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The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, assassin John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, who died the following day. James M. Cornelius, Ph.D., curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, retells the events of that tragic day and its historic aftermath.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 with military snipers guarding his procession route through Washington to the U.S. Capitol. He had arrived in the city on February 23 by pre-dawn train, having snuck through Baltimore, Maryland, after detective Allan Pinkerton and others infiltrated a plot to kill Lincoln there. His presidency was marked by a civil war begun by southern rebels on April 12. As early as May 1860, he had received hundreds of threatening letters at his home at Springfield, Illinois, after he received the Republican party’s nomination.

John Wilkes Booth possibly knew of the Baltimore plot, but certainly planned to kidnap Lincoln at two points in 1864 and 1865, to force the release of rebel captives. Conspirators living in or around Mary Surratt‘s boarding house in Washington assisted with these plans, which failed. When on Tuesday, April 11, 1865, two days after Appomattox, Lincoln gave a speech from the upper window of the White House to a crowd on the lawn below, Booth was present with Lewis Payne and David Herold to hear Lincoln suggest that voting rights ought now be extended to black men who were literate and/or had served in the Union military. 

“That means nigger citizenship,” said Booth to the others. “That’s the last speech he’ll ever give. By God, I’ll put him through.” These words were reported later by both Payne and Herold to investigators. Thus, Booth killed Lincoln specifically not because the South had lost the war as of April 9, but because Lincoln proposed black voting rights.

Assassination of President Lincoln

Booth’s plan took form on Good Friday, April 14, when he read in the afternoon newspapers that the Lincolns and the Grants would attend Ford’s Theatre that night to see Laura Keene‘s benefit performance of the comedy Our American Cousin. Booth carried a one-shot .44 derringer to kill Lincoln, and a 9-inch dagger to kill General Ulysses Grant. But the Grants begged off the theater — Ulysses had not seen his four children in New Jersey for six months. When Booth entered the presidential box during the third act, just before the loudest laugh-line of the show, he probably did not know that the Grants’ chairs were filled instead with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Miss Clara Harris, daughter of a New York Senator. During the laugh-line he shot Lincoln behind the left ear from about two feet away, then stabbed Rathbone down the left arm as they struggled, nearly causing Rathbone to die of blood loss. Lincoln bled a little as Mary Lincoln screamed, but most of the copious blood shed in the box was Rathbone’s. Ironically, had Grant attended, his personal guard would likely have barred Booth’s entry.

Lincoln was carried to a bed across 10th Street in the home of William Petersen, where he died about nine hours later, at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday, April 15. (Doctors said most men would have died within an hour or two from such a wound.) Payne had tried to stab Secretary of State William H. Seward to death at his home while Booth was at Ford’s, but Seward and his son both barely survived; George Atzerodt, assigned to shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson at a hotel, failed to try. Reports that another assassin approached Secretary of War Edwin Stanton‘s home at the same hour have never been confirmed. Booth was pursued for 12 days, and killed by Union cavalry on April 26 on a Virginia farm; Herold surrendered there but he and three other conspirators were tried publicly and hanged on July 7. Four more of them got prison terms.

A World in Mourning

The shock to the nation and the world was immense; it was immediately called Black Easter. (No Atlantic cable was working till 1866; so letters by steamship reached Europe on April 26, and telegrams quickly reached Asia and Africa from there; telegrams had reached Latin America much earlier.) Americans had not thought that assassination was possible in a free and democratic republic, and faith in the stability of the society was shaken for a time. Political revenge against the entire South was sought in Congress and elsewhere, and even rebel leader Jefferson Davis knew that the South had lost its best hope for peaceful reconstruction with Lincoln’s death. 

Black rights also suffered a setback for many years, perhaps decades, as President Andrew Johnson did not for the most part spur Congressional action or resist racist calls. President Grant, in office 1869-1877, exerted himself strongly against the Ku Klux Klan and other resistance, in hopes of achieving his and Lincoln’s wishes for voting and citizen rights. But the extremely close and drawn-out presidential election of November 1876 led to compromises that removed federal troops from most parts of the South, leaving enforcement of federal laws to reluctant or hostile local forces. Invoking Lincoln’s name and his presumed, incomplete plans for postwar life met with increased resistance in the South as the decades wore on, animus which did not really disperse as a political force until the 1960s and 1970s.

Lincoln’s 12 public funerals, between Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Illinois, coupled with the passage of his funeral train through much of the North, drew somewhere between 8 and 10 million viewers or participants. Those passing his open casket had an average of 1 second before guards hurried the line along. These 15 days form the largest public event in human history, measured by active participation. When in 1894 Czar Alexander III died in Crimea, authorities tried to re-create a Lincoln-style funeral-train passage through the Russian heartland to St. Petersburg, to engender public support as Lincoln’s train had done; the idea failed. The story that Jackie Kennedy wished her slain husband President John F. Kennedy‘s funeral procession in 1963 to “be like Lincoln’s” is unverified.

Occurring at the acme of Lincoln’s achievement, his murder by a coward surely helped build the sense of his martyrdom and political genius. Yet as new documents and interpretations continue to appear each year, the feeling remains that Lincoln’s acclaim was and is deserved, even if battling through political reconstruction after April 1865 might have gone slowly. He saved the Union and ended slavery all at once, which in 1861 no one thought would or could happen.

James M. Cornelius, Ph.D. is the Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois.