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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Death of Lincoln

By John George Nicolay (1832–1901) and John Hay (1838–1905)

[Abraham Lincoln: A History. By John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Private Secretaries to the President. 1888–90.]

THE SUBJECT of the discussion which took place in the Cabinet on that last day of Lincoln’s firm and tolerant rule has been preserved for us in the notes of Mr. Welles. They were written out, it is true, seven years afterwards, at a time when Grant was President, seeking reëlection, and when Mr. Welles had followed Andrew Johnson into full fellowship with the Democratic party. Making whatever allowance is due for the changed environment of the writer, we still find his account of the day’s conversation candid and trustworthy. The subject of trade between the States was the first that engaged the attention of the Cabinet. Mr. Stanton wished it to be carried on under somewhat strict military supervision; Mr. Welles was in favor of a more liberal system; Mr. McCulloch, new to the Treasury, and embarrassed by his grave responsibilities, favored the abolition of the Treasury agencies, and above all desired a definite understanding of the purpose of the Government. The President, seeing that in this divergence of views among men equally able and honest there lay the best chance of a judicious arrangement, appointed the three Secretaries as a commission with plenary power to examine the whole subject, announcing himself as content in advance with their conclusions.

The great subject of the reëstablishment of civil government in the Southern States was then taken up. Mr. Stanton had, a few days before, drawn up a project for an executive ordinance for the preservation of order and the rehabilitation of legal processes in the States lately in rebellion. The President, using this sketch as his text, not adopting it as a whole, but saying that it was substantially the result of frequent discussions in the Cabinet, spoke at some length on the question of reconstruction, than which none more important could ever engage the attention of the Government. It was providential, he thought, that this matter should have arisen at a time when it could be considered, so far as the Executive was concerned, without interference by Congress. If they were wise and discreet, they should reanimate the States and get their governments in successful operation, with order prevailing and the Union reëstablished, before Congress came together in December. The President felt so kindly towards the South, he was so sure of the Cabinet under his guidance, that he was anxious to close the period of strife without overmuch discussion. He was particularly desirous to avoid the shedding of blood, or any vindictiveness of punishment. He gave plain notice that morning that he would have none of it. “No one need expect he would 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, scare them off,” said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep. “Enough lives have been sacrificed; we must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union.” He deprecated the disposition he had seen in some quarters to hector and dictate to the people of the South, who were trying to right themselves. He regretted that suffrage, under proper arrangement, had not been given to negroes in Louisiana, but he held that their constitution was in the main a good one. He was averse to the exercise of arbitrary powers by the Executive or by Congress. Congress had the undoubted right to receive or reject members; the Executive had no control in this; but the Executive could do very much to restore order in the States, and their practical relations with the Government, before Congress came together.

Mr. Stanton then read his plan for the temporary military government of the States of Virginia and North Carolina, which for this purpose were combined in one department. This gave rise at once to extended discussion, Mr. Welles and Mr. Dennison opposing the scheme of uniting two States under one government. The President closed the session by saying the same objection had occurred to him, and by directing Mr. Stanton to revise the document and report separate plans for the government of the two States. He did not wish the autonomy nor the individuality of the States destroyed. He commended the whole subject to the most earnest and careful consideration of the Cabinet; it was to be resumed on the following Tuesday; it was, he said, the great question pending—they must now begin to act in the interest of peace.

These were the last words that Lincoln spoke to his Cabinet. They dispersed with these words of clemency and good-will in their ears, never again to meet under his wise and benignant chairmanship. He had told them that morning a strange story, which made some demand upon their faith, but the circumstances under which they were next to come together were beyond the scope of the wildest fancy. The day was one of unusual enjoyment to Mr. Lincoln. His son Robert had returned from the field with General Grant, and the President spent an hour with the young soldier in delighted conversation over the campaign. He denied himself generally to the throng of visitors, admitting only a few friends.

Schuyler Colfax, who was contemplating a visit overland to the Pacific, came to ask whether the President would probably call an extra session of Congress during the summer. Mr. Lincoln assured him that he had no such intention, and gave him a verbal message to the mining population of Colorado and the western slope of the mountains concerning the part they were to take in the great conquests of peace which were coming. In the afternoon he went for a long drive with Mrs. Lincoln. His mood, as it had been all day, was singularly happy and tender. He talked much of the past and the future; after four years of trouble and tumult he looked forward to four years of comparative quiet and normal work; after that he expected to go back to Illinois and practise law again. He was never simpler or gentler than on this day of unprecedented triumph; his heart overflowed with sentiments of gratitude to Heaven, which took the shape usual to generous natures, of love and kindness to all men.

From the very beginning of his Presidency Mr. Lincoln had been constantly subject to the threats of his enemies and the warnings of his friends. The threats came in every form; his mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, mostly anonymous, the proper expression of vile and cowardly minds. The warnings were not less numerous; the vaporings of village bullies, the extravagances of excited secessionist politicians, even the drolling of practical jokers, were faithfully reported to him by zealous or nervous friends. Most of these communications received no notice. In cases where there seemed a ground for inquiry it was made, as carefully as possible, by the President’s private secretary and by the War Department, but always without substantial result. Warnings that appeared to be most definite, when they came to be examined proved too vague and confused for further attention. The President was too intelligent not to know he was in some danger. Madmen frequently made their way to the very door of the Executive offices and sometimes into Mr. Lincoln’s presence. He had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in a political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder. He would sometimes laughingly say. “Our friends on the other side would make nothing by exchanging me for Hamlin,” the Vice-President having the reputation of more radical views than his chief.

He knew indeed that incitements to murder him were not uncommon in the South. An advertisement had appeared in a paper of Selma, Alabama, in December, 1864, opening a subscription for funds to effect the assassination of Lincoln, Seward, and Johnson before the inauguration. There was more of this murderous spirit abroad than was suspected. A letter was found in the Confederate Archives from one Lieutenant Alston, who wrote to Jefferson Davis immediately after Lincoln’s reëlection offering to “rid his country of some of her deadliest enemies by striking at the very heart’s blood of those who seek to enchain her in slavery.” This shameless proposal was referred, by Mr. Davis’s direction, to the Secretary of War; and by Judge Campbell, Assistant Secretary of War, was sent to the Confederate Adjutant-General indorsed “for attention.” We can readily imagine what reception an officer would have met with who should have laid before Mr. Lincoln a scheme to assassinate Jefferson Davis. It was the uprightness and the kindliness of his own heart that made him slow to believe that any such ignoble fury could find a place in the hearts of men in their right minds. Although he freely discussed with the officials about him the possibilities of danger, he always considered them remote, as is the habit of men constitutionally brave, and positively refused to torment himself with precautions for his own safety. He would sum the matter up by saying that both friends and strangers must have daily access to him in all manner of ways and places; his life was therefore in reach of any one, sane or mad, who was ready to murder and be hanged for it; that he could not possibly guard against all danger unless he were to shut himself up in an iron box, in which condition he could scarcely perform the duties of a President; by the hand of a murderer he could die only once; to go continually in fear would be to die over and over. He therefore went in and out before the people, always unarmed, generally unattended. He would receive hundreds of visitors in a day, his breast bare to pistol or knife. He would walk at midnight, with a single secretary or alone, from the Executive Mansion to the War Department, and back. He would ride through the lonely roads of an uninhabited suburb from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home in the dusk of evening, and return to his work in the morning before the town was astir. He was greatly annoyed when, late in the war, it was decided that there must be a guard stationed at the Executive Mansion, and that a squad of cavalry must accompany him on his daily ride; but he was always reasonable and yielded to the best judgment of others.

Four years of threats and boastings, of alarms that were not founded, and of plots that came to nothing, thus passed away; but precisely at the time when the triumph of the nation over the long insurrection seemed assured, and a feeling of peace and security was diffused over the country, one of the conspiracies, not seemingly more important than the many abortive ones, ripened in the sudden heat of hatred and despair. A little band of malignant secessionists, consisting of John Wilkes Booth, an actor, of a famous family of players, Lewis Powell, alias Payne, a disbanded rebel soldier from Florida, George Atzerodt, formerly a coachmaker, but more recently a spy and blockade runner of the Potomac, David E. Herold, a young druggist’s clerk, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin, Maryland secessionists and Confederate soldiers, and John H. Surratt, had their ordinary rendezvous at the house of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the widowed mother of the last named, formerly a woman of some property in Maryland, but reduced by reverses to keeping a small boarding-house in Washington. Booth was the leader of the little coterie. He was a young man of twenty-six, strikingly handsome, with a pale olive face, dark eyes, and that ease and grace of manner which came to him of right from his theatrical ancestors. He had played for several seasons with only indifferent success; his value as an actor lay rather in his romantic beauty of person than in any talent or industry he possessed. He was a fanatical secessionist; had assisted at the capture and execution of John Brown, and had imbibed, at Richmond and other Southern cities where he had played, a furious spirit of partisanship against Lincoln and the Union party. After the reëlection of Mr. Lincoln, which rang the knell of the insurrection, Booth, like many of the secessionists North and South, was stung to the quick by disappointment. He visited Canada, consorted with the rebel emissaries there, and at last—whether or not at their instigation cannot certainly be said—conceived a scheme to capture the President and take him to Richmond. He spent a great part of the autumn and winter inducing a small number of loose fish of secession sympathies to join him in this fantastic enterprise. He seemed always well supplied with money, and talked largely of his speculations in oil as a source of income; but his agent afterwards testified that he never realized a dollar from that source; that his investments, which were inconsiderable, were a total loss. The winter passed away and nothing was accomplished. On the 4th of March, Booth was at the Capitol and created a disturbance by trying to force his way through the line of policemen who guarded the passage through which the President walked to the east front of the building. His intentions at this time are not known; he afterwards said he lost an excellent chance of killing the President that day. There are indications in the evidence given on the trial of the conspirators that they suffered some great disappointment in their schemes in the latter part of March, and a letter from Arnold to Booth, dated March 27, showed that some of them had grown timid of the consequences of their contemplated enterprise and were ready to give it up. He advised Booth, before going further, “to go and see how it will be taken in R——d.” But timid as they might be by nature, the whole group was so completely under the ascendency of Booth that they did not dare disobey him when in his presence; and after the surrender of Lee, in an access of malice and rage which was akin to madness, he called them together and assigned each his part in the new crime, the purpose of which had arisen suddenly in his mind out of the ruins of the abandoned abduction scheme. This plan was as brief and simple as it was horrible. Powell, alias Payne, the stalwart, brutal, simple-minded boy from Florida, was to murder Seward; Atzerodt, the comic villain of the drama, was assigned to remove Andrew Johnson; Booth reserved for himself the most difficult and most conspicuous role of the tragedy; it was Herold’s duty to attend him as a page and aid in his escape. Minor parts were assigned to stage-carpenters and other hangers-on, who probably did not understand what it all meant. Herold, Atzerodt, and Surratt had previously deposited at a tavern at Surrattsville, Maryland, owned by Mrs. Surratt, but kept by a man named Lloyd, a quantity of ropes, carbines, ammunition, and whiskey, which were to be used in the abduction scheme. On the 11th of April Mrs. Surratt, being at the tavern, told Lloyd to have the shooting-irons in readiness, and on Friday, the 14th, again visited the place and told him they would probably be called for that night.

The preparations for the final blow were made with feverish haste; it was only about noon of the 14th that Booth learned the President was to go to Ford’s Theatre that night. It has always been a matter of surprise in Europe that he should have been at a place of amusement on Good Friday; but the day was not kept sacred in America, except by the members of certain churches. It was not, throughout the country, a day of religious observance. The President was fond of the theatre; it was one of his few means of recreation. It was natural enough that, on this day of profound national thanksgiving, he should take advantage of a few hours’ relaxation to see a comedy. Besides, the town was thronged with soldiers and officers, all eager to see him; it was represented to him that appearing occasionally in public would gratify many people whom he could not otherwise meet. Mrs. Lincoln had asked General and Mrs. Grant to accompany her; they had accepted, and the announcement that they would be present was made as an advertisement in the evening papers; but they changed their minds and went north by an afternoon train. Mrs. Lincoln then invited in their stead Miss Harris and Major Rathbone, the daughter and the stepson of Senator Harris. The President’s carriage called for these young people, and the four went together to the theatre. The President had been detained by visitors, and the play had made some progress when he arrived. When he appeared in his box the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” the actors ceased playing, and the audience rose, cheering tumultuously; the President bowed in acknowledgment of this greeting and the play went on.

From the moment Booth ascertained the President’s intention to attend the theatre in the evening his every action was alert and energetic. He and his confederates, Herold, Surratt, and Atzerodt, were seen on horseback in every part of the city. He had a hurried conference with Mrs. Surratt before she started for Lloyd’s tavern. He intrusted to an actor named Matthews a carefully prepared statement of his reasons for committing the murder, which he charged him to give to the publisher of the “National Intelligencer,” but which Matthews, in the terror and dismay of the night, burned without showing to any one. Booth was perfectly at home in Ford’s Theatre, where he was greatly liked by all the employees, without other reason than the sufficient one of his youth and good looks. Either by himself or with the aid of his friends he arranged his whole plan of attack and escape during the afternoon. He counted upon address and audacity to gain access to the small passage behind the President’s box; once there, he guarded against interference by an arrangement of a wooden bar to be fastened by a simple mortise in the angle of the wall and the door by which he entered, so that the door could not be opened from without. He even provided for the contingency of not gaining entrance to the box by boring a hole in its door, through which he might either observe the occupants or take aim and shoot. He hired at a livery stable a small, fleet horse, which he showed with pride during the day to barkeepers and loafers among his friends.

The moon rose that night at ten o’clock. A few minutes before that hour he called one of the underlings of the theatre to the back door and left him there holding his horse. He then went to a saloon near by, took a drink of brandy, and, entering the theatre, passed rapidly through the crowd in rear of the dress-circle and made his way to the passage leading to the President’s box. He showed a card to a servant in attendance and was allowed to pass in. He entered noiselessly, and, turning, fastened the door with the bar he had previously made ready, without disturbing any of the occupants of the box, between whom and himself there yet remained the slight partition and the door through which he had bored the hole. Their eyes were fixed upon the stage; the play was “Our American Cousin,” the original version by Tom Taylor, before Sothern had made a new work of it by his elaboration of the part of Dundreary. No one, not even the comedian on the stage, could ever remember the last words of the piece that were uttered that night—the last Abraham Lincoln heard upon earth. The whole performance remains in the memory of those who heard it a vague phantasmagoria, the actors the thinnest of spectres. The awful tragedy in the box makes everything else seem pale and unreal. Here were five human beings in a narrow space—the greatest man of his time, in the glory of the most stupendous success in our history, the idolized chief of a nation already mighty, with illimitable vistas of grandeur to come; his beloved wife, proud and happy; a pair of betrothed lovers, with all the promise of felicity that youth, social position, and wealth could give them; and this young actor, handsome as Endymion upon Latmos, the pet of his little world. The glitter of fame, happiness, and ease was upon the entire group, but in an instant everything was to be changed with the blinding swiftness of enchantment. Quick death was to come on the central figure of that company—the central figure, we believe, of the great and good men of the century. Over all the rest the blackest fates hovered menacingly—fates from which a mother might pray that kindly death would save her children in their infancy. One was to wander with the stain of murder on his soul, with the curses of a world upon his name, with a price set upon his head, in frightful physical pain, till he died a dog’s death in a burning burn; the stricken wife was to pass the rest of her days in melancholy and madness; of those two young lovers, one was to slay the other, and then end his life a raving maniac.

The murderer seemed to himself to be taking part in a play. The fumes of brandy and partisan hate had for weeks kept his brain in a morbid state. He felt as if he were playing Brutus off the boards; he posed, expecting applause. Holding a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, he opened the box door, put the pistol to the President’s head, and fired; dropping the weapon, he took the knife in his right hand, and when Major Rathbone sprang to seize him he struck savagely at him. Major Rathbone received the blow on his left arm, suffering a wide and deep wound. Booth, rushing forward, then placed his left hand on the railing of the box and vaulted lightly over to the stage. It was a high leap, but nothing to such a trained athlete. He was in the habit of introducing what actors call sensational leaps in his plays. In “Macbeth,” where he met the weird sisters, he leaped from a rock twelve feet high. He would have got safely away but for his spur catching in the folds of the Union flag with which the front of the box was draped. He fell on the stage, the torn flag trailing on his spur, but instantly rose as if he had received no hurt, though in fact the fall had broken his leg, turned to the audience, brandishing his dripping knife and shouting the State motto of Virginia, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” and fled rapidly across the stage and out of sight. Major Rathbone had shouted, “Stop him!” The cry went out, “He has shot the President.” From the audience, at first stupid with surprise and afterwards wild with excitement and horror, two or three men jumped upon the stage in pursuit of the flying assassin; but he ran through the familiar passages, leaped upon his horse, which was in waiting in the alley behind, rewarded with a kick and a curse the call-boy who had held him, and rode rapidly away in the light of the just risen moon.

The President scarcely moved; his head drooped forward slightly, his eyes closed. Major Rathbone, at first not regarding his own grievous hurt, rushed to the door of the box to summon aid. He found it barred, and on the outside some one was beating and clamoring for entrance. He opened the door; a young officer named Crawford entered; one or two army surgeons soon followed, who hastily examined the wound. It was at once seen to be mortal. It was afterwards ascertained that a large derringer bullet had entered the back of the head on the left side, and, passing through the brain, had lodged just behind the left eye. By direction of Rathbone and Crawford, the President was carried to a house across the street and laid upon a bed in a small room at the rear of the hall, on the ground floor. Mrs. Lincoln followed, half distracted, tenderly cared for by Miss Harris. Rathbone, exhausted by loss of blood, fainted, and was carried home. Messengers were sent for the members of the Cabinet, for the Surgeon-General, for Dr. Stone, the President’s family physician; a crowd of people rushed instinctively to the White House and, bursting through the doors, shouted the dreadful news to Robert Lincoln and Major Hay, who sat gossiping in an upper room. They ran downstairs. Finding a carriage at the door, they entered it to go to Tenth street. As they were driving away, a friend came up and told them that Mr. Seward and most of the Cabinet had been murdered. The news was all so improbable that they could not help hoping it was all untrue. But when they got to Tenth street and found every thoroughfare blocked by the swiftly gathering thousands, agitated by tumultuous excitement, they were prepared for the worst. In a few minutes all who had been sent for, and many others, were gathered in the little chamber where the Chief of the State lay in his agony. His son was met at the door by Dr. Stone, who with grave tenderness informed him that there was no hope. After a natural outburst of grief young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.

The President had been shot a few minutes past ten. The wound would have brought instant death to most men, but his vital tenacity was extraordinary. He was, of course, unconscious from the first moment; but he breathed with slow and regular respiration throughout the night. As the dawn came, and the lamplight grew pale in the fresher beams, his pulse began to fail; but his face even then was scarcely more haggard than those of the sorrowing group of statesmen and generals around him. His automatic moaning, which had continued through the night, ceased; a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features. At twenty-two minutes after seven he died. Stanton broke the silence by saying, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Dr. Gurley kneeled by the bedside and prayed fervently. The widow came in from the adjoining room supported by her son and cast herself with loud outcry on the dead body.