We all know what happened to President Abraham Lincoln the night he went to watch Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. But what you may not know is that he came perilously close to being assassinated eight months before John Wilkes Booth fired those fatal shots.
Abe and the Lincoln fam had what you might call a summer cottage – a place to relocate when Washington, D.C., got too hot and humid. It was on the grounds of Soldiers’ Home, a government-run facility about three miles north of the White House. (It's still standing, by the way.)
Interestingly, the route, which Lincoln often took on horseback by himself, went right by Walt Whitman’s house at 394 L Street. “I see the President almost every day,” Whitman wrote in 1863. “I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we always exchange bows, and very cordial ones.”
A few of those lines on his face were probably caused by Honest Abe’s habit of working late into the evening at the White House, heading to Soldiers’ Home afterward for a few hours’ rest before coming back to do it all again the next day. It was one of those nights in August of 1864 when Lincoln arrived at the gate of the cottage around 11 p.m. Private John Nichols, the guard posted at the gate, was surprised to hear Lincoln complain that a gunshot had spooked his horse Old Abe, sending him running so fast that Lincoln's famous stovepipe hat had been whisked right off his head.
A couple of soldiers, familiar with Lincoln’s favored route, went back to find the missing hat. When they retrieved it, there was a bullet hole straight through the fabric. They alerted the President, who asked them to please keep their discovery quiet: it was probably just a careless hunter and he didn’t want to worry Mary.
"I can't bring myself to believe that any one has shot at me or will deliberately shoot at me with the deliberate purpose of killing me."
According to historian Charles Bracelen Flood's 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History, Lincoln later told the story as if it were a joke, commenting that Old Abe had come closer to killing him than the would-be assassin did. “I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwhacker in the middle of the night."