Special Report

A Host of Relics from Lincoln’s Last Days All Came to Reside at the Smithsonian

The Lincoln collection at the American History Museum marks the horrific tragedy and the poignancies of a nation in mourning

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The top hat, with a silk mourning band for his son Willie, was worn last to Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. (National Museum of American History)
Lincoln's black office suit was sent to an artist for the posthumous portrait of the president. (National Museum of American History)
This wooden desk is from the courthouse in Pekin, Illinois, where Lincoln shared work space with other attorneys. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who purchased it for $10, would write and pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s. His wife later donated it to the Smithsonian. (National Museum of American History)
According to Major Thomas Eckert, who worked in the War Department Telegraph Office and handled all of the Lincoln's telegrams, the president composed an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation using this inkstand. (National Museum of American History)
Mary Todd Lincoln's gold evening purse, dated 1863, is engraved with her name. (National Museum of American History)
Lincoln's fine gold watch, purchased in the 1850s in Springfield, Illinois, was a conspicuous symbol of his success. (National Museum of American History)
Just before departing for the theater, a White House servant observed the president sipping from this cup and leaving it in the windowsill. (National Museum of American History)
U.S. Medical Staff Officer Dr. Charles Leale wore this sword while serving in the honor guard for Lincoln's body when it lay in state at the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Leale was on duty at Ford's Theatre the night of the assassination and was the first doctor to reach the dying president. (National Museum of American History)
On April 15, 1865, Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes directed the autopsy on Lincoln's body in the White House. (Jacyln Nash, National Museum of American History)
Laura Keene, the leading actress at Ford's Theatre, rushed with water to the president's box. As she cradled his head, drops of his blood stained his cuff. (National Museum of American History)
Robert Todd Lincoln kept his father's shawl before giving it to a friend. It eventually came to the Smithsonian. (National Museum of American History)
After the president's death, Mary Todd Lincoln remained in widow's clothes until her death. She gave her White House finery to family members. This dress she wore in 1861. It came to the Smithsonian in 1916. (National Museum of American History)
Mary Lincoln's seamstress Elizabeth Keckly asked for a keepsake from the family and received several items, including this inkwell. (National Museum of American History)
Among Mary Lincoln's possessions after her death in 1882, was this gold scarf pin with an image of Abraham Lincoln. (National Museum of American History)
This prison shackle was among the materials associated with the imprisonment of the Lincoln assassins and transferred to the Smithsonian in 1903. (Jacyln Nash, National Museum of American History)
Mary Todd Lincoln wore this mourning watch for the rest of her life. (National Museum of American History)
This black silk cloth was draped over Lincoln's casket while his body lay in state in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 25, 1865. It later covered the coffin of President James A. Garfield, the second president to be assassinated. (National Museum of American History)
This prison key was among the materials associated with the Lincoln assassins that the War Department transferred to the Smithsonian in 1903. (National Museum of American History)
The accused conspirators wore these hoods in their cells and on their way to trial. In 1903, the War Department transferred all materials associated with the imprisonment of Lincoln's assassins to the Smithsonian Institution. (Jacyln Nash, National Museum of American History)

Abe Lincoln's hat, the famous stovepipe that made a tall man taller, became his trademark and also his briefcase.

The day he stood outside the Capitol to make his first inaugural address, he took his hat off and looked about for a place to put it, and when his erstwhile political rival, Senator Stephen Douglas, reached out to hold it for him, it was seen as a gesture of unity within the fracturing Union. On a special train to Gettysburg in late 1863, chattering generals and officials so distracted the president that he stopped laboring over the speech that he would deliver at the soldiers' cemetery, and stuck it back in his hat. When he took it out later, completed and delivered it, the newspapers hardly noticed, but those 272 words will never be forgotten.  

The hat and his height identified him from afar, a towering figure that was surely an asset in politics and among military men, but so conspicuous that it also made a tempting target. We do not know whether he wore it in 1864 as he stood on the parapet of Fort Stevens watching Jubal Early's approaching Confederate invaders, but it's easy to imagine that a particular Rebel sharpshooter was actually aiming at the president when he seriously wounded the army surgeon standing beside him.

One summer night, according to an infantryman guarding Lincoln's retreat at the Soldiers Home, the hatless president came galloping up in a hurry. Lincoln said a gunshot had sounded in the darkness and spooked his horse. He doubted that the shot was meant for him, but the soldier wrote that when he searched down the road he found the missing hat, with a bullet hole through the crown.

Like the president's hat, his pocket watch went with him everywhere, as he checked off the station stops on his way from Springfield, as he sat for anxious hours in the telegraph office, waiting for news from Shiloh, Cold Harbor and all the places where so much American blood was spilled. Sitting in that office, he dipped a pen into the inkwell and wrote a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as dispatches praising and admonishing generals in the field.   
 
The hat, the watch, the inkwell, a desk he used in Illinois, the shawl that he draped about his shoulders as he paced worrying to and from the War Department, a coffee cup that must still bear his fingerprints—and then the artifacts of his fate, the actress's blood-stained cuff, the surgical instruments, the funeral pall, the drum that paced that final solemn procession, the mourning watch that Mary Lincoln wore the rest of her days—mute as they are, these tangible fragments of his life and death speak to us almost as eloquently as his immortal words.

The Lincoln Collection at the National Museum of American History got its start sometime in 1867, the actual date is unknown, when the United States Patent Office delivered the president's top hat and his chair from Ford's Theater to the Smithsonian Institution. The Secretary ordered the items crated and stored in the basement of the Smithsonian Castle building. The chair was eventually returned to the theater. The hat, however, remained hidden away for the next 26 years, but according to curator Harry R. Rubenstein, it was the first of a collection that "grew slowly and without much curatorial direction, other than the goal of preserving anything associated with the martyred president." Rubenstein's book, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life details the stories behind this unparalleled collection of more than 100 artifacts that were donated by family members, close friends and associates of the Lincolns.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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