We're covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the ninth installment of the series.
April 14-15, 1865: “Now He Belongs to the Ages”
Arguably the most famous murder in history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was simple in its execution but spectacular in its effects – nearly all of them unintended. Above all, it removed America’s greatest statesman just when he was needed to help heal the country from the horror and hatred of the Civil War. Although it’s impossible to know how things would have turned out had Lincoln lived, it’s hard to see how it could have been much worse: in his absence, Reconstruction led to decades of bitter division followed by a dirty backroom deal that left the people who most needed help and protection – the freed slaves – at the mercy of their former masters.
The most sensational element of the story was the killer himself: long before he wrote himself into history as the archetypal vainglorious villain, John Wilkes Booth was one of the most famous and successful actors in the country, instantly recognizable and widely admired by theatergoers across both North and South.
Perhaps strangest of all was Booth’s background. In 1821 his father, a famous British stage actor named Junius Brutus Booth, left his wife Adelaide Delannoy Booth and his first son and ran way to America with his mistress, a London flower seller named Mary Ann Holmes. Alcoholic and possibly bipolar, the eccentric Booth senior moved his mistress to rural Maryland, where they owned slaves and lived in almost total seclusion, raising ten children (six of whom survived to adulthood, all but one born out of wedlock) including John Wilkes, born in 1838. Junius won acclaim for his Shakespearean roles but also had some brushes with the law, including writing a series of threatening letters to President Andrew Jackson, on one occasion vowing, “I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping” (he later apologized). He finally received a divorce from his wife and married Holmes in 1851, just a year before he died.
In the early 1850s, while at boarding school John Wilkes Booth became involved in the nativist Know-Nothings, a xenophobic, anti-Catholic political movement mainly targeting Irish immigrants. After his father died he left school and eventually decided to imitate his brothers Edwin and Junius Jr. by following in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a life of fame and fortune in the theater (below, the brothers appear together in Julius Caesar; John Wilkes Booth is on the left). The task was made easier by his name, good looks and remarkable talents for acting and memorization. Called “the most handsome man in America,” Booth made a fortune playing dramatic roles and won legions of fans thrilled by his realistic acting style and appearance, including the poet Walt Whitman, who raved, “He would have flashes, passages, I thought of real genius.”
But like his father Booth was also prone to fits of unbalanced rage, which increasingly focused on the growing threat to his beloved South, and especially the institution of slavery. In December 1859, following anti-slavery militant John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Booth traveled to Charles Town, Virginia and volunteered for the militia assembled to foil any attempts to rescue the would-be insurrectionist, ensuring that he hanged. After the Civil War began Booth only became more agitated, according to his brother Edwin, who recalled his family “used to laugh at his patriotic froth whenever secession was discussed. That he was insane on that one point, no one who knew him can well doubt. When I told him I had voted for Lincoln’s re-election he expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this, I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason.” Similarly in 1864 Booth wrote to a friend: “This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, as held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”
In order to preserve this “blessing” and Southern independence, Booth began using his fortune to fund amateur cloak-and-dagger operations to aid the Confederacy. For example Booth purchased quinine, an important anti-malaria prophylactic, and used his privileged position as a traveling actor to personally smuggle it across the battle lines for use by the Confederate military. Booth carried on these covert activities even as he continued touring Northern cities, including a performance for the president in Washington, D.C.: in November 1863 Lincoln saw Booth perform in the play "The Marble Heart," and his young son Tad even sent a note of admiration to Booth, who responded by sending the boy a rose.
As the tide of war turned against the South, Booth’s anger and ambitions grew commensurately, and by the end of 1864 he was conspiring with other Confederate sympathizers to kidnap President Lincoln to secure the release of Confederate prisoners of war. Around this time Booth also became infatuated with Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of an abolitionist Senator from New Hampshire, and secretly became engaged to her in February 1865 (Lucy was also courted by Lincoln’s oldest son Robert; coincidentally, Booth’s brother Edwin had saved Robert’s life on a train sometime in 1864 or 1865).
However Booth’s fantastic plans to kidnap Lincoln came to nothing, while the Confederacy’s fortunes declined precipitously in the first part of 1865, adding to his sense of urgency and turning his thoughts to assassination. Booth was apparently present at Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1865, and later told a friend he had “a splendid chance… to kill the president where he stood,” regretting that he hadn’t done so. Booth and his fellow conspirators planned one final kidnapping attempt on March 17, 1865, assembling by the road to waylay his carriage, but it failed when Lincoln changed his travel plans. After Lee surrendered on April 9, the last straw for Booth was Lincoln’s suggestion, during a speech delivered from the White House balcony on April 11, that at least some African-Americans should receive the right to vote. Booth, in the audience gathered below, turned to fellow conspirator Lewis Powell and exclaimed: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
According to Lincoln’s friend and informal bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, that evening the president – who’d participated in séances organized by his wife and claimed to have premonitions of his own death – supposedly told his wife and friends about an eerie dream he’d had not long before:
“About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible… Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
Still, Booth’s vow might have remained in the realm of fantasy along with his other half-baked plots, if not for a coincidence on the morning of April 14 – Good Friday – when he went to Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail and happened to overhear that Lincoln would be attending the performance of the romantic comedy “Our American Cousin” that evening. Over the next few hours Booth gathered supplies and met with Powell and another conspirator, George Atzerodt, to plan the assassination of Lincoln that night. Incredibly the men also planned to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant that same night, in hopes of maximizing the chaos and giving the Confederacy a chance to recover.
On the evening of April 14 Lincoln’s party arrived at Ford’s Theater around 8:30 pm, after the curtain had already gone up, and as they took their places in the presidential box the actors paused their performance to salute him, while the band played “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gave him a standing ovation. After acknowledging the crowd Lincoln settled down along with his wife and their companions for the play, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, who were attending in place of Grant and his wife. Lincoln appeared to be enjoying the play, a farce about transatlantic relations (and differences) at a time when many respectable but impoverished English aristocrats were marrying wealthy, uncouth Americans.
Meanwhile Booth easily gained access to the theater, where he had performed in the past and had many professional connections, without arousing suspicion. As no president had ever been assassinated before there was no formal secret service guarding Lincoln, so no one searched Booth or prevented him from entering the hallway leading to the presidential box with his derringer concealed in his coat pocket (below).
Timing his attack to coincide with the play’s funniest line – “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” – Booth quietly opened the door to the box, barred it to prevent anyone from coming to Lincoln’s assistance, and then at 10:13pm shot Lincoln once in the back of the head at point blank range. Rathbone later testified:
…while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was “Freedom!” I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm .... The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, “Stop that man.” I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.
Other witnesses claim that Booth said “sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants.” One theatergoer, W. Martin Jones, recalled the scene as viewed from the main audience:
All was still. Sharp and clear, amid the silence that reigned in that vast theatre, sounded the report of a pistol. All eyes were turned whence came the unwelcome noise… It was but an instant, and the slim form of a man with face of livid whiteness, stopped in front of the box in which was seated the President. The words “Sic Semper Tyrannis” was hissed between compressed lips. Another instant and the form had vaulted over the balustrade and upon the stage below – a distance of over twelve feet.
According to some accounts, in leaping over the balcony Booth injured his left leg, fracturing his fibia (lower leg bone) when it became entangled in the bunting on the front of the president’s box or when he landed on the theater floor; however other historians have argued that he only injured his leg later, when his horse threw him in back of the theater. In any event, Booth somehow injured his leg as he fled Ford’s Theater, and around 4am on April 15 he visited Dr. Samuel Mudd in southern Maryland; Mudd had to cut his boot off because his ankle was so swollen before he could set his broken leg.
Almost simultaneously with Booth’s attack, at 10:15pm, Powell broke into Seward’s house, where the Secretary of State was confined to bed recuperating from a carriage accident, and stabbed him several times and inflicted a serious wound on his face – but failed to kill him. George Atzerodt, assigned the mission of killing Andrew Johnson, didn’t even get this far: at the last minute he lost his nerve, sat down and got drunk in the lobby of the hotel where the vice-president was staying.
“Death Certainly Would Soon Close the Scene”
Meanwhile the audience at Ford’s Theater was reeling from shock as soon as the crime was confirmed. The first physician to reach Lincoln was Charles Augustus Leale, a 23-year-old surgeon who had just graduate from medical school a month and a half before. Leale hurried to the presidential box where he
saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back. On one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris. The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a surgeon while the others . . . were standing crying for stimulants, water, etc., not one going for anything . . . I sent one for brandy and another for water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon, when she asked me to do what I could. He was then in a profound coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, torturous breathing.
On examining Lincoln Leale discovered the bullet hole in his skull, and testified: “I then knew it was fatal and told the bystanders that it was a mortal wound.” Nonetheless at the order of Dr. Robert King Stone, the Lincoln family physician, the dying president was carried across the street to a brick townhouse belonging to William Petersen, where a boarder let them in. Here Stone was able to examine the wound and confirmed Leale’s judgment: “I at once informed those around that the case was a hopeless one; that the President would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life, that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could, but that death certainly would soon close the scene.”
Given the state of contemporary medicine, there was nothing doctors could do for Lincoln except try to make him comfortable while a succession of family members and cabinet members came to pay their final respects. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, recalled:
We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily… The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him… His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking… After that his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored… About once an hour Mrs. Lincoln would repair to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion…
In the early morning hours of April 15 Welles stepped out to get a breath of fresh air, then returned to the vigil:
A little before seven I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.
Fighting back tears, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said quietly: "Now he belongs to the ages."
On Saturday April 15, as Stanton mounted a huge national manhunt for Booth and his accomplices (top, a wanted poster) the nation reeled from the news that the Great Emancipator, who had steered the nation through its worst trials, was now dead. As bells tolled across the United States, great and ordinary people alike began the elaborate ritual of Victorian mourning, shaped by Christian theology as well as romantic notions of death. By the following day, Easter Sunday, many houses and public buildings were draped in black, while preachers in their sermons inevitably drew parallels between Lincoln and Jesus Christ, both martyred for their work to redeem humanity.
The news took some time to spread across the huge country, especially in rural areas not yet reached by telegraph service. One observer, Isaac Newton Arnold, recalled the way a great tragedy could bring strangers together, if only for a moment:
People who had not heard the news, coming into crowded cities were struck with the strange aspect of the people. All business was suspended, gloom, sadness, grief, sat upon every face. Strangers who had never seen the good President, women, and children, and strong men, wept. The flag, which had everywhere, from every spire and mast-head, roof, and tree, and public building, been floating in glorious triumph, was now lowered; as the hours of that dreary 15th of April passed on, the people, by a common impulse, each family by itself, commenced dressing their houses and the public buildings in mourning, and before night the whole nation was shrouded in black… the poor negroes everywhere wept and sobbed over a loss which they instinctively felt was to them irreparable.
Although many Northerners assumed that their recently defeated foes would revel in the news of Lincoln’s death, for the most part this wasn’t the case, as more perceptive former Confederates realized it would almost certainly entail further hardship for the South, not least because Andrew Johnson – a former indentured servant from Tennessee who loathed the plantation aristocracy – was now president.
Dudley Avery, a former Confederate soldier from Louisiana, remarked in a letter to a friend: “I think that in the present condition of the Country it is a misfortune to the South. Johnson seems to be a man void of principle and honor... Next to our being subjugated I regard his being raised to supreme command our greatest calamity.” In Georgia a former Confederate supporter, Eliza Andrews, reached the same conclusion: “It is a terrible blow to the South, for it places that vulgar renegade, Andy Johnson, in power.” And on April 17 the Richmond Whig, a leading Southern newspaper, opined: “The heaviest blow which has ever fallen upon the people of the south has descended.”
These views were shared by the Southern elite: in North Carolina General Joe Johnston told William Tecumseh Sherman during their surrender negotiations that Lincoln’s death was “the greatest possible calamity to the South.” And Confederate President Jefferson Davis would later write: “For an enemy so relentless in the war for our subjugation, we could not be expected to mourn; yet, in view of its political consequences, it could not be regarded otherwise than as a great misfortune for the South.”
On April 19 tens of thousands lined the streets to watch Lincoln’s funeral procession from the White House to the Capitol, where huge crowds stood in line for hours to pay their respects. William Gamble, who served in the honor guard at the Capitol, wrote to his wife:
During my time of duty 39,000 people passed through and viewed the corpse, the front of the lid being open. The coffin was covered with flowers, and a staff officer stood at the head and another at the foot to keep people from touching the coffin or the corpse, and I assure you it was difficult to prevent it. I never saw such a variety of emotions in human nature in my whole life. Some would burst into tears and sobs, others would flush up with fire and indignation and mutter curses loud and deep on the cowardly assassins and their instigators. While I was standing at the head of the coffin preventing people from touching it, one old lady over sixty years old watched me closely, and quick as thought darted down her head and kissed the President in spite of me. I could not find it in my heart to say a word to her, but let her pass on as if I did not see it. You can form no idea of the scenes I saw.
This was just the first of a series of dramatic, heartfelt memorials held across the North as Lincoln’s body was transported back to Springfield, Illinois. From April 21 to May 3, the train covered 1,700 miles, stopping at most of the cities and towns Lincoln had visited in his triumphant journey from Illinois to the White House four years before, giving an estimated 1.3 million mourners in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago a chance to see their president one last time (below, the funeral procession in New York City, right, and Chicago, right). Over ten million more saw the train.
Lincoln’s death triggered an outpouring of artistic and literary tributes, but perhaps the finest came from Walt Whitman, who admitted, “After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.” His 1866 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” reads:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.