It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and Abraham Lincoln was in an unusual mood: Happy. Giddy, even. He was a man freed of the heaviest burden any American president had ever been forced to bear. The mighty scourge of war — his phrase — was finally passing away.
Ten days earlier, Lincoln had walked through the streets of Richmond, the rebel capital. And then on Palm Sunday, Gen. Lee had surrendered his army to Gen. Grant at Appomattox. There were still Confederate forces in the field, but that would surely be mop-up duty. The war in every practical sense seemed to be over, the rebellion crushed, the nation saved and the evil of slavery vanquished forever on this continent.
Lincoln told his wife, Mary, that the two of them, alone, without friends or supplicants, should enjoy a leisurely carriage ride around Washington.
“The Friday, I never saw him so supremely cheerful — his manner was even playful,” Mary Lincoln wrote to a friend months later. Her husband told her that he felt that this was the day that the war had come to a close.
Five years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had been little more than a former one-term congressman from Illinois, a lawyer handling property disputes and small-town squabbles. But he had a way with words, and a distinctive frontier persona, and he became the standard-bearer of the young Republican Party and its opposition to the spread of slavery. His victory in the chaotic, fractious election of 1860 precipitated the secession of the slave states. And the war came.
Before he took his first oath of office he was forced to slip into Washington in disguise to evade a rumored assassination threat. That skulking entrance invited sneers from rivals and the opposition press. Lincoln in truth had minimal interest in personal safety and during his presidency would often travel without guards. Back in 1862, a mystery sniper had taken a shot at him as he rode his horse to the Soldiers’ Home. He was fatalistic, thinking that anyone wanting to kill him probably couldn’t be stopped.
The war had visited upon America an unimaginable spectacle of death and grief. No one had expected the war to last so long; neither side, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, had expected a result so “fundamental and astounding.” At least 620,000 Americans had perished, perhaps as many as 750,000. Hardly a household in the land had been spared the loss of a loved one, a pain that the Lincolns knew all too well, having lost their child Willie to a fever in the first year of Lincoln’s tenure.
As the president and his wife toured the city in their carriage, he said to her: We must both be more cheerful in the future.
They had plans that night to attend the theater.
On Lafayette Square, Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, was dozing off in bed at half past 10 when his wife said there was someone at the door. Welles opened a window and looked out to see a messenger. The man said the president had been shot at Ford’s Theatre and Secretary of State William H. Seward and his son assassinated.
Impossible, Welles answered. Lincoln and Seward couldn’t be in the same place. Seward was bedridden at home after a nearly fatal carriage accident. But the messenger insisted it was true, saying he’d been to the Seward home before coming to see Welles.
Welles quickly dressed and walked the short distance to Seward’s home on the east side of Lafayette Square, just a stone’s throw from the White House. There he encountered the equally agitated Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, who’d arrived via carriage from his home a few blocks away on K Street. They made their way upstairs to Seward’s bedroom, where they discovered a scene of carnage.
An intruder had stabbed and slashed Seward about the face and neck as his daughter Fanny had screamed, “Don’t kill him!” Only a metal brace on Seward’s neck, meant to stabilize him during his recovery, prevented the attacker from severing his jugular. In another room, Seward’s son was unconscious, pistol-whipped, his skull cracked open horribly. Other attendants were badly injured with knife wounds.
The two Cabinet officers knew they had to find Lincoln, and despite warnings from aides that the situation was too dangerous, they climbed into a carriage and rattled in the direction of Ford’s Theatre, swept along in a torrent of horses, carriages and pedestrians converging on 10th Street.
A massive crowd had formed. The president was no longer in the theater but rather had been carried across the street to a private home, a rowhouse owned by a German immigrant named William Petersen.
Stanton and Welles found Lincoln in a small, extremely crowded bedroom in the rear of the house, his 6-foot-4-inch frame laid diagonally on a bed unequal to his great stature. Lincoln’s head rested on a pillow soaked in blood. The president’s breath came and went laboriously, and the doctors said he would last only a matter of hours. This was a deathwatch.
Stanton immediately took charge. There was now no president of the United States in any meaningful sense of the word, and Stanton by his nature assumed authority without compunction. He was effectively now the commander-in-chief as well as the chief investigator of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward. While Welles stayed in the death chamber, Stanton set up operations in a nearby room, behind the front parlor harboring Mary Lincoln.
Stanton needed stenographic help, and by chance a soldier next door, James Tanner, knew shorthand. Tanner — who had lost both legs below the knee during the battle of Second Manassas — soon found himself in the Petersen House, taking notes next to Stanton.
“Mrs. Lincoln was in the front room, weeping as though her heart would break. In the back room lay His Excellency breathing hard, and with every breath a groan,” Tanner wrote later.
The witnesses came in one by one and described what they’d seen.
It had been a big night at Ford’s Theatre. The leading lady of the stage, Laura Keene, headlined the performance of “Our American Cousin,” a comedy about a coarse American who visits his refined, stuffy cousins in England. The theater had sold 1,700 tickets; word had gotten out that the president and his wife would be in attendance along with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia.
The Grants had actually begged off, choosing to travel to New Jersey to visit their children in boarding school. The Lincolns were instead accompanied by Clara Harris, the daughter of a senator, and her fiance, Henry Rathbone, an Army major.
The presidential party arrived during the first act, taking their seats in the presidential box above stage left. The president was, as he’d been all afternoon, in terrific spirits. He and Mrs. Lincoln laughed through the play and held hands.
At 10:15 p.m., actor Harry Hawk, playing the coarse American, stood alone on stage and aimed a laugh-out-loud line at a female character who had just exited: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
That was the last thing Abraham Lincoln heard.
The sound of a gunshot pierced the laughter, followed by a scream. Blue smoke wafted from the president’s box. The audience heard a scuffle, and then a man threw his legs over the balustrade and dropped to the stage, snagging a boot spur on the American flag and landing awkwardly.
It was a famous actor, John Wilkes Booth.
Booth took center stage, raised a dagger in the air and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” — “Thus always to tyrants.” It was the state motto of Virginia. Then Booth said, “The South is avenged,” and, slashing at Hawk with the dagger, ran offstage and vanished.
The audience did not know what to make of this.
Was it part of the play?
Now came a generalized commotion, mounting horror and people rushing to the president’s box. A doctor, Charles Leale, pushed his way through the scrum to see how he could help. He entered the president’s box and found Mrs. Lincoln weeping bitterly, cradling the head of her husband.
“When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous,” Leale wrote later.
He couldn’t find a wound at first, but then he ran his fingers through the president’s hair and found a clot of blood behind the left ear.
“The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, and found that it had entered the encephalon.”
Leale and two other doctors decided that the president was too weak to be transported back to the White House. They would go instead to the nearest house. Along with four soldiers they picked up the president, carried him down the stairs and out onto 10th Street, where the agitated crowd was thickening. Someone led them across the street to the house of the German tailor.
Booth had performed many times at Ford’s Theatre, including in front of the president. He was a vicious white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer. He had been plotting against Lincoln for the better part of a year. At first, the conspirators wanted to kidnap the president, take him to Richmond and ransom him to free Confederate prisoners of war.
Now the Confederacy was disintegrating, and Booth revised the plan, giving the final orders that Friday evening. The conspirators had three targets. Booth would kill Lincoln at the theater. Lewis Powell would kill Seward in his home. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel, where he was staying. They would strike simultaneously at 10:15 p.m. and effectively decapitate the leadership of the U.S. government.
Booth knew the theater inside and out, and everyone who worked there knew Booth well. Lincoln had one police officer assigned to his protection that night, but only during the trip to the theater; inside he was unguarded. To reach the president, Booth needed merely to produce a calling card for the president’s valet, who, sitting close to the president’s box, let the famous actor proceed. Booth first entered a small vestibule and peered through a hole to see precisely where the president was sitting. From his vest pocket he pulled a derringer, a gun weighing just 8 ounces and loaded with a single .44-caliber lead ball. When the audience erupted in laughter, he stepped into the box and fired from point-blank range.
He fled the theater on his horse, which had been held in an alleyway by a young man who had no idea what was going on. Booth rode down F Street to the Navy Yard Bridge, and then into Southern Maryland.
Lawrence Gobright, a Washington-based reporter for the Associated Press, sent off his first bulletin late on April 14:
“The President was shot in a theater to-night and is perhaps mortally wounded.”
The civilian telegraph went quiet for about two hours when the nervous operator of the telegraph office decided to shut everything down and let the military telegraph office handle everything. But the military dispatches wound up in the newspapers verbatim as the presses continued to roll through the night and into the morning. The New York Herald, the biggest-circulation paper in the country, would go through seven editions Friday night and Saturday.
From the third edition:
Washington was thrown into intense excitement a few minutes before eleven o’clock this evening, by the announcement that the President and Secretary Seward had been assassinated and were dead . . . [R]umors were magnified until we had nearly every member of the Cabinet killed.
The Herald reprinted telegrams sent by Stanton to an Army general in New York:
War Department, April 15, 1865 — 1:30 a.m.
Last evening, about 10:30 p.m., at Ford’s Theater, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and Major Rathbone, was shot by an assassin . . . The pistol-ball entered the back of the President’s head, and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.
Stanton sent another telegram 65 minutes later, saying the president was still alive but “quite insensible,” and reporting, “Investigation strongly indicates J. Wilkes Booth as the assassin of the President.”
He sent another at 4:44 a.m. saying that Lincoln was “sinking.”
The vice president had remained asleep Friday night until, early Saturday morning, someone finally woke him with the terrible news. Johnson made a cursory visit to Lincoln’s bedside, but he had always had bad chemistry with Mary Lincoln and soon returned to the hotel. Only later would he discover that he had been targeted for assassination and spared only because the would-be killer lost his nerve.
Mary Lincoln was overcome with grief and erupted in wailing and sobbing to the point that the unsentimental Stanton banished her to the front parlor. She was comforted through the night by Elizabeth Dixon, the wife of a U.S. senator.
In the bedroom stood Robert Lincoln, the president’s eldest son, who just five days earlier had borne witness to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He sobbed on a senator’s shoulder.
Notes from a doctor at the Lincoln bedside:
Six o’clock — Pulse failing; respiration twenty-eight
Half-past six — still failing and labored breathing
Seven o’clock — symptoms of immediate dissolution
Twenty-two minutes past seven — Death
A minister said a prayer then, and Tanner, the peg-legged soldier, could not transcribe it because in the trauma of the moment he had broken the pencil in his pocket.
“Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton said — though some heard it as “angels.”
There is no dispute about the wording of the telegram that Stanton sent soon thereafter:
Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after 7 o’clock.
There are terrible moments in American history when chance plays an outsize role, when the outcome could have gone either way, when a stroke of luck makes all the difference.
This was not really one of those moments.
This was more like the certain path of a stone hurled high in the air. The forces at work were as predictable as gravity. The war, it turned out, wasn’t actually over, and its cruel logic dictated the sacrifice of another life.
The assassination, unlike many others to come in American history, was not the handiwork of the proverbial “lone nut.” The murder of Lincoln, as writer Adam Gopnik has suggested, should not be psychologized. This was a true conspiracy, born of the war and its underlying causes. The breadth of the conspiracy remains fodder for historians — there are those who say it went all the way to the top of the Confederate leadership. What’s certain is that the assassination was an extension of the war, fueled by Confederate sympathies and virulent racism.
And at some level, the American people came to understand that. Yet at first they were shocked by the news, confused, unable to believe it was true, desperate for confirmation that this event had really happened, and we all know that sensation — the experience of being hurled into chaos, faced by vague threats not yet calibrated, the world tilting suddenly toward madness. We know what it’s like not knowing how many hijacked planes are still in the air.
The killing of the president was not a single event but an unfolding story, because Booth and his conspirators were on the loose. One by one they were rounded up, and four went to the gallows, including Mary Surratt, who ran a boardinghouse on H Street that today is a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. On the 12th day of the manhunt, the surrounded Booth was shot and killed in a burning barn in Virginia.
For the American people, Lincoln’s martyrdom on Good Friday seemed a sign that God was closely directing human events for purposes not easily grasped.
“The mourning and grief were sort of tempered or colored by the sense that somehow narratively it made perfect sense,” said Adam Goodheart, director of the Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
“If Shakespeare had scripted the Civil War, he couldn’t have done better than killing Lincoln in the last scene, on Good Friday, just after he had freed the slaves.”
It was almost like proof of American exceptionalism — akin to the remarkable fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“How could this have happened unless God were the one scripting the American story,” Goodheart said.
Martha Hodes, author of “Mourning Lincoln,” writes of the special challenge facing preachers on Easter morning, the day after Lincoln’s death: “On a day’s notice, they had to find a way to address the palpable sorrow without entirely jettisoning Easter season rejoicing. They had to think about the problem of calamitous evil in the world God had created, and they had to make sense of Union victory and the end of slavery, followed by the president’s murder.”
Lincoln believed, to take him at his own word, that the war was not a random event but something ordained by God. So he said, in that brilliant second inaugural address, delivered six weeks before his death. Perhaps this war was God’s punishment for the 250 years of slavery.
In Lincoln’s formulation, humans are part of a narrative that they do not fully control or understand.
“The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln told the people who had assembled at the Capitol — including the man who would become his assassin.
Sources: “Blood On the Moon,” by Edward Steers Jr.; “President Lincoln Assassinated!,” edited by Harold Holzer; “Mourning Lincoln,” by Martha Hodes; and “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.