Special Report

The Night Abraham Lincoln Was Assassinated

What happened on that fateful Good Friday evening

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Good Friday, April 14, 1865, was surely one of Abraham Lincoln’s happiest days. The morning began with a leisurely breakfast in the company of his son Robert, just arrived in Washington after serving on General Grant’s staff. “Well, my son, you have returned safely from the front,” Lincoln said. “The war is now closed, and we soon will live in peace with the brave men that have been fighting against us.” He urged Robert to “lay aside” his Army uniform and finish his education, perhaps in preparation for a law career. As the father imparted his advice, Mary Lincoln’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, observed, “His face was more cheerful than [she] had seen it for a long while.”

At 11 a.m., Grant arrived at the White House to attend the regularly scheduled Friday cabinet meeting. He had hoped for word that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army, the last substantial Rebel force remaining, had surrendered in North Carolina, but no news had yet arrived. Lincoln told Grant not to worry. He predicted that the tidings would come soon, “for he had last night the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the War.” Gideon Welles asked him to describe the dream. Turning toward him, Lincoln said it involved the Navy secretary’s “element, the water—that he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore; that he had this dream preceding Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, Wilmington, etc.” Grant remarked that not all those great events had been victories, but Lincoln remained hopeful that this time this event would be favorable.

The complexities of re-establishing law and order in the Southern states dominated the conversation. A few days earlier, War Secretary Edwin Stanton had drafted a plan for imposing a temporary military government on Virginia and North Carolina, until the restoration of civilian rule. “Lincoln alluded to the paper,” Stanton later recalled, “went into his room, brought it out and asked me to read it.” A general discussion revealed that most of the cabinet concurred, although Welles and Postmaster General William Dennison objected to the idea of undoing state boundaries by uniting two different states into a single military department. Recognizing the validity of this objection, Lincoln asked Stanton to revise his plan to make it applicable to two separate states.

Lincoln said that “he thought it providential that this great rebellion was crushed just as Congress had adjourned,” since he and the cabinet were more likely to “accomplish more without them than with them” regarding Reconstruction. He noted that “there were men in Congress who, if their motives were good, were nevertheless impracticable, and who possessed feelings of hate and vindictiveness in which he did not sympathize and could not participate. He hoped there would be no persecution, no bloody work, after the war was over.”

As for the Rebel leaders, Lincoln reiterated his resolve to perpetrate no further violence: “None need expect he would take any part in hanging or killing those men, even the worst of them.” While their continued presence on American soil might prove troublesome, he preferred to “frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off.” To illustrate his point, he shook “his hands as if scaring sheep,” and said, “Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union.”

After the cabinet meeting, Stanton and Attorney General James Speed descended the stairs together. “Didn’t our Chief look grand today?” Stanton asked. Years later, Speed held fast “to the memory of Lincoln’s personal appearance” that day, “with cleanly-shaved face, well-brushed clothing and neatly-combed hair and whiskers,” a marked contrast to his usual rumpled aspect. Stanton later wrote that Lincoln seemed “more cheerful and happy” than at any previous cabinet meeting, thrilled by “the near prospect of firm and durable peace at home and abroad.” Throughout the discussion, Stanton recalled, Lincoln “spoke very kindly of General Lee and others of the Confederacy,” exhibiting “in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.”

Later that day, Lincoln put into practice his liberal policy toward the Rebel leaders. Intelligence had reached Stanton at the War Department that “a conspicuous secessionist,” Jacob Thompson, was en route to Portland, Maine, where a steamer awaited to take him to England. Operating from Canada, Thompson had organized a series of troublesome raids across the border that left Stanton with little sympathy for the Confederate marauder. Upon reading the telegram, Stanton did not hesitate a moment. “Arrest him!” he ordered Assistant Secretary Charles Dana. As Dana was leaving the room, however, Stanton called him back. “No, wait; better to go over and see the President.”

Dana found Lincoln in his office. “Halloo, Dana!” Lincoln greeted him. “What’s up?” Dana described the situation, explaining that Stanton wanted to arrest Thompson but thought he should first “refer the question” to Lincoln. “Well,” said Lincoln, “no, I rather think not. When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he’s trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.”

Mary Lincoln’s memories of her husband’s infectious happiness that day match the recollections of his inner circle. She had never seen him so “cheerful,” she told the painter Francis Carpenter, “his manner was even playful. At 3 o’clock, in the afternoon, he drove out with me in the open carriage, in starting, I asked him, if any one, should accompany us, he immediately replied—‘No—I prefer to ride by ourselves to day.’ During the drive he was so gay, that I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness,’ he replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close—and then added, ‘We must both, be more cheerful in the future—between the war & the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable.’”

As the carriage rolled toward the Navy Yard, Mary recalled, “he spoke of his old Springfield home, and recollections of his early days, his little brown cottage, the law office, the courtroom, the green bag for his briefs and law papers, his adventures when riding the circuit.” They had traveled an unimaginable distance together since their first dance in Springfield a quarter of a century earlier. Over the years, they had supported each other, irritated each other, shared a love of family, politics, poetry and drama. Mary’s descent into depression after their son Willie’s death had added immeasurably to Lincoln’s burdens, and the terrible pressures of the war had further distorted their relationship. His intense focus on his presidential responsibilities had often left her feeling abandoned and resentful. Now, with the war coming to an end and time bringing solace to their grief, the Lincolns could plan for a happier future. They hoped to travel someday—to Europe and the Holy Land, over the Rockies to California, then back home to Illinois, where their life together had begun.

As the carriage neared the White House, Lincoln saw that a group of old friends, including Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby, were just leaving. “Come back, boys, come back,” he told them, relishing the relaxing company of friends. They remained for some time, Oglesby recalled. “Lincoln got to reading some humorous book; I think it was by ‘John Phoenix.’ They kept sending for him to come to dinner. He promised each time to go, but would continue reading the book. Finally he got a sort of peremptory order that he must come to dinner at once.”

The early dinner was necessary, for the Lincolns had plans to see Laura Keene in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that evening. After supper, the president met with journalist Noah Brooks, Massachusetts Congressman George Ashmun and House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, who was soon to depart for California. “How I would rejoice to make that trip!” Lincoln told Colfax, “but public duties chain me down here, and I can only envy you its pleasures.” The president invited Colfax to join him at the theater that night, but Colfax had too many commitments.

To Brooks, Lincoln had never seemed “more hopeful and buoyant concerning the condition of the country....He was full of fun and anecdotes, feeling especially jubilant at the prospect before us.” His parting words, Brooks recalled, focused on the country’s economic future. “Grant thinks that we can reduce the cost of the Army establishment at least a half million a day, which, with the reduction of expenditures of the Navy, will soon bring down our national debt to something like decent proportions, and bring our national paper up to a par, or nearly so with gold.”

Speaker Colfax was among several people who declined the Lincolns’ invitation to the theater that evening. The morning edition of the National Republican had announced that the Grants would join the Lincolns in the president’s box that night, but Julia Grant had her heart set on visiting their children in New Jersey, so Grant asked to be excused. The Stantons also declined. Stanton considered the theater a foolish diversion and, more important, a dangerous one. He had fought a losing battle for months to keep the president from such public places, and he felt that his presence would only sanction an unnecessary hazard. Earlier that day, “unwilling to encourage the theater project,” Stanton had refused to let his chief telegrapher, Thomas Eckert, accept Lincoln’s invitation, even though the president had teasingly requested him for his uncommon strength—he had been known to “break a poker over his arm” and could serve as a bodyguard.

It was after 8 when the Lincolns entered their carriage to drive to the theater. “I suppose it’s time to go,” Lincoln told Colfax, “though I would rather stay.” While nothing had provided greater diversion during the bitter nights of his presidency than the theater, Lincoln required no escape on this happy night. Still, he had made a commitment. “It has been advertised that we will be there,” he told his bodyguard, William Crook, who had the night off, “and I cannot disappoint the people.” Clara Harris—the daughter of Mary’s friend Senator Ira Harris—and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone, joined the Lincolns in their carriage.

As the Lincolns rode to Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street, John Wilkes Booth and three conspirators were a block away, at the Herndon House. Booth had devised a plan that called for the simultaneous assassinations of President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Henry Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Having learned that morning of Lincoln’s plan to attend the theater, he had decided that this night would provide their best opportunity. The powerfully built Lewis Powell, accompanied by David Herold, was assigned to kill Seward at his Lafayette Square home. Meanwhile, the carriage maker George Atzerodt was to shoot the vice president in his suite at the Kirkwood Hotel. Booth, whose familiarity with the stagehands would ensure access, would assassinate the president.

Just as Brutus had been honored for slaying the tyrant Julius Caesar, Booth believed he would be exalted for killing an even “greater tyrant.” Assassinating Lincoln would not be enough. “Booth knew,” his biographer Michael W. Kauffman observes, “that in the end, the Brutus conspiracy was foiled by Marc Antony, whose famous oration made outlaws of the assassins and a martyr of Caesar.” William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Marc Antony, must not live. Finally, to throw the entire North into disarray, the vice president must die as well. The triple assassinations were set for 10:15 p.m.

Still bedridden, Seward had enjoyed his best day since his nearly fatal carriage accident nine days earlier. His daughter Fanny Seward noted in her diary that he had slept well the previous night and had taken “solid food for the first time.” In the afternoon, he had “listened with a look of pleasure to the narrative of the events of the Cabinet meeting,” which Fred Seward, as assistant secretary, had attended in his father’s stead. Later in the afternoon, he had listened to Fanny’s reading of “Enoch Arden” and remarked on how much he enjoyed it.

The three-story house was full of people. The entire family, except Will and Jenny, were there—his wife, Frances, and their other children, Augustus, Fred, Anna and Fanny. In addition to the half-dozen household servants and the State Department messenger rooming on the third floor, two soldiers had been assigned by Stanton to stay with Seward. In the early evening, Stanton had stopped by to check on his friend and colleague. He stayed for a while, chatting with other visitors until martial music in the air reminded him that War Department employees had planned on serenading him that night at his home six blocks away.

After all the guests left, “the quiet arrangements for the night” began. To ensure that Seward was never left alone, the family members had taken turns sitting by his bed. That night Fanny was scheduled to stay with him until 11 p.m., when her brother Gus would relieve her. George Robinson, one of the soldiers whom Stanton had detailed to the household, was standing by. Shortly after 10 p.m., Fanny noticed that her father was falling asleep. She closed the pages of the Legends of Charlemagne, turned down the gas lamps, and took a seat on the opposite side of the bed.

Fred Seward later wrote that “there seemed nothing unusual in the occurrence, when a tall, well dressed, but unknown man presented himself” at the door. Powell told the servant who answered the bell that he had some medicine for Mr. Seward and had been instructed by his physician to deliver it in person. “I told him he could not go up,” the servant later testified, “that if he would give me the medicine, I would tell Mr. Seward how to take it.” Powell was so insistent that the boy stepped aside. When he reached the landing, Fred Seward stopped him. “My father is asleep; give me the medicine and the directions; I will take them to him.” Powell argued that he must deliver it in person, but Fred refused.

At this point, Fred recalled, the intruder “stood apparently irresolute.” He began to head down the stairs, then “suddenly turning again, he sprang up and forward, having drawn a Navy revolver, which he levelled, with a muttered oath, at my head, and pulled the trigger.” This was the last memory Fred would have of that night. The pistol misfired, but Powell brought it down so savagely that Fred’s skull was crushed in two places, exposing his brain and rendering him unconscious.

Hearing the disturbance, Pvt. Robinson ran to the door from Seward’s bedside. The moment the door was opened, Powell rushed inside, brandishing his now broken pistol in one hand and a large knife in the other. He slashed Robinson in the forehead with his knife, knocking him “partially down,” and headed toward Seward. Fanny ran beside Powell, begging him not to kill her father. When Seward heard the word “kill,” he awakened, affording him “one glimpse of the assassin’s face bending over” before the large bowie knife plunged into his neck and face, severing his cheek so badly that “the flap hung loose on his neck.” Oddly, he would later recall that his only impressions were what a fine-looking man Powell was and “what handsome cloth that overcoat is made of.”

Fanny’s screams brought her brother Gus into the room as Powell advanced again upon Seward, who had been knocked to the floor by the force of the blows. Gus and the injured Robinson managed to pull Powell away, but not before he struck Robinson again and slashed Gus on the forehead and the right hand. When Gus ran for his pistol, Powell bolted down the stairs, stabbing Emerick Hansell, the young State Department messenger, in the back before he bolted out the door and fled through the city streets.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus