Mr. Lincoln's Washington- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
(Cheryl Carlin)

Mr. Lincoln's Washington

The house where the conspirators hatched their heinous plot now serves sushi, and the yard where they were hanged is a tennis court.

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Secretary of War Stanton arrived and set up in the adjoining parlor and took statements from witnesses. A man named James Tanner, who was in the crowd outside, volunteered to take notes in shorthand. Tanner had lost both legs at the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862 but, wanting to go on contributing to the war effort, had taken up stenography. He worked through the night. Later he recalled: "In fifteen minutes I had enough down to hang John Wilkes Booth."

Mrs. Lincoln, having returned to the bedside, kept wailing, "Is he dead? Oh, is he dead?" She shrieked and fainted after the unconscious Lincoln released a loud exhalation when she was by his face. Stanton shouted, "Take that woman out and do not let her in again!"

Leale, who had seen many gunshot wounds, knew that a man sometimes regained consciousness just before dying. He held the president's hand. Lincoln never regained consciousness. When it was over, Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Mrs. Surratt's boardinghouse, where the conspirators hatched their plot, is not far away, near the corner of H and 6th Streets. It's now a Chinese-Japanese restaurant called Wok and Roll.

It's only a few blocks from The House Where Lincoln Died to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. There you'll find a plaster cast of Lincoln's hands made in 1860, after he won his party's nomination. A caption notes that "Lincoln's right hand was still swollen from shaking hands with congratulating supporters." Then there's one of the museum's "most treasured icons," Lincoln's top hat, worn to the theater the night he was assassinated. Here, too, is the blood stained sleeve cuff of Laura Keene, star of Our American Cousin, who, according to legend, cradled Lincoln's head after he was shot.

No tour of Lincoln's Washington would be complete without his memorial, on the Potomac River about a mile west of the museum. Finished in 1922, it was built over a filled-in swamp, in an area so desolate that it seemed an insult to put it there. In the early 1900s, the speaker of the House, "Uncle Joe" Cannon, harrumphed, "I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that God damned swamp." There is something reassuring about thwarted congressional asseverations.

Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who had witnessed Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, and was at his father's side when he died six days later, attended the memorial's dedication. Robert was then 78, distinguished looking in spectacles and white whiskers. You can see from a photograph of the occasion that he had his father's large, signature ears. (Robert, who had served as ambassador to Great Britain and was a successful businessman, died in 1926.)

Also present at the memorial's dedication was Dr. Robert Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute, who delivered a commemorative speech but still was required to sit in the"Colored" section of the segregated audience. It's good to reflect that the wretched karma of this insult to the memory of Abraham Lincoln was finally exorcised 41 years later when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the memorial steps in front of 200,000 people and said, "I have a dream."

Inside the memorial, graven on the walls, are the two speeches in American history that surpass Dr. King's: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. I read the latter aloud to myself, quietly, so as not to alarm anyone. It clocks in at under five minutes, bringing the total of those two orations to about seven minutes. Edward Everett, who also spoke at Gettysburg, wrote Lincoln afterward to say, "I should flatter myself if I could come to the heart of the occasion in two hours in what you did in two minutes."

Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the statue of Lincoln that stares out on the Reflecting Pool, studied a cast of Lincoln's life mask. You can see a cast in the basement of the memorial, and it is hard to look upon the noble serenity of that plaster without being moved. Embarking from Springfield, Illinois, in 1861 to begin his first term as president, Lincoln said, "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington." When I first read that speech as a schoolboy, I thought the line sounded immodest. Harder than what Washington faced? Come on! Only years later when I saw again the look on Lincoln's face that French had captured did I understand.


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