Amid rainy spring weather that soaked the brick sidewalk outside the famous old theater, several thousand people huddled under umbrellas Tuesday to see the place where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago to the day.
From California, Wyoming and Illinois they came to Ford’s Theatre, where the president was shot on April 14, 1865, and to the Petersen boardinghouse across the street, where he died the next morning.
The somber weather and anniversary were countered by the colorful rain gear and pride many said they felt in the slain chief executive who ended slavery and steered the nation through the Civil War.
And some said they had come just for the cosmic experience of being present on the exact date, 150 years later, that Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth.
“There’s something about doing something in kind of real time, as they put it, and the real place, that’s especially moving,” Joyce Hofmann, 66, of Urbana, Ill., said as she waited outside the theater.
“We’ve been planning this trip for months so we’d be here on this day,” she said. “It’s the thrill of being there at a certain time and place that makes it kind of special.”
By 8:30 p.m., a crowd of enthusiasts and reenactors in Civil War garb had gathered in the rain outside the theater and police has closed 10th Street NW between E and F streets. Some reenactors were dressed in top hats and greatcoats, others in bonnets and hoop skirts.
Inside, the empty president’s box, lighted by a Victorian chandelier and hung with gold drapes, was festooned with American flags, as it was on the fateful night.
“We have come together on this night at this time because of what happened within these walls 150 years ago,” Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, said in opening the ceremony. “The flag-draped box will always be a part of our history.”
Folk singer Judy Collins led the audience in singing “Amazing Grace,” and a choral group sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
At 10:15 p.m., about the time Lincoln was shot, the lights dimmed in the theater and the performers all turned to gaze up at the box.
A band played the hymn “Old Hundreth,” and the audience filed out onto 10th Street, where the crowd had gathered with candles amid the theater’s sidewalk gaslights.
“It’s very moving,” said Marianne Schaad, 60, of Arlington, as she stood in the crowd. “It’s like reaching back in time.”
Aaron Freeman, 22, also of Arlington, said: “You couldn’t not be at an event like this. I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t come. . . . We’re in the exact spot where one of the most important figures on United States history was killed. And that’s incredible.”
James McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, writes in “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters,” a new book of essays, that Lincoln “could not have anticipated the reverence that millions would feel for him in future ages.”
“But he was intensely aware . . . that this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today — It is for a vast future also,’ ” McPherson wrote.
“We cannot escape history,” Lincoln wrote in his annual message to Congress in 1862, in the midst of the war. “We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Lincoln, then 56, had breakfast in the White House with his eldest son, Robert.
Robert Lincoln, 21, was serving as a captain in the Union army and had been at the surrender of the main Confederate force at Appomattox, Va., five days earlier.
Robert came to the meal with a portrait of the vanquished Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to historian W. Emerson Reck’s account of Lincoln’s last day.
“It is a good face,” Lincoln said of the Lee portrait. “The war is now closed, and soon we will live in peace with the brave men who have been fighting against us.”
The president then had a series of White House meetings, exclaiming to a visitor his happiness that the war was almost over. He went to the nearby War Department to check on the latest news.He later attended a Cabinet meeting, where he told of a strange dream he often had that seemed to portend momentous events.
In the dream, “he seemed to be in some indescribable vessel, moving with great rapidity toward some indefinite shore,” Lincoln said, according to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who was at the meeting. The president said he’d had the dream before many of the war’s big battles.
“I had this strange dream again last night,” Lincoln said. “And we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon.”
Three days later, Welles wrote in his diary: “Great events did, indeed, follow, for within a few hours the good and gentle . . . man who narrated his dream closed forever his earthly career.”
On Tuesday, historian James L. Swanson and Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault stood under an umbrella outside the theater and talked about the shock of the assassination.
“Imagine 9/11, and multiply it,” Swanson said. “Imagine the Kennedy assassination, and multiply it. The city was rocked by this. It was the happiest week in America” with Lee’s surrender. . . . And imagine all those hopes dashed in moments.”
Lincoln was “killed during his greatest week as president,” Swanson said. “He’s won the war. He’s freed the slaves. He’s preserved the Union. . . . So that made the shock all the more stunning and horrifying.”
Tetreault noted that Lincoln’s presidency bracketed the war. He was likely the only man who could have taken the country through it. He said that it was almost as if Lincoln was “heaven sent” and that when his work was done, he was taken.
At the end of Lincoln’s Cabinet meeting that morning, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army, told the president that he could not go to the theater with him that night.
Grant and his wife, Julia, had been invited, but Julia Grant and Lincoln’s wife, Mary, did not care for each other. Lincoln was disappointed, but he set off on a pleasant carriage ride with his wife shortly thereafter.
It was Good Friday.
“He was so gay,” Mary wrote later. “I said to him laughingly, ‘Dear husband, you startle me with your great cheerfulness.’”
He replied, “And well may I feel so, Mary. I consider this day the war has come to a close.”
They went on to talk about the future, about traveling — to Israel, or California, and the Rocky Mountains.
They drove to Navy Yard to look over the battle-scarred Monitor, USS Montauk, whose surgeon was also going to Ford’s that night to see the comedy “Our American Cousin,” according to the historian, Reck.
Back at the White House, they had an early dinner and got ready to go to the theater. They got into a black open carriage with plush seats and monogrammed doors and left, arriving late. The play was stopped while the audience cheered and Lincoln bowed. Once the group was in the presidential box, the play resumed.
Lincoln sat in a black walnut, velvet-covered rocking chair. The presidential box was framed by American flags, two of which were draped over the balustrade.
A gilt-framed engraving of George Washington was hung in front of the box for extra decoration.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Booth, embittered over the collapse of the Confederacy, crept into the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a single-shot derringer, stabbed another man in the arm with a dagger and jumped down to the stage. Booth caught a spur in one of the flags and broke a bone in his leg as he fell. He shouted something from the stage, slashed at a fellow actor and escaped.
Doctors rushed to the box, pronounced Lincoln’s wound fatal and carried him to the boardinghouse across the street run by a German immigrant tailor named William Petersen. After an agonizing vigil, Lincoln — attended by his distraught wife, son Robert and many government officials — died in a back room at 7:22 a.m. the next morning.
In Washington, church bells tolled across the city.