Monday, April 14, 2008

"My God, that's John Booth!"

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

April 14, 1865, Good Friday. Assassination.

8 A.M. Breakfast.

Robert Todd Lincoln had been at Appomattox for Robert E. Lee’s surrender, but he arrived back at the White House in time to have breakfast with his father this morning. After four years of national suffering, it looked as if the Civil War was finally drawing to a close.

Today would be another busy day.

The president met with Congressman Colfax, Senator Hale, General Grant, lawyer William A. Howard, Maryland Governor Swann, and Sen. Creswell.

11 A.M. Cabinet meeting.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch, Acting Secretary of State Frederick Seward, Postmaster General William Dennison, Attorney General James Speed, Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were present, as was a special guest, General Ulysses S. Grant, who related the details of the surrender at Appomattox.

The cabinet discussed what should be done about Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis. Secretary of War Stanton said they should be arrested and tried for treason, but Lincoln indicated a preference for Confederate leaders to simply flee the country. The topic then shifted toward the other Confederate armies in the field. When would they surrender?

Unexpectedly, Lincoln told the cabinet that good news was coming. He had a dream the night before, the same dream that preceded major events in the war, such as the attack on Fort Sumter, and the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stones River, Vicksburg, and Wilmington. Secretary Welles asked the president to describe the dream.

Lincoln said he was “in some singular, indescribable vessel…moving rapidly toward an indefinite shore.” “I had this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon,” he concluded.

Grant reminded Lincoln that Stone’s River was not a Union victory, nor were several of the other battles that occurred after the dream.

Nonetheless, the president said, something significant was going to happen.

2 P.M. Invitation number one and two.

The Cabinet meeting finally came to a close.

Lincoln asked General Grant if he and his wife would care to join he and Mary at the theater that night. Grant declined.

Later, the president asked Assistant Secretary of War Major Thomas Eckert to join him at the theater. Eckert declined.

Afternoon. Paperwork.

Lincoln spent the afternoon doing paperwork. At least two condemned Confederate soldiers received pardons from Lincoln dated April 14, 1865.

3 P.M. Carriage ride.

Lincoln and Mary took a carriage ride. Later, Mary claimed her husband was “almost boyish, in his mirth & reminded me, of his original nature, what I had always remembered of him, in our own home—free from care,…I never saw him so supremely cheerful—his manner was even playful…” She said to him, “Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.”

Lincoln replied, “and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war has come to a close.” But Lincoln continued.

“We must both, be more cheerful in the future—between the war & the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable,” he concluded.

5 P.M. Invitation number three.

The Lincolns arrived back at the White House. Lincoln invited the Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby to the theater. Like Grant and Egert, Oglesby declined.

7 P.M. Dinner.

8 P.M. Enroute.

The Lincolns started or the theater in a carriage. Apparently, Mary found a young couple willing to join them at the theater. Their carriage stopped at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets to pick up Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Miss Clara Harris.

8:30 P.M. Arrival.

Though it was Good Friday, Ford’s Theater was full. Our American Cousin, starring Miss Laura Keene, started around 8 pm, but the person everyone came to see entered the presidential box about a half hour late.

When the audience saw the president and first lady enter the box, they stood and cheered. The orchestra even joined in the welcome and played “Hail to the Chief.” Lincoln responded with a “smile and bow.”

10:30 P.M. Act 3, Scene 2.

Harry Hawk was the only actor on stage. As he delivered the most humorous line in the play, a gunshot rang out.

Later that night, Secretary of War Stanton interviewed him. The actor described what he saw:

I was on the stage at the time of the firing and heard the report of the pistol. My back was towards the President’s box at the time. I heard something tear and somebody fell and as I looked towards him he came in the direction in which I was standing and I believe to the best of my knowledge that it was John Wilkes Booth. Still I am not positive that it was him. I only had one glance at him as he was rushing towards me with a dagger and I turned and run and after I ran up a flight of stairs I turned and exclaimed “My God that’s John Booth.” I am acquainted with Booth. I met him the first time a year ago. I saw him today about one o’clock. Said I, “How do you do Mr. Booth” and he says “how are you Hawk.” He was sitting on the steps of Ford’s Theatre reading a letter. He had the appearance of being sober at the time. I was never intimate with him. He had no hat on when I saw him on the stage. In my own mind I do not have any doubt that it was Booth. He made some expression when he came on the stage but I did not understand what.

James P. Ferguson was sitting in the dress circle when the president was shot. Like Hawk, he was interviewed and described the horrific scene:

I then heard the report of the pistol and saw Mrs. Lincoln catch [the president] around the neck. I saw him throw up his right arm at the same time I saw Booth with his hand in his side and pull a knife and move between Mrs. Lincoln and a lady in the same box. He put his hands in the cushion of the box and threw his feet right over. As he jumped over he pulled part of a state flag off and had part of it under his feet when he fell on the stage. The very moment he struck he exclaimed “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” As he came across the stage facing me he looked me right up in the face and it alarmed me and I pulled the lady who was with me down behind the banister. I looked right down at him and he stopped as he said, “I have done it” and shook the knife…

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