The Twilight Between War and Peace: Lincoln’s Assassination One-Hundred and Fifty Years Later

 Currier and Ives depiction of lincoln's assassination.

Currier and Ives depiction of lincoln's assassination.

April 14, 1865 dawned as a good day in Washington, D.C., not merely because of the religious importance of Good Friday to the city’s Christians, but more due to the events of the past eleven days. In just over a week and a half the Civil War began to rush towards a momentous finish. On April 3, Richmond, the Confederate capital, fell to the Army of the Potomac. Less than a week later, roughly seventy-five miles to the west and south, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, retiring the Confederacy’s most formidable fighting force. Despite this bevy of success, the war was not yet over. Joseph E. Johnston continued to elude Union forces in North Carolina, Jefferson Davis and most of the Confederate government remained at large, and scattered pockets of resisted still stood across many rural reaches of the South. Yet, for many in Washington, including Abraham Lincoln, the final act of the conflict was near at hand. As Richard Carwardine noted in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, these were “twilight days between war and peace.” Indeed, by the end of Good Friday, a day which began so promising in the nation’s capital, that twilight would seem all the more deeper.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, in the early evening hours, Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, made their way to one of the President’s favorite places to relax in the capital: Ford’s Theatre. Throughout the war Lincoln had frequented Ford’s and other theaters in Washington as a means to escape the pressures of war, at least temporarily. On the evening of April 14 Lincoln and his guests arrived late to see the comedy “Our American Cousin.” As Lincoln approached the Presidential Box that overlooked the stage the crowd of seventeen hundred spectators at the performance gave him a standing ovation while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief.” Lincoln would take his seat with one policeman guarding the door to the President’s private box.

As the play marched on towards its funniest crescendo, John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor at the theater and Confederate sympathizer approached the door to the Presidential Box, which was inexplicably unguarded as the policemen stationed there had left his post. After he passed through the first door to a little hallway astride Lincoln’s private viewing area, Booth barred the door behind him. Booth then carefully slunk into the box. His decision to point the small derringer at Lincoln was the endgame of a wider plan launched by Booth earlier in the day, which sent other assailants to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Both of those attempts did not succeed, either because of a protective brace in the former case and lack of effort in the latter instance. Booth, regrettably, did not fail. Around 10:25pm, April 14, 1865, the Southern sympathizing actor pulled the trigger on his derringer, mortally wounding Lincoln.

In the aftermath of the attack, Major Rathbone attempted to stop Booth, but the assailant slashed at him with a knife, wounding the Major. Booth then leapt to the stage, caught his foot in the fall and broke his leg. He arose on the stage and shouted, according to many witnesses, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” before he hastily exited the theater bound for a waiting horse.

Back in the Presidential Box, Lincoln lay on the floor, unconscious. Three doctors (Charles Leale, Charles Sabin Taft, and Albert King) in the theater quickly came to Lincoln’s aide, but they could do little for the stricken President. Unable to return Lincoln to the White House, they and some soldiers in attendance carried the President across the street to the house of William A. Petersen, a German Tailor. Lincoln spent the last few hours of his life in a bed too small for his once towering frame. Finally, at 7:22am on April 15, Lincoln passed on to both the angels and ages, to borrow loosely from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s famed, if misremembered, eulogy of Lincoln.  

Lincoln’s death did not usher in the finale of the Civil War, much like the pivotal events of the preceding week and a half. As we noted here at Civil Discourse yesterday, there were still weeks and months of the war left unwritten. Yet, today, one-hundred years after Booth fired the shot that struck down the Sixteenth President, we need to remember that Lincoln’s death was important. Numerous scholars and institutions have documented on Lincoln’s death (especially Martha Hodes’ Mourning Lincoln and Ford’s Theatre own Remembering Lincoln digital history project). Lincoln’s death was important, not just because he was the President during the war (and the first American chief executive to be assassinated), but because the tragic nature of his passing, so close to the end of the war added another life to the grim tally marks of the four-year conflict. Lincoln’s death, unfortunate as it was, reminds us that the destructive nature of the Civil War touched untold millions of lives in many ways. The past few weeks of the Sesquicentennial have from Petersburg to Richmond to Appomattox partially highlighted the triumphant and ultimate conclusion of the Civil War. As today passes, the remembrance of Lincoln’s final hours should give us pause to reflect on just how cruel that was from 1861 to 1865.  

Further Reading:

Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Ford’s Theatre, Remembering Lincoln, http://rememberinglincoln.fords.org/

Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln, Yale University Press, 2015.

Chuck Welsko is currently a doctoral student in 19th-century American history at West Virginia University, where he also received his master’s degree. An alum of Moravian College in Pennsylvania, he has also worked for local museums and interned with the National Park Service. Chuck’s research focuses on the mid-Atlantic region, in particular the intersection between politics, rhetoric, and the conceptualizations of loyalty during the Civil War Era. ©