Sic Semper Tyrannis
"Captain, this is the man. The very man. I saw him with mine own eyes. I saw him. This is him."
The corporal quavered, near falsetto, gesturing with shaken manliness toward the prisoner strapped to the oak tree. The boy told and re-told of the violence without pause, describing for the captain how the man had leapt to the stage from the theater box afterward, how with fist raised he had proclaimed something in a foreign tongue. Immobilized, the audience sat, he said, hushed, breathless. None comprehended yet the crime, its purport. But an ominous stir swept across the crowd, a momentous pause.
"This is the man. This is the man," the corporal kept saying. "He jumped from the box. He cried something in Latin. 'Twas Latin, captain. He shook his fist. He was smartin' from the jump. I looked up and saw the president slumped forward, and people hovering on him. Mrs. Lincoln was being helt away."
The captain recognized the corporal was in shock. He had observed this breakdown in other young soldiers after a first skirmish, or following an early engagement with few casualties. They would talk and talk so, maniacally seeking to exorcise both what had occurred and what had not occurred. He sturdied them usually with a mundane query about some concrete fact, or assigned them to some trivial detail of rote physical motion; but tonight he let this corporal stammer on. How old was the boy? Sixteen? Barrel-chested, he loomed, tall, a hill country sort and fairly well-bred. His eyes gleamed in the firelight.
"I could hardly reckon, sir. He cried something in Latin. He was smartin'. I moved then to pursue. But the orchestra was all up and in a fuss and obstructing. Someone ran onto the stage and shouldered him off. They both stumbled into the wings. I thought then of the side exit. I followed and saw three of them fleeing into the darkness on horseback. I mounted and chased at a gallop. The other two abandoned him, finally. 'Twas unbelievable, captain. One moment everything was normal. I was watching the play. I was half-thinking about being reunited with Miss Lurlene. Then a shot. The actors stopped. He jumped from the box to the stage. He shouted something in Latin. 'Twas unbelievable, captain. 'Twas like it happened not at all."
The captain scrutinized the man bound to the oak tree throughout the corporal's frenzied relation. The prisoner stared back at him, as wild-eyed and fevered as the corporal. But self-assurance, too, the prisoner exuded, and presumption, even triumph. The captain appraised the man's unafraid expression. Intuitively he weighed its significance. Then, a reflex later, the captain fully realized the precariousness of his position as commander of this scene.
Second lieutenant Grimes stood suddenly close. The captain found himself opening an unsealed document. The captain heard then, from the drawled and tense voice of Grimes,
"Lincoln is dead, captain. This directive just arrived from the Federals. It orders immediate detention of any man resembling this description and instructs that we inform them without delay if said man is detained. We are to take careful accountings of all statements that might illuminate the killing." And the lieutenant whispered then, meaningfully, "There is no word from regiment, sir. They certainly know of this. Yet they have ordered nothing."
The captain reviewed the document. The broken seal, he noted.
He looked on the prisoner.
He glanced to the corporal.
"This is him, captain. This is him. I saw him with mine own eyes."
He looked on the prisoner. He demanded,
"What is your name?"
"Did you shoot Abraham Lincoln?"
"See? See, captain? Like I said. And then he jumped onto the stage and said something in another language. 'Twas Latin, I warrant. This is him."
The captain nodded. Still the prisoner stood before him unbowed. Even identified and accused, he stood unbowed. And proudly he had confessed to the murder, boldly. Why was this? Was it the hue of the captain's uniform? Was it the corporal's accent, or his own? Did this man assume himself abetted by all southerners? The captain hated Lincoln, yes. All of them hated Lincoln. But the war had ended. This company no longer even existed officially. And in just days, with arms surrendered, it would disband in fact. Already soldiers disappeared almost hourly. None gave notice of departure, or begged leave to go. None inquired after the missing, or questioned why they had gone. Troops just vanished. And he had received direct orders from Colonel Beale to observe civilian law. Did this Booth think the captain straitened past dignity, beaten beyond honor? Is that why he stood so haughty and sure?
"What should I do with you," the captain frowned at Booth.
"Set me free."
"Because I assassinated the greatest oppressor of our age, the tyrant who stole power and set about to take away our way of life. You know and I know that I did a great deed tonight. A heroic deed. If things had gone better others, too, would be following that villain to hell right now and you would be wearing that uniform with a different purpose by this time next week."
"The war is over."
"But still we live. Still we can struggle. The struggle does not have to end. The Cause is not yet lost."
The captain fingered again the document's broken seal. Again he looked on the prisoner. Lieutenant Grimes shifted uneasily nearby. The corporal blurted at Booth: "What did you say? What did you say on the stage? What were the words?"
Booth hissed viciously, "Sic semper tyrannis."
"Yes! Yes!" the corporal exulted. "Sic semper tyrannis! Those are the words, captain. Captain, he jumped from the box to the stage and said 'Sic semper tyrannis.' I'll be bound! He was holding up his fist when he said it!"
The captain blinked at the familiar phrase. Every Virginian knew that phrase. Every southerner knew that phrase. A chantey they made of it marching to Seven Pines. A ballad it became in camp at Malvern Hill. Later it erupted spontaneously, as war cry, at Chester Station and Sayler's Creek. Only the agitation and youth of this boy fogged his immediate recognition of that protest against tyranny.
The captain measured the glowing corporal. The boy now lavished the prisoner with gog-eyed admiration. The boy had not yet judged. He had not yet considered what should come next.
Booth stated, "You will free me, Captain. As a Virginian and a southerner you know what I have done is right."
"'Twas powerful, captain," beamed the corporal. "Thrilling. He raised his hand and said 'Sic semper tyrannis.' 'Twas thrilling, overwhelming."
"Sic semper tyrannis," Booth repeated with passion. "It is our justification. It is our new avowal of victory. All we need is these three words. These three words and a commitment to give them life. You will set me free, captain. It is your duty as a southerner to set me free; to wear again that uniform uprightly; to betray the Union; to live for what you have been taught to live, for what you were raised to defend. It is your duty to believe in these words and to bring them to life in this very moment. You will set me free, captain, because I am your past and for you to live you have to protect me. For you to live I have to live. For you to continue to exist I have to be free and we have to fight together for all we've lost, to re-conquer it."
Booth's words pried at the captain. They churned in him opposing uncertainties. The captain had realized in the final days of the war how mechanically he had participated in it, how blindly. He had never truly believed in The Cause. He had never fought for its ideas. Only with his training, had he fought, with his rearing, with mores burned into him by others, and with his fears and his patriotism and his pocketbook and, yes, with his sense of duty.
"You belong to the South, captain. You are the South," belabored Booth.
Now, with the few towns the captain cared about most savaged beyond recuperation; with everything he cherished gone, every loved one, every possession, the captain's stunned eyes peered into a featureless future. What next? Inventing a next step had stymied him. Formless tomorrows, he beheld, unforeseeable change. How could he conjure himself anew from such swirling vagueness?
"You must set me free. You must."
Then, today, finally the captain's disorientation had steadied itself between that ambivalence of his immediate past and that shapelessness of the coming months. A simple idea: Escape. Fresh beginning. A completely new life. Perhaps out West. The idea quickened in the captain. Mute relief he felt at once, and a thin flutter of freedom. But then entered Booth with this blood on his soul, with these sermons in his mouth.
"How can you delay?" scolded Booth. "You know time works against me. Look at these men. Each sees me as a hero, knows I am such. Each knows I've done right. You owe it to them, to the South, to let me go. It is your duty by birth to unfasten these bonds and send me away."
The captain gauged again the corporal. The boy sensed finally the situation's ambiguity. The captain turned directly then to Grimes. But the lieutenant gazed downward, fixedly, jaw clenched. Grimes would set Booth at large, the captain gathered. And he knew the corporal would do likewise. The captain heard behind him men reveling in the rumor of Lincoln's bloody end. No surprise. These who remained believed in The Cause zealously. The war for these had been religious, its every act of bloodletting sanctioned by God. Their morbid satisfaction weighed mightily upon the captain's mind; and their predictable opinions of how he should climax this rencounter.
"It is your duty, Captain."
The Captain said finally, "Lieutenant."
Grimes answered warily, "Yes, sir."
"Muster nine men with arms."
But the lieutenant hesitated. Pregnantly the lieutenant paused, palpably, until, "Yes, sir," he replied. Grimes moved toward a cluster of stilled men.
The corporal said to Booth, "The statement was brilliant, Mr. Booth. The pronouncement on the stage was unmatched in history, sir. 'Twas inspiring. I know not why I pursued you. I repent bringing you here. I knew not else to do."
Booth did not respond. He glared at the captain, still defiant.
"Corporal," the captain ordered.
The boy mumbled remorsefully, "Yes, sir."
"Load your rifle."
And as the corporal flinched, Booth barked, "It is your duty to your country to preserve my life, captain. It is your duty to Virginia to preserve my life. To your forefathers, to your successors. It is your duty..."
The captain watched Booth rave. He hankered suddenly to gag the man, to stuff his mustachioed mouth. But he restrained himself. Booth articulated clearly here his company's reluctance to acknowledge defeat. Booth represented fully here his men's stubborn hope for some phantom reversal. Booth stood thus the ideal vehicle through which they all might find acceptance. The captain could not lawfully execute Booth, he believed, but he could put the man before a firing squad anyway. He could break this man of his preachy illusions without shooting him. Booth would swallow for them now their loss. Booth would yield right here. He would resign himself to the ignominy they all must face if they were to go on. The charade would not insult his men. The company knew art sometimes governed the captain as much as intent; and that his aim often remained concealed until accomplished. They knew the captain had not yet passed sentence on Booth.
Booth declaimed, "Fellow southerners, it is your duty to the South to disobey the captain. It is your duty to mutiny, to set upon him and set me free. I am in the act of preserving all that has made you what you are; all that you have fought to defend; everything that you respect and love. It is your duty. It is your duty. It is your duty."
The captain commanded, "Mark off ten paces, corporal."
The lieutenant approached then with the nine soldiers. With authority, with decisiveness the captain turned to them. He indicated the corporal who stood behind him now and to the right. "Fall in," he ordered. Narrowly the nine men glanced at one another. They eyed Lieutenant Grimes sidelong. Then, slowly, they obeyed.
Booth continued, "Soldiers it is your duty to preserve my life. It is your duty to set me free. Just hours ago I killed the tyrant that invaded the South. The tyrant that has taken from you your way of life. I represent everything you have been taught, everything you believe. I represent all that makes you what you are. It is your duty to all that you know to preserve my life." Alarm crept now into Booth's voice. "Captain..." Doubt, Booth betrayed.
The captain ignored him.
"Men," the captain said. "Before you stands the confessed assassin of the legitimate leader of this land."
The captain waited.
"Captain..." hoarsened Booth.
"Ready your rifles," said the captain.
Booth sputtered, "I am everything you believe in. I am all that makes you what you are."
The captain raised his hand.
And the captain could shut Booth's mouth now forever by merely dropping his arm. He could end here Booth's self-indulgent patrioting. He could stop Booth's humbug proselytizing for The Cause, for The Cause now defunct, for The Cause which had bled to death the captain's four brothers and father, which had starved to death his mother and a homestead and four years of his youth. And for what? For selfishness, the captain had begun to believe. For egotism. Never had The Cause meant more than that. Booth and his ilk had convinced him otherwise -- but with deceptions, with exaggerations. Booth embodied all the comforting lies the captain had embraced, all the simplistic suasions he had not thought to challenge. Never again would he be duped by the artifice of such men, by their moral charlatanism, by their facile manipulation of his secret longings and restless energies. Here and now the captain could put all this behind him. And here and now he would! Even if it meant his own court martial, he would! More than anything suddenly the captain wanted to be freed of Booth's indoctrination, freed of Booth's violation of his innocence and ignorance. Men like Booth have raped us, the captain judged. Booth has raped us all. On his shoulders alone rests this wretched catastrophe. Only he deserves the blame.
Booth jerked at his bonds, panicking. He saw the captain's sudden intention. "Soldiers, soldiers..." he pled brokenly. Booth closed his eyes.
Then, "Sic semper tyrannis," the captain muttered significantly, feeling himself cleansed somehow by the words, liberated: "Thus always to tyrants."
And the captain dropped his arm.
But the captain did not hear the blast.
The captain fell dead to the ground.