Most remembrances of Abraham Lincoln celebrate his role in ending slavery in the United States while he served as the 16th President or his humble beginnings in Illinois. Few focus on his death on April 15, 1865, at the hand of an assassin.
The Last Day
Lincoln apparently awoke in a good mood on April 14, due in part to Lee’s surrender to Grant several days earlier, according to EyeWitness to History.com. Newspapers in Washington announced that the President and his wife would attend Our American Cousin, a comedy, a Ford’s Theater that night with Grant and his wife.
After the President held a meeting with his Cabinet and Grant, the Civil War general indicated he and his wife would not be able to attend the play. Sometime following lunch, the Lincolns invited Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée to accompany them instead.
By the dinner hour, Mary Todd Lincoln had a headache and considered skipping the play. Lincoln, noting that he was tired, nonetheless said he needed some comic relief and would go alone if necessary. Both Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lincoln’s body guard, William Crook, tried to persuade the President not to attend.
The two couples took their seats in a box with a closed but not locked door. Assassin John Wilkes Booth stepped into the box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a derringer. Several men carried the President, wounded by a bullet that entered behind his left ear and traveled through his brain, to the Peterson House across the street. He died there on the morning of April 15th.
John Wilkes Booth
Booth, a prominent actor, was already known to officials for his anti-government sentiments, biographybase says. Born May 10, 1838 in Maryland, he had joined a militia called the Richmond Greys in order to attend the execution of abolitionist John Brown and was one of the armed men who stood near the scaffold to prevent any interference. Early in 1862, authorities in St. Louis arrested him and sent him before a provost marshal for anti-government comments. Booth actually attended the second Lincoln inauguration.
The actor headed a group of Confederate sympathizers in Washington. Their plot to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for a sufficient number of Southern prisoners to win the Civil War had fallen through shortly before the assassination. Union soldiers tracked the assassin, who had suffered a broken leg when he leapt to the stage after the shooting, and killed him in Port Royal, Virginia, on April 26.
The National Park Service maintains the Ford’s Theater National Historic Site, which is open most days for tours. Special presentations highlighting the Lincoln years occur throughout the year.
The theater is about an hour’s drive from my home. Taking the time to visit this historic spot is on my yearly list of things to do. The restored facility re-opened in 2009 and takes advantage of 21st-century technology to take visitors back to 19th-century Washington.