(Author’s note: This year marks the 145th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Beginning today and continuing over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of blog posts which will commemorate Lincoln’s assassination, his death, and his various funerals. Each post will be published on the 145th anniversary of that particular event. Please join me as together we remember Mr. Lincoln)
Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th President of The United States, was assassinated 145 years ago today, on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The assassination triggered an outpouring of grief and sorrow the likes of which the United States had never before seen and has rarely experienced since.
Lincoln’s assassin was of course the young and famous American stage actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth hailed from Maryland, but considered himself to be a Southern man at heart, and supported the Confederacy. He had already plotted a somewhat outlandish plan to kidnap Lincoln, hustle him off to Richmond, Virginia, and hold him for ransom in exchange for Confederate troops held prisoner.
On April 11, 1865 Abraham Lincoln gave his final speech. As he stood on the White House balcony, Lincoln presented his plan to “reconstruct” or re-admit the rebellious states back to the Union. During that speech, Lincoln called for the right to vote for at least some of the former slaves, especially those who had fought for the Union cause.
John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd as Lincoln spoke that night. When he heard Lincoln mention voting rights for the former slaves, Booth decided at that point that he was going to murder the president of the United States.
On the morning of April 14, John Wilkes Booth went to Ford’s Theater to collect his mail and chat with the owner. He learned at that point that the President and Mrs. Lincoln plus General and Mrs. Grant were attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s that very evening. The perfect chance to kill Abraham Lincoln presented itself to Booth.
Booth essentially had complete access to Ford’s Theater thanks to his fame. He went up to the presidential box through a small hallway, and quietly gouged a hole in the wall on the inside of the door which opened into the hall. He left a wooden bar in the hall, so he could prevent the door from opening while he approached Lincoln. After he was finished with his preparations, he convened his main co-conspirators to make final plans.
To Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne), Booth assigned the duty of killing the Secretary of State, William H. Seward. George Atzerodt was given the assignment to kill the Vice-President. David Herold was to wait for Powell in order to escape as Herold knew Washington quite well. Booth, of course, gave himself the starring role in order to kill Lincoln.
The Lincolns and their young guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, arrived late at the theater that night, after the play had begun. (the Grants had cancelled their plans and instead left for a visit with their son). The play was interrupted and the song Hail To The Chief was played while the presidential party took their seats in the theater box.
John Wilkes Booth knew Our American Cousin quite well and planned his shooting of Lincoln for one of the funniest moments of the play, when the crowd was sure to be laughing loudly. At approximately 10:15 p.m., Booth quietly entered the hallway, barred the door into the hallway, and quietly waited for the line.
Abraham Lincoln was unguarded that night. He had always been lax about his own security and that evening was no different. One policeman, John Parker, had been assigned to guard Lincoln. For reasons which remain unclear to this day, Parker left his post outside the presidential box, leaving Lincoln without protection.
At precisely the moment of the line he had been waiting for (“You sockdologizing old man-trap”), Booth fired a single shot from his .44 caliber Derringer. Lincoln immediately slumped forward in the rocking chair, never to regain consciousness. Major Rathbone leaped to his feet to grab Booth, but the latter took out a dagger and cut the major deeply on the forearm.
Booth then vaulted from the box to the stage, approximately 12 feet below. He caught a spur on the Treasury flag draped on the box, and landed awkwardly, breaking a bone in his leg. Although the audience had erupted in mass confusion amid blood-curdling screams coming from Mrs. Lincoln, most people recalled Booth shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus Always To Tyrants), then as now the state motto of Virginia. Before anyone in the crowd could react, Booth escaped through the back door of the theater, and began a 12-day dash from his pursuers.
The first doctor to reach the unconscious Lincoln was Charles Leale, a young Army officer who had just been awarded his medical license two months previously. He was quickly joined by another doctor, Charles S. Taft. They quickly examined Lincoln, who was not breathing at the time. The doctors finally found the head wound, and immediately pronounced the wound mortal, with recovery impossible.
At this point, it was determined that the president needed to be removed from the theater, but to where? It was decided that Lincoln would not survive the several block journey back to the White House. As his unconscious form was taken down the theater stairs, it was still unclear just what was to be done with the president.
Just then a young man opened a window from the Petersen Boarding House and shouted “Bring him in here!” The house, directly across the street from Ford’s Theater, became the place to where Abraham Lincoln was taken. When the group of people finally brought Lincoln to the small bedroom in the boarding house, it was discovered that Lincoln was too tall (or long) for the bed. So he was placed diagonally on his deathbed.
While all of this was going on, Lewis Powell stormed into the Secretary of State’s home, and nearly succeeded in stabbing William H. Seward to death with vicious slashes. It was due only to Seward wearing a neck brace from a serious carriage accident days before that he lived, the brace deflecting the knife. Powell also seriously wounded Seward’s son and stabbed and punched others in the Secretary’s home. Powell escaped into the Washington darkness.
Chaos reigned throughout Washington. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assumed the authority of the government. Throughout the long night, he interviewed witnesses, telegraphed police officials in New York, ordered possible escape routes and bridges closed in Washington, and controlled the visitors to the president. It was almost a super-human effort on Stanton’s part, for he had a pathological fear of death. The planned attack on Vice-President Johnson never materialized and he appeared at Lincoln’s bedside, but it was Stanton who ran the government that night, and for many days after.
Thus began one of the most calamitous periods in American history. At long last, the nation’s bloodiest war (and it remains thus) was drawing to a close. Celebrations which had been taking place in Washington and throughout the Northern states gave way to the horror of the assassination of the nation’s leader at the moment of the long-awaited triumph.
The death watch for Abraham Lincoln began late on the night of April 14, 1865, 145 years ago tonight.