- 14 Apr 2023 13:13
April 14, Friday
Sherman’s forces move ahead in the rain from Raleigh to Durham Station, North Carolina. After obtaining permission from President Davis, General Johnston writes to Sherman asking if he is “willing to make a temporary suspension of active operations,” looking toward peace. Sherman, in Raleigh, replies at once that he is willing to confer with Johnston and will limit his advance, expecting Johnston to keep his men in their present position. He suggests the same terms Grant gave Lee.
There is some fighting near Morrisville and Sander’s Farm, North Carolina. Near Tuskegee, Alabama, Wilson’s cavalry skirmish on the Columbus Road. Another skirmish flares at Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. CSS Shenandoah leaves the Eastern Caroline Islands in the Pacific and heads for the Kurile Islands in the North Pacific. Still another Union vessel is blown up by a torpedo off Mobile.
Davis spends Good Friday preparing to continue his flight southward. Others might treat for peace, not he. Nor will he leave the country. He has, he says when urged to escape to Mexico or the West Indies by getting aboard a ship off the Florida coast, “no idea whatever of leaving Confederate soil as long as there are men in uniform to fight for the cause.” Fortunately, the treasure train had been sent ahead to Charlotte before Stoneman wrecked the railroad above and below Salisbury, but Davis and his party have to take their chances on the muddy roads and byways. Nothing in his manner shows that he has any doubt of getting through, however, any more than he doubts the survival of the nation he heads. Only in private, and only then in a note he writes his wife this same Good Friday, does he show that he has anything less than total confidence in the outcome of a struggle that has continued unabated for four years and is moving even now into a fifth. “Dear Winnie,” he writes to her in Charlotte, employing her pet name before signing with his own, “I will come to you if I can. Everything is dark. You should prepare for the worst by dividing your baggage so as to move in wagons.... I have lingered on the road to little purpose. My love to the children and Maggie. God bless, guide and preserve you, ever prays Your most affectionate Banny.”
There is a ceremony this same holy day in Charleston Harbor, held in accordance with War Department instructions which Stanton himself had issued back in March. “Ordered. That at the hour of noon on the 14th day of April, 1865, Brevet Major General Anderson will raise and plant upon the ruins of Fort Sumter the same United States flag which floated over the battlements of that fort during the rebel assault, and which was lowered and saluted by him and the small force of his command when the works were evacuated on the 14th day of April, 1861.” At first there was only minor interest in the occasion, even when it was given out that Henry Ward Beecher, the popular Brooklyn minister, would be the principal speaker. Presently, however, the fall of Richmond, followed within the week by Lee’s surrender, placed the affair in a new light, one in which it could be seen as commemorating not only the start but also the finish of the war, in the same place on the same date, with precisely four years intervening between the hauling down and running up of the same flag. People began to plan to attend from all directions, especially from Boston and Philadelphia, where abolitionist sentiment runs strong, as well as from the sea islands along the Georgia and Carolina coasts, where uplift programs have been in progress ever since their occupation. Prominent men are among them, and women too, who for decades have been active in the movement. “Only listen to that—in Charleston’s streets!” William Lloyd Garrison marvels, tears of joy brimming his eyes as a regimental band plays “John Brown’s Body” amid the ruins created by the long bombardment, which another visitor notes “had left its marks everywhere, even on gravestones in the cemeteries.” So many have come that the navy is hard put, this mild Good Friday morning, to provide vessels enough to ferry them from the Battery wharves out to the fort. More than four thousand are on hand, including a number of Blacks from nearby plantations, though it is observed that there are scarcely a dozen local Whites in the throng pressed close about the platform where the dignitaries await the stroke of noon.
Except for the bunting draped about the rostrum, the polished brass of army and navy officers, and the colorful silks on some of the women, the scene is bleak enough. Sumter, a Union soldier declared at the time it was retaken, “was simply an irregular curved pile of pulverized masonry, which had with enormous labor been industriously shoveled back into place as fast as we knocked it out of shape, and was held up on the inside by gabions and timber work. So many tons of projectiles had been fired into it that the shot and shell seemed to be mixed through the mass as thick as plums in a pudding.” Somewhere in the pudding mass of the central parade, where the crowd gathers, is the grave of Private Daniel Hough, who died in a flare-back while firing the fifty-gun salute of departure, four years ago today, and thus had been the first to fall in a war that by now has cost well over 600,000 lives. Few if any are thinking of Hough, however, as noon approaches and Robert Anderson arrives with Quincy Gillmore, the department commander. Two months short of sixty, Anderson looks much older; sickness has worn him down and deprived him, except for a brief period of command in his native Kentucky, of any part in the struggle that followed the bloodless two-day bombardment in Charleston Harbor, which has turned out to be the high point in his life. He carries himself with military erectness, but he appears somewhat confused: perhaps because, as a journalist will report, he “could see nothing by which to recognize the Fort Sumter he had left four years ago.”
Still, this is another high point, if not so high as the one before, and as such has its effect both on him and on those who watch from in front of the canopied platform, where a tall new flagstaff has been erected. After a short prayer by the chaplain who had accompanied the eighty-odd-man force into the fort on the night after Christmas, 1860—six days after South Carolina left the Union—and a responsive reading of parts from several Psalms, selected for being appropriate to the occasion—“When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream”—a sergeant who is also a veteran of the bombardment steps forward, draws from a leather pouch the scorched and shot-ripped flag Anderson had kept for use as a winding sheet when the time came, and begins to attach it to the rope that will run it up the pole. “We all held our breath for a second,” a young woman from Philadelphia is to write many years later, “and then we gave a queer cry, between a cheer and a yell; nobody started it and nobody led it; I never heard anything like it before or since, but I can hear it now.” Then, as she watches, “General Anderson stood up, bareheaded, took the halyards in his hands, and began to speak. At first I could not hear him, for his voice came thickly, but in a moment he said clearly, ‘I thank God that I have lived to see this day,’ and after a few more words he began to hoist the flag. It went up slowly and hung limp against the staff, a weather-beaten, frayed, and shell-torn old flag, not fit for much more work, but when it had crept clear of the shelter of the walls a sudden breath of wind caught it, and it shook its folds and flew straight out above us, while every soldier and sailor instinctively saluted.” What happens next is confused in her memory by the emotion of the moment. “I think we stood up; somebody started ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and we sang the first verse, which is all that most people know. But it did not make much difference, for a great gun was fired close to us from the fort itself, followed, in obedience to the President’s order, ‘by a national salute from every fort and battery that fired upon Fort Sumter.’ The measured, solemn booming came from Fort Moultrie, from the batteries on Sullivan and Folly Islands, and from Fort Wagner.... When the forts were done it was the turn of the fleet, and all our warships, from the largest—which would look tiny today—down to the smallest monitor, fired and fired in regular order until the air was thick and black with smoke and one’s ears ached with the overlapping vibrations.”
All this is prelude, so to speak, to the main event, the address to be delivered by the reverend Mr. Beecher, the fifty-two-year-old younger brother of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom Lincoln is said to have greeted once as “the little lady who started this great war.” Beecher’s specialty is flamboyance, but that flamboyance is absent today—perhaps because this time he reads his entire speech, perhaps because of the rising wind threatening to tear the pages of his written speech from his hands. Beecher winds up his address by offering the President “our solemn congratulations that God has sustained his life and health under the unparalleled burdens and sufferings of four bloody years, and permitted him to behold this auspicious confirmation of that national unity for which he has waited with so much patience and fortitude, and for which he has labored with such disinterested wisdom.”
Robert Anderson, having performed what he will call “perhaps the last act of my life, of duty to my country,” has a somewhat let-down feeling as the ceremony ends and he and the rest get aboard boats to return to Charleston. At the outset he had urged Stanton to keep the program brief and quiet, but it has turned out to be neither. What is more, he faces still another speaking ordeal this night at a formal dinner Gillmore is giving for him and other guests of honor, including the old-line abolitionist Garrison, who had been hanged and burned in effigy on a nearby street corner, thirty-odd years ago, in reaction to the Nat Turner uprising in Virginia. Garrison speaks, as does Beecher again—impromptu this time, and to better effect—and John Nicolay, who has been sent from Washington to deliver the Chief Executive’s regrets that he himself is unable to attend. Others hold forth at considerable length, interrupted from time to time by the crump and crackle of a fireworks display being staged in the harbor by Dahlgren’s fleet, with Battery wharves and rooftops nearly as crowded as they had been for a grimmer show of pyrotechnics, four years ago this week. In the banquet hall of the Charleston Hotel the evening wears on as speaker after speaker, not sharing Anderson’s aversion to exposure, has his say. At last, the various orators having subsided, the Kentuckian’s turn comes round. He rises, glass in hand, and haltingly, with no mention of Union victory or Confederate defeat, of which so much has already been said by the others, proposes a toast to “the man who, when elected President of the United States, was compelled to reach the seat of government without an escort, but a man who now could travel all over our country with millions of hands and hearts to sustain him. I give you the good, the great, the honest man, Abraham Lincoln.”
The man to whom the celebrants raise their glasses down in Charleston this Good Friday evening is seated in a box at Ford’s Theater, attentive to the forced chatter of a third-rate farce which by now is into its second act. Apparently he is enjoying himself, as he generally does at the theater, even though he had come with some reluctance, if not distaste, and more from a sense of obligation than by choice. “It has been advertised that we will be there,” he had said this afternoon, “and I cannot disappoint the people. Otherwise I would not go. I do not want to go.” In part this is because of a last-minute withdrawal by Grant, who earlier had accepted an invitation for him and his wife to come along, and whose presence, as the hero of Appomattox, would have lent the presidential box a glitter that outdid anything under limelight on the stage.
Besides, Lincoln has looked forward to the general’s company as a diversion from the strain of the daily grind, which the advent of peace has not made any less daily or less grinding. Today, for example, he is in his office by 7 am as usual, attending to administrative matters in advance of the flood of supplicants who will descend on him later. After issuing a call for a cabinet meeting at 11, he goes back upstairs for breakfast with Mrs. Lincoln and their two sons. Robert, just up from Virginia, brings with him a photograph of R.E. Lee which he presents to his father at the table, apparently as a joke. Lincoln does not take it so. He polishes his glasses on a napkin, studies the portrait, then says quietly: “It’s a good face. I am glad the war is over.” This last is repeated in varied phrasings through the day. Returning to his office he confers first with Speaker Colfax, who is slated for a cabinet post—probably Stanton’s, who more than anything wants a seat on the Supreme Court as soon as one becomes vacant—and then with Senator John Creswell, who had done much to keep Maryland in the Union during the secession furor. “Creswell, old fellow,” Lincoln hails him, “everything is bright this morning. The war is over. It has been a tough time, but we have lived it out. Or some of us have.” His face darkens, then lightens again. “But it is over. We are going to have good times now, and a united country.” He approves a number of appointments, grants a military discharge, sends a messenger over to Ford’s on 10th Street to reserve the State Box for the evening performance—not forgetting to inform the management that Grant will be a member of his party, which will help to increase the normally scant Good Friday audience—and writes on a card for two Virginians requesting passes south: “No pass is necessary now to authorize anyone to go and return from Petersburg and Richmond. People go and return just as they did before the war.” Presently, as the hour approaches for the cabinet meeting he has called, he walks over to the War Department, hoping for news from Sherman of Johnston’s surrender. There is nothing, but he isn’t discouraged.
Lincoln says later at the meeting that he is convinced some such news is on the way, and soon will be clicking off the wire, because of a dream he had last night. Grant is there by special invitation, having arrived from City Point just yesterday. Welcomed and applauded as he enters the cabinet room, he tells of his pursuit of Lee and the closing scene at Appomattox, but adds that no word has come from Carolina, where a similar campaign is being mounted against Joe Johnston, hopefully with similar results. The President says he is sure they will hear from Sherman soon, for he had had this dream last night. What sort of dream? Welles asks. “It relates to your element, the water,” Lincoln replies, and tells how he had been aboard “some singular, indescribable vessel” which seemed to be “floating, floating away on some vast and indistinct expanse, toward an unknown shore.” The dream was not so strange in itself, he declares, as in the fact that it is recurrent; that “each of its previous occurrences has been followed by some important event or disaster.” He had had it before Sumter and Bull Run, he says, as well as before such victories as Antietam, Stones River, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Wilmington. Grant—who seldom passes up a chance to take a swipe at Rosecrans—remarks that Stones River was no victory; he knows of no great results it brought. In any case, Lincoln tells him, he had had this dream on the eve of that battle, and it had come to him again last night. He takes it as a sign that they will “have great news very soon,” and “I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in that direction.” After a brief discussion of dreams and their nature, the talk returns to Appomattox. Grant’s terms there have assured that no member of the surrendered army, from Lee on down, will ever be prosecuted by the government for treason or any other crime, so long as he observes the conditions of his parole and the laws in force where he resides. Lincoln’s ready approval of this assurance gives Postmaster General William Dennison the impression that he would like to have it extended to the civilian leaders—a number of whom by now are fugitives, in flight for their lives amid the ruins of the rebellion—if only some way can be found to avoid having them hauled into court. “I suppose, Mr. President,” he half-inquires, half-suggests, “that you would not be sorry to have them escape out of the country?” Lincoln thinks it over. “Well, I should not be sorry to have them out of the country,” he replies, “but I should be for following them up pretty close to make sure of their going.” Having said as much he says still more to others around the table. “I think it is providential that this great rebellion is crushed just as Congress has adjourned and there are none of the disturbing elements of that body to hinder and embarrass us. If we are wise and discreet we shall reanimate the states and get their governments in successful operation, with order prevailing and the Union reëstablished before Congress comes together in December.” Returning to the question of what should be done with the rebel leaders, he becomes more animated both in speech and gesture. “I hope there will be no persecution, no bloody work after the war is over. No one need expect me to take any part in hanging or killing these men, even the worst of them. Frighten them out of the country; open the gates; let down the bars.” He puts both hands out, fluttering the fingers as if to frighten sheep out of a lot. “Shoo; scare them off,” he says; “enough lives have been sacrificed.”
It is for this, the consideration of reconstruction matters and incidentals preliminary to them, that the cabinet had been assembled in the first place, midway between its regular Tuesday gatherings. In the absence of Seward—still on his bed of pain, he is represented at the meeting by his son Frederick—Stanton has come armed with a plan, drawn up at the President’s request, for bringing the states that have been “abroad” back into what Lincoln, in his speech three nights ago, had called “their proper practical relation with the Union.” The War Secretary’s notion is that military occupation should precede readmission, and in this connection he proposes that Virginia and North Carolina be combined in a single district to simplify the army’s task. Welles takes exception, on grounds that this last would destroy the individuality of both states and thus be “in conflict with the principles of self-government which I deem essential.” So does Lincoln. After some earnest discussion, back and forth across the green-topped table, he suggests that Stanton revise his plan in this regard and provide copies for the other cabinet members to study between now and their next meeting, four days off. Congress will no doubt have its say when it returns in December, but as for himself he has already reached certain bedrock conclusions. “We can’t undertake to run state governments in all these southern states. Their own people must do that—though I reckon that at first some of them may do it badly.”
By now it is close to 2 pm, and the meeting, nearly three hours long, adjourns. Grant however remains behind to talk with Lincoln: not about army matters, it turns out, but to beg off going to the theater this evening. His wife, he says, is anxious to catch the late-afternoon train for Philadelphia, en route to a visit with their young sons in Burlington, New Jersey. Lincoln starts to press him, but then refrains, perhaps realizing from the general’s embarrassed manner that the real reason is Julia Grant, who is determined not to expose herself to another of Mary Lincoln’s tirades, this time in full view of the audience at Ford’s. Disappointed, Lincoln accepts the excuse—reinforced just then by a note from Mrs. Grant, reminding her husband not to be late for their 6 pm departure—and goes upstairs for lunch, faced with the unpleasant job of informing his wife that the social catch of the season will not be going with them to the theater this evening. If he also tells her, as he will tell others between now and curtain time, that he too no longer wants to go, it makes no difference; Grant or no Grant, she is set on attending what the papers are calling the “last appearance of Miss Laura Keene in her celebrated comedy of Our American Cousin.”
He is back in his office by 3 pm, in time for an appointment with the Vice President, the first since the scandalous scene at his swearing in. They talk for twenty minutes or so, and though neither will leave any record of what is said, witnesses note that Lincoln calls him “Andy,” shaking him vigorously by the hand, and that Johnson seems greatly relieved to find himself greeted cordially after nearly six weeks of pointed neglect. This done, Lincoln attends to some paperwork, including an appeal on behalf of a soldier convicted for desertion. So far in the war he has approved 267 death sentences for military offenses, but not this one. “Well, I think the boy can do us more good above ground than under ground,” he drawls as he fixes his signature to a pardon. Before setting out on a 4:30 carriage ride with his wife—“Just ourselves,” he had said at lunch when she asked if he wanted anyone else along—he walks over to the War Department, in hope that some word has come at last from Sherman. Again there is nothing, which serves to weaken his conviction that the news of “some important event or disaster” will shake the capital before the day is over. Time is running out, and he is disappointed. It is now, on the way back from the telegraph office, that he tells his bodyguard Crook that he doesn’t want to go to the theater this night, and would not go, except for notices in the papers that he will be there. Crook is about to go off shift, and when they reach the White House door Lincoln pauses for a moment and turns to face him. He seems gloomy, depressed. “Goodbye, Crook,” he says, to the guard’s surprise. Always before, it has been “Good night, Crook,” when they part. Now suddenly it is goodbye; “Goodbye, Crook.”
Still, by the time the carriage rolls out of the driveway a few minutes later, on through streets that glitter with bright gold April sunshine, he has recovered his spirits to such an extent that he informs his wife: “I never felt better in my life.” What is more—even though, just one month ago today, he had been confined to his bed with what his doctor described as “exhaustion, complete exhaustion”—he looks as happy as he says he feels. The recent City Point excursion, his first extended vacation of the war, has done him so much good that various cabinet members, after observing him at the midday meeting—in contrast to the one a month ago, when they gathered about his sickbed—will remark on the “expression of visible relief and content upon his face.” One will say that he “never appeared to better advantage,” while another will declare that “the weary look which his face had so long worn ... had disappeared. It was cheerful and happy.” They were glad to see him so. But Mary Lincoln, whose moods are quite as variable as his own, has a different reaction when he tells her he had never felt better in his life. “Don’t you remember feeling just so before our little boy died?” she asks. He pats her hand to comfort her, and speaks of a trip to Europe as soon as his term is up. After that they will return to Springfield, where he will resume the practice of law and perhaps buy a farm along the Sangamon. “We must both be more cheerful in the future,” he tells her. “Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.”
The good mood holds. Seeing two old friends just leaving as the open barouche turns into the White House driveway an hour later, he stands up and calls for them to wait. They are Richard Oglesby, the new governor of Illinois, and his adjutant general Isham Haynie, a combat brigadier who had left the army to work for him and Lincoln in the recent campaign. Lincoln leads the way inside, where he reads to them from the latest collection of “Letters” by Petroleum V. Nasby, a humorist he admires so much that he once said he would gladly swap his present office for the genius to compose such things. “Linkin rides into Richmond!” he reads from the final letter. “A Illinois rale-splitter, a buffoon, a ape, a goriller, a smutty joker, sets hisself down in President Davis’s cheer and rites dispatchis! … This ends the chapter. The Confederasy hez at last consentratid its last consentrate. It’s ded. It’s gathered up its feet, sed its last words, and deceest.… Farewell, vane world.” The reading goes on so long—four letters, with time out for laughter and thigh-slapping all around—that supper is delayed, as well as his departure for the theater. Even so, with the carriage waiting, he takes time to see Colfax, who calls again to ask if a special session of Congress is likely to interrupt a Rocky Mountain tour he is planning. The President says there will be no special session, and they go on talking until Mrs. Lincoln appears in the office doorway. She wears a low-necked evening dress and is pulling on her gloves, by way of warning her husband that 8 pm has struck. He excuses himself and they start out, only to be interrupted by two more men, a Massachusetts congressman and a former congressman from Illinois, both of whom have political favors to collect. One wants a hearing for a client who has a sizeable cotton claim against the government; Lincoln gives him a card that puts him first on tomorrow’s list of callers. What the other wants no one will know, for he whispers it into the presidential ear. Lincoln had entered and then backed out of the closed carriage, cocking his head to hear the request. “Excuse me now,” he says as he climbs in again beside his wife. “I am going to the theater. Come and see me in the morning.”
Stopping en route at the home of New York Senator Ira Harris to pick up their substitute guests, the senator’s daughter Clara and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, the carriage rolls and clops through intersections whose streetlamps glimmered dimly through the mist. It is close to 8:30, twenty minutes past curtain time, when the coachman draws rein in front of Ford’s, on 10th Street between E and F, and the two couples alight to enter the theater. Inside, about midway of Act I, the performance stops as the President and his party come down the side aisle, and the orchestra strikes up “Hail to the Chief” as they enter the flag-draped box to the right front. A near-capacity crowd of about 1,700 applauds politely, masking its disappointment at Grant’s absence. Clara Harris and Rathbone take seats near the railing; the First Lady sits a little behind them, to their left, and Lincoln slumps into a roomy, upholstered rocker toward the rear. This last represents concern for his comfort and is also the management’s way of expressing thanks for his having been here at least four times before, once to see Maggie Mitchell in Fanchon the Cricket, once to see John Wilkes Booth in The Marble Heart—“Rather tame than otherwise,” John Hay had complained—and twice to see James Hackett play Falstaff in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Tonight’s play resumes, and Lincoln, as is his habit, at once grows absorbed in the action down below: though not so absorbed that he fails to notice that the major is holding his fiancée’s hand, for he reaches out and takes hold of his wife’s. Pleased by the attention he had shown her on their carriage ride that afternoon, and now by this further expression of affection, Mary Lincoln reverts to her old role of Kentucky belle. “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so?” she whispers, leaning toward him. Lincoln’s eyes, fixed on the stage, reflect the glow of the footlights. “Why, she will think nothing about it,” he says, and he keeps his grip on her hand.
Act I ends; Act II begins. Down in Charleston the banqueters raise their glasses in response to Anderson’s toast, and here at Ford’s, in an equally festive mood, the audience enjoys Our American Cousin with only occasional sidelong glances at the State Box to see whether Grant has arrived. He might have done so without their knowledge, for though they can see the young couple at the railing and Mrs. Lincoln half in shadow behind them, the President is screened from view by the box curtains and draped flags. Act II ends; Act III begins. Lincoln, having at last released his wife’s hand and settled back in the horsehair rocker, seems to be enjoying what is happening down below. In the second scene, which opens shortly after 10 pm, a three-way running dialogue reveals to Mrs. Mountchessington that Asa Trenchard, for whom she had set her daughter’s cap, is no millionaire after all.
— No heir to the fortune, Mr Trenchard?
— Oh, no.
— What! No fortune!
— Nary a red....
— Augusta, to your room.
— Yes, ma. The nasty beast!
— I am aware, Mr Trenchard, that you are not used to the manners of good society, and that alone will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.
Exit Mrs. Mountchessington, trailing daughter. Trenchard alone.
— Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old mantrap!
Then it comes, a half-muffled explosion, somewhere between a boom and a thump, loud but by no means so loud as it sounds in the theater, then a boil and bulge of bluish smoke in the presidential box, an exhalation as of brimstone from the curtained mouth, and a man coming out through the bank and swirl of it, white-faced and dark-haired in a black sack suit and riding boots, eyes aglitter, brandishing a knife. He mounts the ledge, presents his back to the rows of people seated below, and lets himself down by the handrail for the ten-foot drop to the stage. Falling he turns, and as he does so catches the spur of his right boot in the folds of a flag draped over the lower front of the high box. It rips but offers enough resistance to bring all the weight of his fall on his left leg, which buckles and pitches him forward onto his hands. He rises, thrusts the knife overhead in a broad theatrical gesture, and addresses the outward darkness of the pit. “Sic semper tyrannis,” he says in a voice so low and projected with so little clarity that few recognize the state motto of Virginia or can later agree that he had spoken in Latin. “Revenge for the South!” or “The South is avenged!” some think they hear him cry, while others will say that he simply muttered “Freedom.” In any case he then turns again, hobbles left across the stage past the lone actor standing astonished in its center, and vanishes into the wings.
Barely half a minute has passed since the jolt of the explosion, and now a piercing scream comes through the writhing tendrils of smoke—a full-voiced wail from Mary Lincoln. “Stop that man!” Rathbone shouts, nursing an arm slashed by the intruder, and Clara Harris, wringing her hands, calls down from the railing in a tone made falsely calm by shock: “Water. Water.” The audience begins to emerge from its trance. “What is it? What happened?” “For God’s sake, what is it?” “What has happened?” The answer comes in a bellow of rage from the curtained orifice above the spur-torn flag: “He has shot the President!” Below, men leap from their seats in a first reaction of disbelief and denial, not only of this but also of what they had seen with their own eyes. “No. For God’s sake, no! It can’t be true.” But then, by way of reinforcement for the claim, the cry goes up: “Surgeon! A surgeon! Is there a surgeon in the house?”
The young doctor who comes forward—and at last gains admission to the box, after Rathbone removes a wooden bar the intruder had used to keep the hallway door from being opened while he went about his work—thinks at first that he has been summoned to attend a dead man. Lincoln sits sprawled in the rocker as if asleep, knees relaxed, eyes closed, head dropped forward so that his chin is on his chest. He seems to have no vital signs until a closer examination detects a weak pulse and shallow breathing. Assuming that he had been knifed, as Rathbone had been, the doctor has him taken from the chair and laid on the floor in a search for a stab wound. However, when he puts his hands behind the patient’s head to lift it, he finds the back hair wet with blood from a half-inch hole where a bullet had entered, three inches to the right of the left ear. “The course of the ball was obliquely forward,” a subsequent report will state, “toward the right eye, crossing the brain in an oblique manner and lodging a few inches behind that eye. In the track of the wound were found fragments of bone driven forward by the ball, which was embedded in the anterior lobe of the left hemisphere of the brain.” The doctor—Charles A. Leale, assistant surgeon, US Volunteers, twenty-three years old and highly familiar with gunshot wounds—doesn’t not know all this; yet he knows enough from what he has seen and felt, here in the crowded box for the past five minutes, as well as in casualty wards for the past year, to arrive at a prognosis. Everything is over for Abraham Lincoln but the end. “His wound is mortal,” Leale pronounces. “It is impossible for him to recover.”
Two other surgeons are in the box by now, both senior to Leale in rank and years, but he remains in charge and makes the decision not to risk a removal to the White House, six cobblestone blocks away. “If it is attempted the President will die before we reach there,” he replies to the suggestion. Instead, with the help of four soldier volunteers, the three doctors take up their patient and carry him feet first down the stairs and aisle, out onto 10th Street—packed nearly solid with the curious and grieving, so that an infantry captain has to draw his sword to clear a path for the seven bearers and their awkward burden, bawling excitedly: “Out of the way, you sons of bitches!”—up the front steps, down a narrow hall, and into a small back ground-floor bedroom in one of a row of modest houses across the way. Let by the night by its owner, a Swedish tailor, the room is mean and dingy, barely fifteen by nine feet in length and width, with a threadbare rug, once Turkey red, and oatmeal-colored paper on the walls. The bed itself is too short for the long form placed diagonally on the cornshuck mattress; Lincoln’s booted feet protrude well beyond the footboard, his head propped on extra pillows so that his bearded chin is on his chest, as it had been when Leale first saw him in the horsehair rocker, back at Ford’s. By now the time is close to 11 pm, some forty-five minutes after the leaden ball first broke into his skull, and now begins a painful, drawn-out vigil, a death watch that will continue for another eight hours and beyond.
Three more doctors soon arrive, Surgeon General Joseph Barnes, his chief assistant, and the family physician, who does what he can for Mary Lincoln in her distress. Barnes takes charge, but Leale continues his ministrations, including the removal of the patient’s clothing in a closer search for another wound and the application of mustard plasters in an attempt to improve his respiration and heartbeat. One does as little good as the other; for there is no additional wound and Lincoln’s condition remains about the same, with stertorous breathing, pulse a feeble 44, hands and feet corpse-cold to the wrists and ankles, and both eyes insensitive to light, the left pupil much contracted, the right dilated widely. Gideon Welles comes in at this point and will write tomorrow in his diary of “the giant sufferer” as he sees him from his post beside the bed. “He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the bedclothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there.” Presently, though, their calm appearance changes. The left side of the face begins to twitch, distorting the mouth into a jeer. When this desists, the upper right side of the face begins to darken, streaked with purple as from a blow, and the eye with the ball of lead behind it begins to bulge from its socket. Mary Lincoln screams at the sight and has to be led from the room, while a journalist notes that Charles Sumner, “seated on the right of the President’s couch, near the head, holding the right hand of the President in his own,” is about equally unstrung. “He was sobbing like a woman, with his head bowed down almost on the pillow of the bed on which the President was lying.”
By midnight, close to fifty callers are in the house, all of sufficient prominence to gain entrance past the guards and most of them wedged shoulder to shoulder in the death chamber, at one time or another, for a look at the final agony of the man laid diagonally on the bed in one corner. Andrew Johnson is there—briefly, however, because his presence is painful to Mrs. Lincoln, who whimpers at the sight of her husband’s imminent successor—as are a number of Sumner’s colleagues from the House and Senate, Robert Lincoln and John Hay, Oglesby and Haynie again, a pair of clergymen—one fervent, the other unctuous—and Laura Keene, who claims a star’s prerogative, first in the box at the theater, where she had held the President’s bleeding head in her lap, and now in the narrow brick house across the street, where she helps Clara Harris comfort the distraught widow-to-be in the tailor’s front parlor, what time she isn’t with her in the crowded bedroom toward the rear. All members of the cabinet are on hand but the Secretary of State, and most of the talk that isn’t of Lincoln is of him. He too has been attacked and grievously wounded, along with four members of his household, by a lone assassin who struck at about the same time as the one at Ford’s: unless, indeed, it was the same man in rapid motion from one place to the other, less than half a mile away. Seward has been slashed about the face and throat, and he is thought to be dying, too, except that the iron frame that bound his jaw had served to protect him to some extent from the knife. “I’m mad, I’m mad,” the attacker had said as he ran out into the night to vanish as cleanly as the other—or he—had done when he—or the other—leaped from the box, crossed the stage, entered the wings, and exited into the alley behind Ford’s, where he—whoever, whichever he was—mounted his waiting horse and rode off in the darkness.
In this, as in other accounts concerning other rumored victims—Grant, for one, and Andrew Johnson for another, until word comes that the general is safe in Philadelphia and the Vice President himself shows up unhurt—there is much confusion. Edwin Stanton undertakes on his own the task of sifting and setting the contradictions straight, in effect taking over as head of the headless government. “[He] instantly assumed charge of everything near and remote, civil and military,” a subordinate will observe, “and began issuing orders in that autocratic manner so superbly necessary to the occasion.” Among other precautions, he stops traffic on the Potomac and the railroads, warns the Washington Fire Brigade to be ready for mass arson, summons Grant back to take charge of the capital defenses, and alerts guards along the Canadian border, as well as in all major eastern ports, to be on the lookout for suspicious persons attempting to leave the country. In short, “he continued throughout the night acting as president, secretary of war, secretary of state, commander in chief, comforter, and dictator,” all from a small sitting room adjacent to the front parlor of the tailor’s house on 10th Street, which he turns into an interrogation chamber for grilling witnesses to find out just what had happened in the theater across the street.
From the outset, numbers of people who know him well, including members of his profession, have identified John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s attacker, and by now the twenty-six-year-old matinee idol’s one-shot pocket derringer has been found on the floor of the box where he dropped it as he leaped for the railing to escape by way of the stage and the back alley. Identification is certain. Even so, and though a War Department description eventually goes out by wire across the land—“height 5 feet 8 inches, weight 160 pounds, compact build; hair jet black, inclined to curl, medium length, parted behind; eyes black, heavy dark eyebrows; wears a large seal ring on little finger; when talking inclines head forward, looks down”—Stanton is intent on larger game. Apparently convinced that the President could not have been shot by anyone so insignificant as an actor acting on his own, he is out to expose a full-scale Confederate plot, a conspiracy hatched in Richmond “and set on foot by rebels under pretense of avenging the rebel cause.”
So he believes at any rate, and though he gives most of his attention to exploring this assumption—proceeding with such misdirected and disjointed vigor that he later arouses revisionist suspicions that he must have wanted the assassin to escape: as, for instance, by his neglect in closing all city bridges except the one Booth used to cross into Maryland—he still has time for periodic visits to the small back room, filled with the turmoil of Lincoln’s labored breathing, and to attend to such incidental administrative matters as the preparation of a message giving Johnson formal notice that the President has died. His purpose in this, with the hour of death left blank to be filled in later, is to avoid delay when the time comes, but when he reads the rough draft aloud for a stenographer to take down a fair copy he produces a premature effect he had not foreseen. Hearing a strangled cry behind him, he turns and finds Mary Lincoln standing in the parlor doorway, hands clasped before her in entreaty, a stricken expression on her face. “Is he dead? Oh, is he dead?” she moans. Stanton tries to explain that what she had heard was merely in preparation for a foreseen contingency, but she cannot understand him through her sobbing and her grief. So he gives it up and has her led back into the parlor, out of his way; which is just as well, an associate will declare, for “he was full of business, and knew, moreover, that in a few hours at most she must be a widow.”
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.