<Soundtrack: Laibach - Vor Sonnen-Aufgang >
Over breakfast a few mornings ago in Bassersdorf, J. and I discussed a remarkably amusing alternate history: Imagine if Lincoln survived Booth’s assassination attempt, and only walked away with severe brain damage. Here are some details of the wound from Wikipedia:
Booth opened the door, stepped forward, and shot Lincoln from behind with a derringer. The bullet entered Lincoln's skull behind his left ear, passed through his brain, and came to rest near the front of the skull after fracturing both orbital plates.[c] Lincoln slumped over in his chair and then fell backward. Rathbone turned to see Booth standing in gunsmoke less than four feet behind Lincoln; Booth shouted a word that Rathbone thought sounded like "Freedom!"
One can imagine an alternate wound. Provided that the bullet passed through the skull, rather than being lodged in the skull and transferring all of its kinetic energy, the bleeding could potentially have been bandaged and stabilized by the multiple surgeons in attendance to the performance. While the period lacked modern neurosurgery, there were certainly individuals who received substantial facial and cranial trauma and survived. Pvt. Jacob C. Miller, for instance, survived a direct gunshot wound to the forehead in a battlefield context, and though I have not found a source as to the type of bullet that struck him, my estimate is that it would be a rifle or musket shot with both substantially more velocity and mass than the mere derringer that killed president Lincoln. Given that Lincoln also died at 7AM the next morning rather than immediately through blood loss or immediate loss of automatic nervous function, it also seems that the doctors with him were reasonably competent in their action to remove blood clots, as they empirically noticed that such removals improved the president’s breathing.
If the bullet had not transferred all of its kinetic energy, it would have simply disrupted a large amount of cranial tissue and broken two sections of the skull, as in the case of Phineas Gage. Likely, the amount of tissue disruption would have been more minor, simply due to the fact that that the diameter of the derringer’s ammunition would have been much smaller than the 3.2 cm of the railroad spike that pierced Gage’s skull. After Gage’s wound, his personality shifted dramatically, likely due to the severe disruption of the frontal lobe. Quoting from John Martyn Harlow’s account of the matter, “Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar Through The Head”:
The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage.”
Thus, one can imagine a radically changed Lincoln along this dimension or others, still commander in chief with three more years in his term after having survived the assassination attempt. While I must consider it beyond me to speculate usefully on specific hypothetical shifts in Lincoln’s personality that might have occurred, the potential for such a shift shows the fragility of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the potential further difficulties of maintaining control over the South by the Unionists if who is in our timeline a martyred hero is instead an erratic, disfigured malcontent. However, the larger social context is also worth considering in this matter, as Lincoln would have certainly developed a substantial religious following in the months after his near demise. Given that the Spiritualist Movement was only growing in strength, powered in our timeline by the substantial number of bereaved friends and relatives of soldiers killed-in-action, the idea of Lincoln as some sort of death-defying bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead would be highly attractive to the average person. He might be seen as the second coming of Christ, claimed that he died for a few minutes, and then rose, likely narratized as having died for three days by large sections of the US peripheral to the eastern urban centers. One can imagine Honest Abe as an oracle, a speaker for the dead, a horrifically imperfect modern day Osiris.
Addition, Nov. 5 2018: After talking to my father, I feel like it’s important to remark (somewhat obviously) that this would have happened before the passing of the twenty-second amendment in 1947, so it would be highly unlikely that Lincoln would be out of the presidency any time soon. In this timeline, America likely becomes a theocracy for the remainder of its existence as a unified federal state, before fragmenting into a variety of separate states. Also, he remarked that this idea would make the absolute best big bad for a grimdark realist re-imagining of Wild Wild West. Let’s just pretend that the 1999 version never happened.