Today, in 1865, at 7:22 a.m., President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, dies
from an assassin’s bullet. Lincoln had lived for a long nine hours before finally succumbing to the severe head wound he sustained at Ford’s Theater in Washington the night before. An angry Con-federate actor and radical Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, had
shot Lincoln in the back of the head while the presidential party had been attending Laura Keene’s acclaimed performance in Our American Cousin at a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. the night before.
Booth, who had remained in the North during the war despite his Confederate sympathies, had orig-inally intended only to capture President Lincoln and take him to Richmond, the Confederate capital. However, on March 20, 1865, the day of the planned kidnapping, the president failed to appear at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait. Even worse news lay ahead, as two weeks later, Richmond fell to Union forces. In April, with Confederate armies near collapse across the South, Booth had hatched a desperate plan to save the Confederacy.
Learning that Lincoln was to attend Ford’s Theater on April 14, Booth plotted the simultaneous assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. By murdering the president and two of his possible successors, Booth and his conspirators hoped to throw the U.S. government into a paralyzing disarray.
On the evening of April 14, conspirator Lewis T. Powell burst into Secretary of State Seward’s home, seriously wounding him and three others, while George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Vice President Johnson, lost his nerve and fled. Meanwhile, just after 10 p.m., Booth entered Lincoln’s private theater box unnoticed and shot the president with a single bullet in the back of his head. Slashing an army officer who rushed at him, Booth leapt to the stage and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants]–the South is avenged!” Although Booth broke his leg jumping from Lincoln’s box, he managed to escape Washington on horseback. A 23-year-old doctor named Charles Leale was in the audience and rushed up to the presidential box immediately upon hearing the shot and Mrs. Lincoln’s scream. He found the president slumped in his chair, paralyzed and struggling to breathe. Several soldiers carried Lincoln to a house across the street and placed him on a bed. When the surgeon general arrived at the house, he concluded that Lincoln could not be saved and would die during the night.
Vice President Andrew Johnson, members of Lincoln’s cabinet and several of the president’s closest friends stood vigil by Lincoln’s bedside until he was officially pronounced dead at 7:22 am. The first lady lay on a bed in an adjoining room with her eldest son Robert at her side, overwhelmed with shock and grief.
The president’s body was placed in a temporary coffin, draped with a flag and escorted by armed cavalry to the White House, where surgeons conducted a thorough autopsy. Edward Curtis, an Army surgeon in attendance, later wrote that, during the autopsy, while he removed Lincoln’s brain, a bullet dropped out through my fingers into a basin with a clatter. The doctors stopped to stare at the offending bullet, the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize. During the autopsy, Mary Lincoln sent the surgeons a note requesting they cut a lock of Lincoln’s hair for her.
Booth, pursued by the army and secret service forces, was finally cornered in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died from a possibly self-inflicted bullet wound as the barn was burned to the ground. Another story, and the one that is more commonly believed, is that he was killed by one of the soldiers, Boston Corbett, who shot Booth through the openings between the slats in the burning tobacco barn. Of the eight other persons eventually charged with the conspiracy, four were jailed (including the doctor, Samuel Mudd, who added his name to popular lexicon as a synonym for losing popular support) and four were hanged, including a woman and the mother of one of the co-conspirators, Mary Surrat.
The president’s death came only six days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his massive army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War. Lincoln had just served the most difficult presidency in history, successfully leading the country through civil war. His job was exhausting and overwhelming at times. He had to manage a tre-mendous military effort, deal with diverse opinions in his own Republican party, counter his Demo-cratic critics, maintain morale on the northern home front, and keep foreign countries such as France and Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy. He did all of this, and changed American history when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, converting the war goal from reunion of the nation to a crusade to end slavery.
Now, the great man was dead. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” Word spread quickly across the nation, stunning a people who were still celebrating the Union vic-tory. Troops in the field wept, as did General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander. Per-haps no group was more grief stricken than the freed slaves. Although the abolitionists considered Lincoln slow in moving against slavery, many freedmen saw “Father Abraham” as their savior. They faced an uncertain world, and now had lost their most powerful proponent.
News of the president’s death had traveled quickly and, by the end of the day, flags across the country flew at half-staff, businesses were closed and people who had recently rejoiced at the end of the Civil War mourned Lincoln’s shocking assassination. Lincoln’s funeral was held on April 19, before a funeral train carried his body back to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. During the two-week journey, hundreds of thousands gathered along the railroad tracks to pay their respects, and the casket was unloaded for public viewing at several stops. He and his son, Willie, who died in the White House of typhoid fever in 1862, were interred on May 4.
His body was taken to the White House, where it lay until April 18, at which point it was carried to the Capitol rotunda to lay in state on a catafalque. On April 21, Lincoln’s body was taken to the railroad station and boarded on a train that conveyed it to Springfield, Illinois, his home be-fore becoming president. Tens of thousands of Americans lined the train’s railroad route and paid their respects to their fallen leader during the train’s solemn progression through the North. Lincoln was buried on May 4, 1865, at Oak Ridge Cemetery, near Springfield.
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