Abe Lincoln History

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President Abraham Lincoln
Assassination Summary

John Wilkes Booth initially plotted to kidnap President Lincoln early in 1864, in order to trade for ransom and the release of confederate prisoners of war. As a consequence of unfolding events Booth switched gears and a new desperate plan to cripple the union and help the confederacy emerged.
  • Fun Lincoln Assassination Fact: Days before the 15th of April, 1865, President Lincoln had a dream which greatly troubled him. He talked with his wife about it. He told his bodyguard, William Crook, and his cabinet.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was the first American president to be assassinated. He was mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth in the Presidential Box of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., while watching the comedy, Our American Cousin. Accompanying him at Ford's Theater that night were his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a twenty-eight year-old officer named Major Henry R. Rathbone, and Rathbone's fiancee, Clara Harris. After the play was in progress, a figure with a drawn derringer pistol stepped into the presidential box, aimed, and fired. The president slumped forward.

The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dropped the pistol and waved a dagger. Rathbone lunged at him, and though slashed in the arm, forced the killer to the railing. Booth leapt from the balcony and caught the spur of his left boot on a flag draped over the rail, and shattered a bone in his leg on landing. Though injured, he rushed out the back door, and disappeared into the night on horseback.

A doctor in the audience immediately went upstairs to the box. The bullet had entered through Lincoln's left ear and lodged behind his right eye. He was paralyzed and barely breathing. He was carried across Tenth Street, to a boarding-house opposite the theater, but the doctors' best efforts failed. Nine hours later, at 7:22 AM on April 15th, Lincoln died.

At almost the same moment Booth fired the fatal shot, his accomplice, Lewis Paine, attacked Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Seward lay in bed, recovering from a carriage accident. Paine entered the mansion, claiming to have a delivery of medicine from the Secretary's doctor. Seward's son, Frederick, was brutally beaten while trying to keep Paine from his father's door. Paine slashed the Secretary's throat twice, then fought his way past Seward's son Augustus, an attending hospital corps veteran, and a State Department messenger.

Paine escaped into the night, believing his deed complete. However, a metal surgical collar saved Seward from certain death. The Secretary lived another seven years, during which he retained his seat with the Johnson administration, and purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.

There were at least four conspirators in addition to Booth involved in the mayhem. Booth was shot and captured while hiding in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died later the same day, April 26, 1865. Four co-conspirators, Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt, were hanged at the gallows of the Old Penitentiary, on the site of present-day Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln's Last Day

President Abraham Lincoln on his death bed. (Library of Congress)
President Abraham Lincoln on his death bed. (Library of Congress)
7:00 A.M.
As usual the president arose at seven. Friday, April 14, 1865, began as a lovely spring day in Washington, D.C. The dogwood trees were in bloom, and there was a scent of fresh flowers in the air. The willows along the Potomac River were green. In the parks and gardens the lilacs bloomed. Before breakfast Mr. Lincoln, 56, went to his office, sat down at an upright mahogany desk and worked for awhile. Behind him was a velvet bell cord which he pulled to summon a secretary. The president left instructions for Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward to call a Cabinet meeting at 11:00 A.M. (Secretary of State William Seward was confined to bed due to a carriage accident.) Mr. Lincoln also wrote a note inviting General Ulysses S. Grant to attend the Cabinet meeting.
8:00 A.M.
Abraham Lincoln ate breakfast. Normally he had one egg and one cup of coffee. This morning Mary Todd Lincoln, 46, sat at the opposite end of the table with sons, Robert, 21, and Tad, 12, at the sides. President Lincoln listened as Captain Robert Lincoln discussed his brief tour of duty in the Union Army. Robert had been present at the Mclean House in Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Mary said she had tickets to Grover's Theatre, but she'd prefer to see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. She also indicated a hope that General and Mrs. Grant would accompany them to the theater. After breakfast the president excused himself to go back to work in his office which was located in the southeast corner of the White House.
9:00 A.M.
Lincoln read the morning newspapers. His first visitor of the day was Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. Lincoln told the Speaker his own ideas as to what the future policy should be toward the Southern states. Colfax expressed a concern that Lincoln would proceed with reconstruction without legislative branch consultation. At the War Department General Grant told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the Grants were going to decline the Lincolns' theater invitation.
10:00 A.M.
Mr. Lincoln greeted more visitors. One of them was former New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale who had recently been appointed minister to Spain. (Hale's daughter, Lucy, was John Wilkes Booth's fiancée.) Mr. Lincoln then called for a messenger and requested that he go to Ford's Theatre and reserve the State Box for the evening's performance. He did not yet know General Grant intended to decline the invitation and leave Washington on a late afternoon train. The management of Ford's was elated when they heard the news of their special guests for Good Friday's Our American Cousin performance.
11:00 A.M.
The president began the scheduled meeting of his Cabinet. Stanton, as usual, arrived late. Grant was present at the meeting, and Lincoln was expecting important deliberations regarding reconstruction to occur. He admitted he was open to suggestions on this very complex matter. Lots of various ideas were proposed to begin the process of reconciliation between North and South. Also discussed was what to do with the leaders of the Confederacy. Lincoln spoke from the heart when he said, "... enough lives have been sacrificed."
12:00 Noon
The Cabinet meeting continued with more discussion of the process of putting the country on its feet again.
1:00 P.M.
Except for minor differences of opinion, the Cabinet seemed agreed that helping the South economically would also be beneficial to the North. At this point, the president asked General Grant to describe the details of General Lee's surrender. Vice-President Andrew Johnson arrived at the White House. With the Cabinet meeting still in progress, Johnson decided to take a walk and wait until Lincoln could see him.
2:00 P.M.
The Cabinet meeting ended. Grant got up from his chair and walked over to Mr. Lincoln. The general explained he and his wife would not be going to Ford's Theatre; rather they were taking the evening train out of Washington to visit their children. At about 2:20 Lincoln left the office for lunch with Mary. Although no record of the lunch time conversation exists, it's quite likely Abraham told Mary that the Grants would not be accompanying them to see Our American Cousin. Lincoln, back at work, studied some papers dealing with an army deserter. He signed a pardon, and made the remark, "Well, I think the boy can do us more good above ground than underground."
3:00 P.M.
Andrew Johnson and Mr. Lincoln met for approximately 20 minutes. Then the president met with a former slave named Nancy Bushrod. Her husband had served in the Union Army, but he was missing some paychecks. Lincoln promised to look into the matter. At the War Department, the Stantons decided to "send regrets" about attending Our American Cousin with the Lincolns that evening.
4:00 P.M.
Lincoln had finished his day's work. Mary wished to go for a carriage ride. The president met briefly with Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War.
5:00 P.M.
Congressman Edward H. Rollins of New Hampshire stopped by to get a pass for a constituent to go and see his wounded son in an army hospital. The president and his wife came out on the White House porch. A one-armed soldier, hoping to catch sight of Mr. Lincoln, yelled, "I would almost give my other hand if I could shake that of Abraham Lincoln." The president walked toward the soldier and grabbed his hand. Lincoln said, "You shall do that and it shall cost you nothing." The Lincolns then entered the carriage with Francis P. Burke, their coachman, as the driver. Two cavalrymen followed the carriage as it started down the gravel White House driveway. The carriage arrived at the Navy Yard, and the president took a short stroll on the deck of the monitor Montauk. Then he got back in the carriage for the short trip back to the White House.
6:00 P.M.
The carriage pulled into the White House driveway. Two old friends from Illinois, Dick Oglesby and General Isham N. Haynie, greeted the president. He invited them into his office for a friendly discussion of 'old times.' Word that dinner was ready reached Lincoln, and his old friends excused themselves. The Lincolns ate as a family. Mary told Abraham that a young couple, Clara Harris, 20, and Major Henry Rathbone, 28, had accepted a Ford's Theatre invitation. (Rathbone's townhouse at 712 Jackson Place in Lafayette Square still stands.) The Lincolns would pick up the couple at the Harris residence on H Street near Fourteenth.
7:00 P.M.
William H. Crook, the president's bodyguard, was relieved three hours late by John F. Parker. Parker was told to be on hand at Ford's Theatre when the presidential party got there. Crook said, "Good night, Mr. President." Lincoln responded, "Good-by, Crook." According to Crook, this was a first. Lincoln had always previously said, "Good night, Crook." Speaker of the House Colfax visited the president for a second time that day. Lincoln told him he had decided not to call a special session of Congress to deal with reconstruction. Colfax left, and at 7:50 former Congressman George Ashmun arrived without an appointment. Lincoln decided to see Ashmun anyway.
8:00 P.M.
At 8:05 Lincoln's business with Ashmun was still unfinished, and he requested a return visit in the morning. Lincoln wrote out the last message of his life: "Allow Mr. Ashmun & friend to come in at 9:00 A.M. tomorrow." The note was signed "A. Lincoln, April 14, 1865." He and Mrs. Lincoln then went out the front door of the White House to the waiting carriage. (The carriage is on display at the Studebaker National Museum. There is a photograph of it on the museum’s website.) Mary wore a black and white striped silk dress and a matching bonnet; Abraham wore a black overcoat and white kid gloves. Lincoln's coat was made of wool and had been tailored for him by Brooks Brothers of New York. The weather had changed; it was a foggy, misty night. On the way to Ford's, the carriage stopped to pick up Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. (Both of whom are pictured to the left; the photo of Clara is from the Associated Press, and the photo of Henry is from the National Archives.) The carriage proceeded to Ford's. Clara Harris and Major Rathbone faced the Lincolns, riding backwards. Also in the carriage were Burke, the coachman, and Charles Forbes, Lincoln's valet. They arrived at Ford's at about 8:30 P.M. The play had already begun. John M. Buckingham, Ford's main doorkeeper and ticket collector, greeted the honored guests. John Parker led the presidential party as it entered the theater and walked towards the State Box. The play stopped, and the orchestra played "Hail to the Chief." People in the audience stood and politely clapped. Once the president was seated, Our American Cousin resumed. His chair was a black walnut one with red upholstery. It had been brought down from the Ford family's personal quarters located on the 3rd floor above Taltavul's Star Saloon.
9:00 P.M.
Our American Cousin continued before over 1,000 patrons in the theater. At one point, Abraham Lincoln felt a chill. Mary asked if he wanted a shawl, but the president rose and put on his black coat instead. He sat back in his rocking chair (which was out of view of the vast majority of the audience). During the play's intermission, John F. Parker, the president's bodyguard, left the theater and went next door to Taltavul's Star Saloon for a drink. He was not at his post when Act III of the play began.
10:00 P.M.
Our American Cousin was now in its third act. Mary sat very close to her husband, her hand in his. She whispered to him, "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?" The president replied, "She won't think anything about it." It was between 10:15 P.M. and 10:30 P.M. On stage actor Harry Hawk was saying, "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 mantrap!" John Wilkes Booth came up behind Mr. Lincoln and shot him in the back of the head near point blank range. The bullet entered the head about 3 inches behind the left ear and traveled about 7 1/2 inches into the brain. Major Rathbone thought Booth shouted a word that sounded like "Freedom!" (Many accounts have Booth yelling "Sic Semper Tyrannis" in the box, or when he landed on the stage.) Booth struggled briefly with Rathbone, stabbed him with a knife, leaped 11 feet to the stage, broke the fibula bone in his left leg, and escaped from the theater. (At least one assassination expert, Michael Kauffman, feels Booth did not break his leg in his leap to the stage. Kauffman feels Booth broke his leg later that night when his horse took a fall.) Lincoln's head inclined toward his chest, and Mrs. Lincoln screamed.

The first doctor to attend the president was 23 year old Charles Leale. After examining the stricken man he sadly said, "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover." It was decided to move the president, and his comatose body was carried across the street to the Petersen House whose address was 453 Tenth Street (nowadays 516 Tenth Street).

To the right is a contemporary drawing of the Petersen House on the night of the assassination. Armed soldiers guard the house as the president is cared for inside. (The drawing is from the Library of Congress.)

The president was placed diagonally on a bed in a room rented by William T. Clark (pictured to the left; the photo of Clark came from p. 49 of WHEN LINCOLN DIED: The Assassination, The Funeral Journey, The Pursuit and Trial of the Conspirators, The Complete Story in Pictures and in the Words of His Day by Ralph Borreson), an army clerk. It was a small, neat room which measured 9 1/2 by 17 1/2 feet. Lincoln's pulse was 44, and his breathing was heavy. He was cold to the touch.

Abe Lincoln History