, his posture seemed to communicate disappointment. He leaned close to the prisoner. “Is that true, boy? Do you work for Mr. Dempsey?”
“Mrs. Dempsey, suh. Yassuh.”
“Mrs. Claire Dempsey up Warrenton way?”
“Suh, I don’t know a Missus Claire. I works for Missus Henrietta, at Heddon Hills.”
The release of tension was general. Heddon Hills was indeed the Dempsey family plantation: fallen on hard times, to be sure, since the Yankees came through, but still in Dempsey hands. The man in burlap put his hand on the leader’s shoulder. “Satisfied?”
“He’s a Dempsey boy, I told you— ”
“Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t,” said the leader. He shook himself free of the other’s grip. “I say he’s educated.”
All five hoods turned his way.
“He’s an educated nigger,” he continued, eyes fairly glowing through the slits. “He’ll ‘Yassuh’ and ‘Nossuh’ till Judgment Day, but behind that black face he’s laughing at us. He’s one of those educated niggers, he’s been to some nigger school somewhere, and now he thinks he’s better than we are.” With a movement of sublime laziness, he tucked the muzzle of his shotgun up against the black man’s chin. “Is that right, boy? You’ve been to some nigger school, haven’t you?”
“Nossuh,” said the prisoner, eyes wide in the smooth brown face.
“You’re a Dempsey boy.”
Immediately the black man felt his bound hands drawn farther behind him. The pain would have doubled him over but for the shotgun pressing into his neck. One of his captors was going through his pockets, and another through his saddlebags. He heard an exclamation and knew they had found his little supply of greenbacks. Another, and he knew they had found the weapons.
“There’s a letter,” somebody said, and handed it to the thin man who had tried to protect him. He tore open the envelope. “It’s from Mrs. Dempsey all right. It says this here is Royal, and he’s been loyal to her since he was a boy. He never ran off with the Yankees. It says he’s carrying a message down to a Mr. Toombs in Snickers Gap.” He gave the paper to the leader. “That’s Mrs. Dempsey’s signature. She does some of her banking with me.”
The leader sneered. “And now this boy knows who you are.”
The gun barrel prodded the black man’s neck. “What’s the message?”
“What message does Mrs. Dempsey have you sending to Mr. Toombs?”
“Suh, Mrs. Dempsey wants to invite her goddaughter to spend the holidays at Heddon Hills.”
“That’s the whole message?”
“Enough,” said the man in burlap. “This ain’t who we’re looking for. Let him go, Bill.”
The leader turned his way. “And now he knows who I am, too.” He lowered the shotgun and, without warning, pulled the trigger. The black man cried out in agony. Wounded now in both thigh and foot, he collapsed against the tree.
Bill crouched beside the prisoner. “Do you think we’re stupid, boy? You think we’re illiterate crackers? I was with Jubal Early for two years. I was a colonel. My friend Jedediah here—since we’re telling names—was a captain. He was with Whiting at Fort Fisher. Now, let me tell you something.” The gun caressed the wounded man’s thigh. “I know who you are. I know what you’re doing. You are a courier for the Yankee secret service.” The black man was shaking his head frantically. “You are a courier, and you are carrying a secret message. Tell us the truth, and tell us where the message is hidden, or I’ll blow your balls off and let you bleed to death, and meanwhile we’ll find the message anyway.” The man called Jedediah tugged at his arm. The others were already inching toward their mounts. “Come on, Bill. Let’s get out of here.”
“Get him up.”
“Get him up. I want him on his horse.”
“Because we’re gonna have us a hanging.”
“He’s a spy, Jedediah. Spies get hanged.”
The man in burlap shook his head. “The war’s over.”
“Not for me.”
THE BODY WAS found two days later by a Union patrol. The night riders had left him in a ditch, after stealing his horse, his weapons, and his money. The soldiers made nothing of it. The night riders were killing colored men all over the South, and there was not much to be done about it. There was no way of investigating, even if anybody had wanted to. Nobody talked to the Yankees.
The soldiers took the corpse up to Winchester and turned it over to the colored Benevolent Association, who would bury the remains somewhere. But before the soldiers surrendered the body, they took the boots, because supplies were still short, and if they didn’t fit you, you could always trade with somebody they did. And the boots were passed a good way down the line before somebody found the false lining, and the wad of paper hidden inside. He thought it was money, but it turned out to be just a list of names. The private told his sergeant, who said the dead man was probably in the black market. The names were his customers.
The sergeant told the private to deliver the paper to the office of the adjutant general, just in case military personnel were involved. The soldier meant to do just that in the morning, but that night he went drinking in town, got into a bar fight, and wound up with his head smashed in. He died the next morning.
The sergeant took his duties seriously. He asked the dead private’s tentmates to go through the man’s things and bring him the letter with the list of names. When they came back an hour later to say they couldn’t find it, the sergeant looked for himself.
The letter was gone.
THEY WERE HANGING white folks in Louisiana and shooting black folks in Richmond. Union troops had invaded Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and every brothel in the South. Confederate troops were holed up in the Smoky Mountains, waiting for the signal to attack. The casket of the First Lady, who had drowned last year while visiting relations in Illinois, had been exhumed, and found empty. Meanwhile, Abe Lincoln, facing an impeachment trial, was sneaking off to see a medium in New York, and Jefferson Davis, onetime leader of the rebellion and supposedly locked up in Fort Monroe, was actually in Philadelphia, sipping champagne with his rich friends. None of this was true, but all of it was in the newspapers.
It was late winter of 1867, nearly two years after the end of the war, and reporters were inventing rumors almost faster than their editors could print them. The nation, everyone agreed, was a mess. If only it had been old Abe who was shot dead that night instead of Andy Johnson, his Vice-President. If Johnson were President now—so moaned the editorial writers—the nation would be in considerably better shape.
All of which helped explain why Abigail Canner had finally given up on reading the papers. She was smarter than any five reporters put together, and perfectly capable of making up her own stories. But she didn’t want to be a reporter: she had a brother and a distant cousin in that business already. She wanted to be a lawyer. This was impossible, she was told, given her color and her sex. But she was determined to try, unaware of how her ambition would carry her to the center of great events.
The romance, like the violence, came later.
On the first Monday in February, in the Year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred sixty-seven—or, in the larger history, one month exactly before the trial of the sixteenth President of the United States was to begin—Abigail set out upon her journey. Ignoring her mad brother’s derisive insistence that nothing good would come of the effort, she rode the horse-drawn streetcars through the filthy snow to prove to the world that she was indeed the woman she claimed. She had her college degree and her letter of employment and the stony conviction, learned from her late mother, that, whatever limitations the society might place on ordinary negroes, they would never apply to her.
Abigail boarded the Seventh Street line, which passed near her home, then changed at Pennsylvania Avenue, choosing the second row to avoid a squabble with the white citizens of Washington City, who seemed to consider the rear of the car their own private preserve, but also to avoid the ignominy that came of riding up front with the driver, where nowadays most men and women of her race tucked themselves without a second thought: a discrimination until recently enshrined in city law. The war was over, the slaves were free, and the government of the United States guaranteed the rights of the colored race, but here in the nation’s triumphant capital, in the midst of the most frigid winter in years, everybody was at pains to establish who was who.
Abigail was a tall young woman, unfashionably slender, with smooth mahogany skin that bespoke more than one dallying slavemaster in her ancestral tree. The hooded coat she wore against the cold was a product of the finest dressmaker in Boston, a gift from her uncle, a physician. The trim was silver fur. The face that peered out suggested a woman who pondered a great deal over the issues of the day, and very deeply, but frowned on most forms of fun. Her gray eyes were sharp and probing; her dimpled chin seemed confident and disapproving. Men tended to find her reasonably pretty, even if not so vivacious as her older sister, Judith, or so innocently beautiful as her younger sister, Louisa. They also tended to find her too distant, too judgmental, too intelligent altogether, for Abigail would always rather read another book than have another dance. Nanny Pork, who ran the Canner household, preached the evils of dancing and carousing and most forms of enjoyment, and although Abigail was not precisely the sort to do what she was told, she regarded Nanny with the sort of awe usually reserved for less visible agents of divinity.
Abigail was twenty-one years old, and parentless, and black, and expecting, somehow, to affect the course of history.
Maybe even starting today.
The streetcar pulled up at the carriage block on the corner of Fourteenth Street, near the Willard Hotel, where negroes were not welcome except in service. Abigail stepped carefully down onto the broken stone. Neither the driver nor any of the gentlemen passing on the street made any effort to assist her, but, she had not expected them to. The newsboy was the only one who paid her any attention, shouting that Senator Wade was predicting that at least forty of the fifty-four members of the Senate would vote to remove the President from office, and forty, she knew, was more than enough. The boy thrust a newspaper at her with one hand and held out the other for a coin. Abigail ignored him. She stood in the swirling snow and checked the address she had written in her commonplace book. Actually, she had the address marked down firmly in her memory, but her late mother had always taught her to make assurance double sure. Abigail folded the book into her handbag and walked north. The tiny flakes were like pinpricks on her bright cheeks. She took care not to slip on the ice, but a wall of wind still almost knocked her from the cobbled sidewalk into the frozen mud of Fourteenth Street. As she regained her footing, two white women, heading the other way, began a very loud conversation about how, since the war, half the negroes in town seemed to be drunk from breakfast on.
Abigail ignored them, too.
She found the address at the corner of G Street. A policeman patrolled out front, resplendent and shivering in blue serge and brass buttons. The policeman was an unexpected obstacle, but Abigail chose to deal with him the way her late mother had taught her to deal with most barriers. She walked straight past him, head held high.
He scarcely gave her a glance.
The narrow lobby was dark after the glare of the snow. She took the creaking stairs to the second floor, where the bronze plaque read dennard & mcshane, and knocked on the door. Waiting, she was surprised to find herself nervous. She hated uneasiness as she hated most signs of human weakness, most of all in herself. Fear is a test, her late mother used to say. Fear is how God challenges us.
Accepting the challenge, she knocked again.
The door swung open, and there stood a gangly young man in high-collared shirt and black necktie. He was missing the jacket that doubtless completed his working attire. Straw-colored hair was pressed back in fashionable waves against a long, slim head. Even standing still, he displayed an economy of movement that implied a life lived without challenges. He was white, of course, and about her age, and Abigail could tell at once that he was ill at ease around women. Nevertheless, he found an awkward smile somewhere, and glanced, she noted, at her hands. Perhaps he thought she was carrying a delivery.
“May I help you?” the young man said.
“My name is Abigail Canner,” she said. “I have an appointment.” The man said nothing, so she tried again. “About the job.”
“Job?” he repeated doubtfully, as if she were speaking Greek. In his shy earnestness, he gave the impression of a man trying desperately to live up to something terribly difficult.
“The job as a law clerk.” She tilted her head toward the plaque. “For Dennard & McShane.”
“Ah.” Nodding firmly, more sure of his ground. “That would be Mr. Dennard. His clerk left. I’m Hilliman. I’m Mr. McShane’s clerk. The partners are out just now, but if you would leave your employer’s card, one of the messengers will be round to set up an appointment.” When she said nothing, his smile began to fade. He gestured, vaguely. Peering past him, Abigail saw a long, narrow room dominated by a heavy wooden table heaped with papers and books. Shelves lined every wall, and the heavy volumes looked well used. In one corner, numbers were scribbled on a blackboard. In another, an elderly colored man tended a weak coal fire. “I’m afraid we are rather busy right now—”
“I imagine you are, Mr. Hilliman. Preparing for the impeachment trial.”
“Well, yes.” He looked at her with new respect, or at least growing curiosity, perhaps because she did not speak in the manner of the colored people to whom he was accustomed. Abigail Canner had provoked this reaction in others. She worked at it. “That’s right. The trial. I’m sorry,” he added, although, as yet, he had done nothing to apolo- gize for.
“I find it most intriguing,” said Abigail, “that the Congress would attempt such a thing.”
“Yes, well, if you would just—”
“The committee has proposed four counts of impeachment, has it not? Half relating to the conduct of the war, and half relating to events since the war ended.”
“How do you know that?” His tone suggested that she could not possibly have read a newspaper. He caught her expression, and realized his error. “I mean—well, that is very impressive.”
“I try to be prepared,” she said, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. She had faced silly boys like this at college, too, unable to believe the evidence of their eyes and ears. No colored girl could possibly be their equal. “Do you know yet whether the House will adopt all four counts?”
“There has been no vote as yet—”
“They will vote in two weeks.” A prim smile. “I am here,” she said, “to help.”
“To help what?”
“Help you, Mr. Hilliman. With the impeachment trial.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“I am the new law clerk.” She drew the letter confirming her employment from her commonplace book. “Mr. Dennard hired me.”
There are in life moments that are irretrievable, and one opportunity fate never grants twice is making a first impression. Jonathan Hilliman, confronted with the least likely of all the possible explanations for this peculiar woman’s presence at Dennard & McShane, spoke out of utter confusion, and therefore from the heart:
“That is not possible,” he said, jaw agape.
Abigail’s eyes went very wide. They were wide enough already, gray and flecked and watchful, eyes that neither overlooked nor forgot. But, as Jonathan would come to learn, when Abigail was angry, those eyes could grow wide enough to swallow a room. Now, as he fumbled for the words to repair his mistake, Abigail, unbidden, stepped past him into the foyer. A long sooty window dominated one wall. Four inner doors were closed, two presumably leading to the partners’ offices. The old colored man got to his feet, bowed, touched his cap.
“My name is Little,” he said, with an affecting grin. He was nearly toothless. “I’se been with the Dennards going on sixty years now.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Little,” she said, extending a hand.
He hesitated, then shook. “Just Little, miss.”
“My name is Little, miss. Just Little.”
“Excuse me,” said Mr. Hilliman, having recovered his composure. “Perhaps I could see that letter.”
The black woman smiled blandly, the way Jonathan’s mother smiled at the servants when about to berate them. “Of course, Mr. Hilliman.”
He took the page in his hands and read it slowly, then again, mouthing the words as if reading were new to him. At last he raised his eyes. “You are the new clerk.”
“I believe I told you that.”
“You are Miss Abigail Canner.”
“I’m sorry.” He glanced around the messy room. It was obvious to them both what he wanted to say and could not. Instead, he retreated into a show of confusion. “I understood that Mr. Dennard was planning to hire a new clerk. I had no idea that he had—I mean, that he—that you were—um, that you were coming today.”
“I understand, Mr. Hilliman,” said Abigail, standing there with bag in hand. There were, as yet, fewer than a dozen lawyers of African descent practicing in American courts. There were no women of any color. The Supreme Court had admitted the first colored attorney to its bar only a year and a half ago, and he had promptly gone into a wasting decline, from which he was not expected to recover. The wags said the Court’s members knew of his illness in advance, and wanted the credit for having admitted him without ever having to allow him to argue before them. “But I assume that there is plenty of work to do.”
The door burst open, and in swept Arthur McShane, Jonathan’s boss, accompanied by a tough-looking man Jonathan did not recognize.
“We’re thirteen votes down,” McShane growled, unwrapping himself. He was a diminutive man, small and trim and almost boyish except for the weathered face, all hollows and valleys. He handed his scarf to Little. “Thirteen votes. I don’t believe it. If the vote were held today, it would be fourteen for acquittal, twenty-seven for conviction. The rest are undecided so far—”
“That’s still short of two-thirds,” soothed the stranger. He was paunchy and confident, and sported a magnificent black beard. He had just laid his coat across Little’s waiting arms. “They need two-thirds.”
McShane ignored him. “One bit of good news”—eyeing Abigail suddenly, obviously not sure who she might be, but, after a moment’s hesitation, plunging on—“good news, that is, for our side. They won’t vote on admitting Nebraska to the Union until after the trial. You remember what happened with Nevada last year. The price of statehood was sending two anti-Lincoln men to the Senate, bound to vote for conviction. Well, that bit of skulduggery embarrassed the Radicals, so they’ve agreed not to admit Nebraska just yet. This is Mr. Baker.”
“Jonathan Hilliman.” He thrust out a hand, which Baker seemed to examine for traps before grabbing. The stranger’s shake was perfunctory, an unappealing duty to be gotten over with. “And this”— Jonathan hesitated; names had never been his forte. “This is, um, Mr. Dennard’s new clerk— ”
“Abigail Canner,” she said, lifting a white- gloved hand. Baker barely bowed his head, but McShane took her fingers as he would do for any lady, and lightly kissed her knuckles.
“Welcome, Miss Canner,” said the lawyer. He smiled. He was shorter than Abigail, and so was smiling up at her. He said, innocently, what Jonathan had been afraid of saying awkwardly. “Dennard did tell me that he had hired a woman. He made no mention of your race. He says that Dr. Charles Finney wrote him on your behalf. Dr. Finney still running things at Oberlin, is he?”
“He is on in years, sir, but in spirit he is strong.”
“I believe Dennard and Finney knew each other in the old days, at the Broadway Tabernacle. Well, never mind. Little, clear a space at the table. Jonathan, I’m afraid there is a bit of a crisis. You will come with me to see the President.”
Abigail said, “What should I— ”
McShane continued to smile. “You should wait here until Mr. Dennard returns.” Jonathan had stepped to the blackboard and was using a cloth to wipe off the numbers inscribed there. He wrote: 14– 27– 11. Abigail realized that he was recording the likely votes in the Senate for acquittal and conviction and those undecided. Now, hearing his employer’s comment, Jonathan turned and was about to speak, but the lawyer silenced him with a look. “Wait. Let me see your
She handed it over. The lawyer took it in at a glance. “This says you are a clerk. Not a law clerk.”
“Is there a difference, Mr. McShane?”
His face remained gentle but his voice hardened. “You have never met Dennard, have you?”
“No, sir. Our interview was entirely via correspondence.”
“Did you inform him that you are colored?”
Abigail began to feel as if she had somehow wandered in the wrong door. The way Finney had explained things, it all seemed so simple. “The issue never arose.”
“I suspected as much.” McShane nodded, evidently in confirmation of a private theory. “A law clerk,” he explained, “is a young man who works in an attorney’s offi ce while studying the law, in the hope of being called to the bar. A clerk, on the other hand— not a law clerk, just a plain clerk— is a sort of an assistant. A secretary. To take notes, as it were. Do filing. Make deliveries. Copy out documents. Answer correspondence.” He could not possibly miss the mortification on her face. Yet his smile actually broadened. “You should be proud of yourself, Miss Canner. I do not believe that there are five female clerks in the entire city working for lawyers. And none of them are colored.”
“But it is 1867!”
“Perhaps in 1967 things will be different. What I have told you is the way things are now.”
“Mr. McShane,” she managed, surprised to find herself fighting tears, “I— I want to read law.”
The lawyer was crisp. “That is not the purpose for which you were hired.”
“Yes, but— but surely we could arrange— ”
“You are of course free to discuss the matter with Mr. Dennard when he returns. You seem a fairly intelligent young woman. I am sure you know how to bargain. Perhaps you and Dennard can reach some arrangement.”
The lasciviousness in his voice was impossible to miss; and impossible to prove.
Abigail swallowed. Her brother always said that even the most liberal of white folks gave only when the giving benefitted them. She had lived her young life in the teeth of that dictum, but now, in this room thick with coal smoke, she stood face- to- face with the evidence of its truth. “When will Mr. Dennard be returning?”
“A week from now,” said McShane, with satisfaction. Baker looked on in amusement. “He is in California. Until that time, you will work for me. You may start by helping Little with his chores.” Nodding toward the old man. “Is that clear?”
“But, sir! I am a graduate of Oberlin!”
“I have told you the way things are. If you wish to work for the firm of Dennard & McShane, you will be a clerk and a copyist. You will not train as a lawyer.”
Abigail calculated fast. “Perhaps I can do both— ”
“We will keep you busy, I assure you.”
“I am willing to work as late as necessary.”
McShane was exasperated. “Fine. You want to read law? There are books everywhere.” His hand swept the room.
“Read as many as you like, as long as you do your chores. You can start with Blackstone. Over there— the brown one, see? Commentaries on the Laws of England. Four volumes. Start at page one of volume one, and read all four. When you are through, we can discuss your further ambitions.”
Jonathan had found his voice. “Sir, that is nearly three thousand pages.”
“So what? The young lady is a graduate of Oberlin. Presumably, she can read. Little, show her where to sit.”
Abigail made one fi nal try, even though her voice wavered in a way that she hated. “Sir, if I am to work as a— a secretary— well, then, perhaps I should come to the White House with you. To—to take notes.”
McShane was aghast. “Under no circumstances. You are Dennard’s clerk, not mine. You will not be working on the impeachment at all.” He nodded toward her hand, where she still clutched her commonplace book. “I see you have a diary. So have I. So has Mr. Hilliman. Every lawyer keeps one. But I doubt you shall be needing yours. Little, I told you to show her where to sit. Hilliman, come.”
“What about Mr. Baker?” the young man asked.
“He can talk to Miss Canner.”
They were out the door.
As they descended the stair, McShane shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. “The man is unbelievable. Hiring that woman without telling me. I am going to strangle him.”
Jonathan said nothing, and was annoyed with himself for this failure; but a part of him was also amused, because Dennard, although on in years, was a heavy, powerful man, and McShane’s tiny hands could not possibly have reached around his neck.
They exited onto Fourteenth Street, and the lawyer let out a purr of pleasure at the sight of his waiting horses. McShane could have had a driver but preferred to hold the reins of his own carriage, a very beautiful rig of dark polished wood with gleaming brass highlights. They climbed up for the short ride to the Executive Mansion, and a porter borrowed from the Willard handed the lawyer the reins.
Jonathan said, suddenly, “Why did we leave Mr. Baker behind?”
McShane called to the horses and gently rippled the reins. They moved off. “In case she is a spy,” he said.
“I beg your pardon.”
“The letter from Dennard might be a forgery. A colored woman. We would never suspect her. Mr. Lincoln’s opponents will stop at nothing.”
Jonathan could not quite get his mind around such nonsense. The pending impeachment trial, as he had recently written to his fiancée, Meg, seemed to have driven every man in Washington City mad.
And McShane was not done. “We have received information that a partial record of our deliberations— our strategy, if you will, for the trial— has made its way into unfriendly hands.”
Jonathan forgot all about Meg. “Do you mean— you mean the Radicals?”
“Exactly. The Radical Republicans, and some of their associates, seem to have obtained notes of some of our confidential discussions.”
The hollowed eyes were grave. “That is why Mr. Baker is here.”
“And exactly how will Mr. Baker know whether Miss Canner is a spy?”
“You didn’t recognize him, did you, Hilliman? That was Lafayette Baker, formerly General Lafayette Baker. The chief of the Union Intelligence Services and the federal police. The man who caught Booth, and saw to it that he did not survive for trial.” A curt nod. “He’ll get the truth out of her.”
Excerpted from The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter. Copyright © 2012 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is also the author of five novels and seven books of nonfiction.
Praise for Stephen L. Carter's The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln:
“Carter is a masterly novelist. . . . Carter makes the setting seem true, creating as real an immediate postwar Washington as Gore Vidal’s wartime Washington in Lincoln. He has also created an interesting Zelig-like character in the free young black woman Abigail Canner.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“An entertaining story rooted in the legal, political and racial conflicts of 19th-century America.”
—The Washington Post
“A novel that is as epic and full of turns as the Civil War itself. . . . Carter writes with a gentle elegance of the trauma in the streets and parlors of Washington as Americans grapple with the lingering tragedy of the war, the assassination attempt, and the impeachment. . . . There are really two interesting and parallel stories here: One is a meticulously laid-out courtroom drama. . . . The other is a Grisham-style caper involving the improbable ascension of a gung-ho, young middle-class black woman named Abigail Canner. . . . Carter’s cool style gives the novel a breezy accessibility.”
—The Seattle Times
“There’s a lot going on in this big, smart book. . . . What makes the novel so vastly entertaining is the author’s sharp skewering of politicians, lawyers, and the monied social class that runs Washington. . . . Carter raises important questions about governing during wartime and in peace, and he interrogates the motivations behind impeachment in general. Lofty legal arguments coincide with a grittier plot involving murder, the demimonde, and a mysterious list of possible anti-Lincoln conspirators. Romantic complications abound.”
—The Boston Globe
“Entertaining. . . . [A] rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War. . . . Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious. He’s a fantastic legal dramatist, and there’s the constant pleasure of seeing his creation of Washington City in 1867, alive with sounds and smells. . . . History buffs can test their mettle by trying to unwind Carter’s entangling of fact and fiction.”
—The Washington Post
“[T]he best legal thriller so far this year. . . . I’ve liked Carter’s four previous forays into fiction. This one, I loved.”
—Patrik Henry Bass, Essence Magazine
“A vivid portrait. . . . The best thing about sitting down with this rich, often thrilling novel is watching its alternative history unfold.”
“Fascinating . . . impressively imagined . . . A time in American history when lofty principles and petty concerns battled for pride of place in the national consciousness. . . . The novel excels at drawing a vivid picture of Washington City (as it was then known), halfway between its origins as fetid swampland and the bureaucratic metropolis of today. . . . As a character, Abigail Canner is perfectly positioned to provide the reader with access to every social strata. . . . She is a proud, resourceful, intelligent heroine.”
“Carter’s tale comes to a conclusion as thrilling and untidy as the actual events that unfolded during the turbulent postwar years.”
“A delightful novel. . . . Carter, [by] making Abigail Canner the protagonist through whose eyes one sees much of the story, shows us life in the nation’s capital, the epicenter of the victorious North, as lived by its black population. That perspective is rich, rare, and almost certainly well-researched. . . . The book kept me up late, reading as fast as I can.”
“Carter writes a likely and intriguing scenario. . . . His use of rich, authentic dialogue and graphic descriptions of Washington City give authority to his work.”
“A crackling good read. . . . Carter gives us a gripping portrait of Lincoln. . . . Best of all is the light Carter shines on a slice of Washington life that remains obscure to many Americans to this day: the black middle class of the mid-19th century, represented here in the trim and perspicacious person of the book’s surprising sleuth, Abigail Canner . . . a black Nancy Drew with the weight of history on her shoulders.”
“A rich blend of murder mystery, legal thriller, courtroom drama, and period piece featuring some of the historical figures of the time. What elevates Impeachment above most alternative history is how Carter charts the cross currents of race, class, and society in the raucous capital.”
—The Miami Herald
“Carter lays out a fascinating What-If plot.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Superb. . . . [Carter] teases out the implications of his scenario with a deep knowledge of Lincoln’s time. He tells a page-turning tale of historical espionage. . . . I’m reminded why I read fiction in the first place, and why a new book by Stephen Carter is always to be celebrated.”
—John Wilson, Books & Culture
“Freed Black men, gangs of evil White men, and crafty politicians come alive in this work. Fluidly written, the pages fly by, leaving you with a feeling that this really could have happened.”
“An engaging historical what-if . . . Provides an intriguing look at race and politics in 19th-century America with relevancies that still echo today.”
—Valdosta Daily Times (Georgia)
“Abigail is a wonderful creation. . . . Carter writes in the naturalistic school of Theodore Dreiser. His strength lies in capturing the subtle nuances of social interaction between blacks and whites.”
“A smart and engaging what-if that has the virtue of being plausible. . . . Abigail makes for a grandly entertaining sleuth.”
“This novel has all the juicy stew of post–Civil War Washington, with the complexities of race, class, and sex mixed in. Carter draws on historical documents and a vivid imagination to render a fascinating mix of murder mystery, political thriller, and courtroom drama. . . . Imaginatively conceived.”
—Booklist (starred review)
1. Abigail “learned from her late mother, that, whatever limitations society might place on ordinary negroes, they would never apply to her” [p. 14]. Is she arrogant? Naïve? What is the significance of her making a distinction between herself and “ordinary negroes”? Does her frustration with the presumption “that if you were black you must have been a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation; or, if you had been born free, then your parents surely scrubbed kitchens or waited tables” [p. 35] explain her attitude? In addition to her mother’s lesson, what inspires her determination to challenge society’s customs and rules?
2. How would you characterize the relationships between Abigail and the men she works with? How do her race and gender affect the way she is treated by Jonathan Hilliman, Dan Sickles, and Rufus Dennard? What part do their personal histories and biases play? What light does this shed on the racial and sexual mores of the period? Are there parallels to the interactions between men and women and among various racial groups in the workplace today?
3. Abigail said that “whatever wrongs Mr. Lincoln may or may not have committed, he has also committed the two greatest and most important acts any President has done, or is likely to do. He won the war to restore the Union. In the process, he forced an end to slavery” [p. 117]. Using this quotation as a starting point, discuss the variety of opinions presented in the novel about Lincoln and the actions he took during and after the war, including the views expressed by Dinah Berryhill [pp. 36–37]; Abigail’s brother, Michael [pp. 30, 88]; Police Inspector Varak [p. 60]; General Felix [pp. 79–81]; August Belmont [p. 184]; and other secondary characters. What insights do they offer into the roles of wealth, class, and race, as well as personal morality, interests, and fears, in the shaping of political opinion?
4. The meeting between Judith and Abigail [pp. 143–45] and Judith’s subsequent revelations [pp. 223–26] provide invaluable keys to the puzzle Abigail is trying to solve. What does Judith’s situation reveal about the African American community, and particularly about African American women, during the period? In what ways do her actions represent the hidden or neglected contributions of African Americans to American history? What aspects of Judith’s life serve as an example and inspiration to Abigail?
5. “Rejection, exclusion, condescension—these were the price the nation daily exacted from the colored race, like a special tax on darkness” [p. 148]. How does Abigail deal with the prejudices she encounters? In what circumstances does she demonstrate courage? When does she seem most vulnerable? Do you think her behavior is ever rash or unreasonable?
6. How do their ambitions, expectations, and current situations (Jonathan’s engagement to Meg and Abigail’s to Aaron) influence Abigail and Jonathan’s relationship? When does each of them become aware of the romantic attraction that exists between them? Who is more willing to accept and explore the possibility of a more personal commitment, and why? To what extent do their interactions reflect the larger story of the relations between blacks and whites during this period of history?
7. At the impeachment hearing, Abigail finds herself sitting with Jonathan’s fiancée, Meg Felix, who “was broad and tough and deliberate. Every movement of her soft body exuded a winning confidence: you knew at first glance that she would accomplish whatever she set her mind to” [p. 65], and Kate Sprague, Salmon P. Chase’s daughter, “married to the wealthiest man in the Senate,” and “said to be puzzling constantly over how to manipulate her ambitious father into the White House” [p. 256]. In addition to their prominent fathers, what accounts for the power and prestige they enjoy? To what extent do they, along with Abigail herself, embody qualities you associate with feminism?
8. Refer to the scenes in which Lincoln appears [pp. 41–45; 90–93; 157–62; 206–10; 229–33; 240]. What particular qualities in Lincoln do these vignettes focus on? In what ways do they humanize him? Do they support the image of Lincoln as a great visionary and humanitarian, a pragmatic politician intent on saving the nation—or as a manipulative, perhaps ruthless, wartime leader?
9. How do the events of the novel and the secrets Abigail uncovered affect her? What do you imagine will happen to her? Will she realize her ambition of becoming a lawyer? Will she and Jonathan meet again?
10. In what ways does The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln conform to the conventions of a political thriller? What does it share with traditional historical novels? Are the events and characters Carter creates plausible and well integrated into the historical framework of the novel?
11. Carter brings history to life through such real-life characters as Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War; Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Dan Sickles, the colorful, controversial former Union general; Charles Sumner, Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and other congressional leaders; and the notorious flirt Bessie Hale. Does the inclusion of actual historical figures add to your engagement with the story? Is it helpful to have previous knowledge about these people to get the most out of the book?
12. A major theme of the novel is a tangled web of motives and maneuverings stirring in postwar Washington, from questions of power and loyalty within Lincoln’s inner circle to the conflicts between Democrats and Republicans and the divergent viewpoints within the Republican Party, to the clashes between the executive and legislative branches of government. Discuss how such matters as presidential authority, partisan politics, and personal ambitions propel the narrative. Do you see similarities to the political situation in America today?
13. Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in countless biographies, novels, movies, and plays. Discuss the different depictions of Lincoln you have encountered and how they compare with Carter’s version.
14. Historical novels often help clarify the issues that shape our beliefs about the past. What aspects of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln best illustrate your understanding of the political ideologies and social realities of post–Civil War America? Does the novel change your views about the North and the South after the Civil War?
15. Does the desire to make history relevant to today’s readers color the way a writer perceives and portrays events and people in the past? To what extent do you think Carter is influenced by twenty-first-century sensibilities and by his personal experience as an eminent African American lawyer and professor?