“Sic Semper Tyrannis!” Those words, preceded by the muffled sounds of a gunshot and a scream, cut through the mirth and lighthearted joking of the play that opens, “1865.” What follows is an epic story, full of manhunts and hangings, spy craft and subterfuge and political gamesmanship for the very soul of the not-yet-reunited states of America. Produced by Wondery, the independent podcast publisher famous for hits like “Dr. Death” and “Dirty John,” this latest accomplishment is a full-cast production detailing the true events following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. There’s been a handful of successful audio fiction podcasts in the past few years, such as “Homecoming” and “Limetown.” There’s also a rich history of historical and documentary work in the medium, such as Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History,” “The Drop Out” about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, “Serial,” and Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome.” However, I’ve never before listened to anything quite like “1865.” Reminding me more of an epic play than anything else, I found myself both educated and deeply enthralled by the true story of those tumultuous times. By the last of the thirteen episodes, I felt as if I had experienced something entirely new, and it left me with a profoundly positive sense of hope for the future of podcasts.
I did not know the breadth or the depth of my ignorance of the events following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln until I listened to the whole of “1865.” The truth of this history is so dramatic as to lend itself more to the clichés of cinema and soap operas than the sober pages of a history textbook. The writers Steven Walters and Erik Archilla used every scrap of verbatim language and confirmed evidence to tell this story, while taking expert creative license where needed when details were vague or records outright destroyed. Famous names such as John Wilkes Booth are a small part of the story, while relatively unknown rivalries ultimately shape the fates of Northerners and Southerners alike. The struggles of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to preserve Lincoln’s legacy and fulfill his promise to the nation’s precariously freed slaves is filled with shades of grey. The Secretary of War, whom many believe almost single-handedly won victory for the North, let nothing, not the Constitution or any of its principles, stand in the way of what he saw as the greater good.
“When I was a boy, I swore an oath to my father. An eternal hostility to slavery and bigotry. I’m going to make good on that promise. I’m going to preserve Lincoln’s legacy. But I can’t do it alone.” Secretary Of War Edwin M. Stanton is the focus of “1865.” Jeremy Schwartz plays Stanton with incredible assuredness and a booming voice. We listen as Stanton utilizes every bit of his political wile and strength of will to fill the power vacuum that threatened to engulf all of Washington. He was bitter enemies with both the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and the man thrust unexpectedly into the most powerful office in the land, President Andrew Johnson. Both of these men, easily understood as bigots by today’s standards, immediately began to undo the work of Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction. Faced with a defeated South about to be granted total amnesty for the war, Edwin Stanton makes it his sole purpose to oppose the president and continue the work of emancipation started by his dearly departed friend. President Johnson proves to be a dangerous foe, not due to any particular intelligence or cunning, in fact he was a famous drunkard and despised by most in Washington. Johnson’s danger comes from his willingness to do or say anything in order to protect himself, and as he gains a taste for power he also gains a willingness to skirt any laws he disagrees with. Ultimately this is this story of President Johnson’s impeachment, the first in the history of the United States. The story is so nuanced, interesting and complex that I find myself frustrated to have only been given the bare bones of it as a teenager in history class.
By the final episodes of “1865” you will almost certainly find yourself rooting with all your heart for the dogged warrior Edwin M. Stanton. Even as he threatens, blackmails and rages against the norms of political decency to stop the beginnings of the KKK, protect the besieged black freedmen, and dethrone President Andrew Johnson with impeachment. You might find yourself agreeing with the belief that drastic times require drastic actions to defend the honor of America’s citizens. That a president believing himself a king requires opposition believing itself equally tasked with a sacred duty to stop him, at any cost. The parallels are clear, which makes the importance of this story unique among any that have been presented in art or fiction to date.