In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the Western Railroad Depot carrying his trunk tied with a rope and with the inscription, “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” Friends and family prepared him for the train ride from Illinois to Washington which would take twelve days and bring the President-elect into contact with tens of thousands of citizens. Lincoln had been “unusually grave and reflective” as he lamented “parting with this scene of joys and sorrows during the last thirty years and the large circle of old and faithful friends,” and when he went to his law partner for sixteen years, Billy Herndon, he assured him that his election to the presidency merely placed a hold on his partnership role: “If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.” As he stood on his private train car and addressed the crowd of well-wishers, the sentiment was no less heartfelt: “My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. . . . I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” And so, with the crowd moved to tears, Lincoln would leave Springfield for the last time in his life with the train slowly moving “out of the sight of the silent gathering.” Within the train car, furnished with dark furniture, “crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet,” Lincoln “sat alone and depressed” without his usual “hilarious good spirits.”
Four years later, with the Civil War coming to an end and a second term confirmed, his mood could have been more jubilant, but there was much more work he wished to complete during his presidency. When Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee met at Appomattox Court House and negotiated the end of the war, Lincoln’s work was not coming to an end—in fact, the coming weeks, months, and years, if available to him, would have been consumed with the relentless work of reconstituting the Union and creating a post-war America. If that work would be similar to conducting the war, there would be many more trying moments.
During the war, Lincoln had developed a reputation within his administration for finding any “good excuse for saving a man’s life” as, when he found one, he said, “I go to bed happy as I think how joyous the signing of my name will make him and his family and his friends.”[i] His Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was known for not having such leniency and for being a stern figure lacking the good-humored nature that those who met Lincoln readily observed. When Stanton one night was faced with the mother, wife, and children of a man who had deserted the Union army and thus was condemned to be shot, and even when that family dropped to their knees sobbing and begging for the soldier to be pardoned, Stanton stood “in cold and austere silence” and told the family that the man must die.[ii] Demoralized, the family left the room, and Stanton “turned, apparently unmoved, and walked into his private room.”[iii] The clerk for Stanton had witnessed the exchange and felt that Stanton was no more than “an unfeeling tyrant,” but then, he found Stanton in his private room “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs.” Stanton, “in a low wail of anguish,” repeated, “God help me to do my duty; God help me to do my duty!”[iv] In those moments, Stanton could have felt relief that Lincoln, with his deep compassion, had the final say in issuing pardons.
Lincoln’s deep compassion remained throughout the war and into 1865, but “he was in mind, body, and nerves a very different man from the one who had taken the oath in 1861,” according to his secretary John Hay.[v] Hay noted that although Lincoln’s “kindly, genial, and cordial spirit” had remained, “the boisterous laughter became less frequent year by year; the eye grew veiled by constant meditation on momentous subjects; the air of reserve and detachment from his surroundings increased.”[vi] In March 1865, one man, Horace Porter, saw the toll that the presidency had taken on Lincoln: he “looked more serious than at any other time since he had visited headquarters, the lines in his face seemed deeper, and the rings under his eyes were of a darker hue.”[vii] There was also a poignancy to moments that previously would have been routine. When Lincoln finished meeting with General Grant at City Point, he boarded a train to return to Washington and turned to face Grant and his party tipping their hats to him. Lincoln tipped his in return and with his voice “broken by an emotion he could ill conceal,” he said, “Good-by, gentlemen, God bless you all!”[viii]
April 14, 1865 started with as cheerful a tone as those surrounding Lincoln had seen since the war began. The cause for Lincoln’s glee was not difficult to find, however: he viewed the day—after having met with his cabinet and beginning to sketch out contours of peace with the rebels—as the effective end point of the war. Stanton noted that Lincoln spoke kindly of General Lee and other Confederates with “the gentle and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.”[ix] As evening came that day, Lincoln had prepared to watch “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, and shortly after eight o’clock, his carriage came to the White House. Although Lincoln had sought to have the Grants and Stanton join him, only Lincoln’s wife Mary, their friend Clara Harris, and Harris’ fiancé Major Henry Rathbone would attend the play.[x] Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth and three conspirators, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, met at the Herndon House, one block from Ford’s Theatre. They had formulated a plan to topple the North: a simultaneous attack on the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward—and that plan was to culminate that evening at 10:15pm. According to a biographer of Booth, the plan was designed to prevent any empathy attaching to other members of the Lincoln administration as had occurred in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination when the public came to support Mark Anthony, view Caesar as a martyr, and deem the assassins as “outlaws.”[xi]
That night, Powell made his way to Seward—confined to his bed just days into his recovery from a carriage accident—with a knife and pistol. Seward awakened when he heard that the assassin used the word “kill” in speaking to a guard, and Seward saw Powell’s face bend toward him “before the large bowie knife plunged into his neck and face, severing his cheek so badly that ‘the flap hung loose on his neck.’”[xii] Seward later recalled that he only remembered “what a fine-looking man Powell was and ‘what handsome cloth that overcoat is made of.’”[xiii]
That night, Atzerodt had reserved himself a room at the Kirkwood Hotel, where Vice President Johnson was staying. When he was supposed to have rang the bell of Suite 68, enter the room, and murder the Vice President, he balked. He insisted, “I won’t do it. I enlisted to abduct the President of the United States, not to kill.”[xiv] Instead of execute the plan, he left the bar at the Kirkwood Hotel and did not return.
Booth did not lack resolve: he had rehearsed his plan the night before and had “taken his place inside the theater when the Lincolns arrived.”[xv] Upon their arrival, they made their way to their designated “flag-draped box in the dress circle,” and notes of “Hail to the Chief” rang throughout the theater bringing the audience to applaud and look to their President.[xvi] At approximately 10:12pm, Booth “presented his calling card” to the White House footman guarding the box, and once inside, Booth “raised his pistol, pointed it at the back of the President’s head, and fired.”[xvii] Booth then jumped onto the stage, raised a “shining dagger in the air” and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants).[xviii] While some in the audience had thought the drama to be part of the play, Mary shouted, “They have shot the President! They have shot the President!”[xix] A doctor seated near the box later recalled that when he reached the President, Lincoln “was almost dead, his eyes were closed,” and soon he and another doctor determined to remove the President to a room across the street at the Petersen boardinghouse.[xx]
By this time, panic had spread into the streets of Washington. Word had reached the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and, upon hearing that both Seward and Lincoln were assassinated, he called out, “Oh, that can’t be so, that can’t be so!” and had his carriage take him to Seward’s house.[xxi] Later that night, Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles came to Lincoln at the Petersen boardinghouse, and Welles noted that Lincoln had arms “of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance” but noted that the wound Lincoln had suffered “would have killed most men instantly, or in a very few minutes. But Mr. Lincoln had so much vitality” that he struggled against the “inevitable end.”[xxii] Welles also noted that although Mary spent much of the night “weeping in an adjoining parlor,” she would come into the room about once an hour and come “to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion” and ask herself, “Why didn’t he shoot me? Why didn’t he shoot me?”[xxiii] She did not learn herself or from others that her husband was certain to die. By midnight, Lincoln’s entire cabinet surrounded him, and grief had permeated all those who had gathered: Robert Lincoln, the son who had remained at home rather than attend the play that night, came to the boardinghouse and one observer noted that he would “bore himself with great firmness, and constantly endeavored to assuage the grief of his mother by telling her to put her trust in God” but then become “entirely overcome” and “retire into the hall and give vent to most heartrending lamentations.”[xxiv]
Amidst the turmoil, Stanton had taken charge and began dictating discharges to generals: when he did so, messengers came and “would run back to his post to wait for the next.”[xxv] Stanton’s first telegram was addressed to General Grant alerting him that Lincoln would not survive and that Seward and his son had been assassinated. Grant received the dispatch while dining, and as Horace Porter recalled, Grant “dropped his head and sat in perfect silence.”[xxvi] Grant had been filled “with the gloomiest apprehension” and noted that the “President was inclined to be kind and magnanimous, and his death at this time is an irreparable loss to the South, which now needs so much both his tenderness and magnanimity.”[xxvii]
On April 15 at 7:22am, Lincoln succumbed to his injuries. Stanton, upon discovering the President’s death, remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages.”[xxviii] Although he had possessed “coolness” before, he now “could not stop the tears that streamed down his cheeks,” and for the following days, any mention of Lincoln would cause him to “break down and weep bitterly.”[xxix] Mary, upon learning of Lincoln’s death, demanded, “Oh, why did you not tell me that he was dying,” and her moans filled the house.[xxx] Those in Lincoln’s inner circle were shocked by the news, and for that reason, the doctors tending to Seward withheld the news of the President’s death for fear that Seward would die from the shock. But, as he looked out his window and noticed that the War Department’s flag sat at half-mast, he gazed at it and turned to his attendant saying, “The President is dead.”[xxxi] Although the attendant attempted to deny that was the case, Seward knew: he said that if Lincoln were alive, “he would have been the first to call on me, but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at half-mast.” Then, he lay on his bed with “the great tears coursing down his gashed cheeks, and the dreadful truth sinking into his mind.”[xxxii]
Within days, preparations were underway for Lincoln’s body to be transported by train from the capital to the final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. From the United States Capitol, where the remains had laid in state, a procession formed to take the coffin to the train with General Grant and other top officials following. Despite the “inclemency of the weather, a large number had collected for the purpose of rendering this last mark of respect to the mortal remains of one whom they had loved and reverenced as the second Father of his Country.”[xxxiii] At the depot, where the funeral train was set to depart, many distinguished officials and soldiers had gathered, including the colored regiment that had fought at Paducah, Kentucky during the war.[xxxiv] From Washington went the train to Baltimore and on, and along the way, massive crowds had assembled. When the train passed, those with hats removed them “in profound respect for the” deceased.”[xxxv] Some stood silent, and others draped the American flag over them while bells tolled as the train passed.[xxxvi]
Lincoln’s legacy quickly formed, and long it has endured. Grant, the man who would become President himself in a few short years, said of Lincoln, “He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.”[xxxvii] Walt Whitman wrote, “Abraham Lincoln seems to me the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.”[xxxviii] The legacy was not limited to the United States or even the great cities of Europe; it spread to even the North Caucasus region of the Russian Empire: Leo Tolstoy, one of the great literary geniuses, came upon a tribal chief there that lived in the mountains “far away from civilized life” and had gathered family and neighbors to hear stories from an outsider.[xxxix] The chief asked Tolstoy to speak of the most notable men of history, and Tolstoy regaled them for hours with tales of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, but when he was coming to close his storytelling, the chief arose and said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock. . . . His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.”[xl] Tolstoy “looked at them and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning.” He saw that “those rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend” by that time—1908—and so he told them of Lincoln’s “home life and youth . . . his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.”[xli] One man in the tribe asked Tolstoy whether he could provide a photograph of Lincoln; Tolstoy then obtained a photograph from a friend in a nearby town and gave the photograph to the man whose hand trembled as he took it; the man then “gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.”[xlii] In light of his encounter with the tribe, Tolstoy wrote: “This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together. We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”[xliii]
[i] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 671.
[v] Id. at 702.
[vii] Id. at 714.
[ix] Id. at 732.
[x] Id. at 735.
[xii] Id. at 736.
[xiv] Id. at 738.
[xviii] Id. at 738-39.
[xix] Id. at 739.
[xxi] See id.
[xxii] See id. at 741.
[xxiv] Id. at 742.
[xxv] See id.
[xxvii] Id. at 742-43.
[xxviii] Id. at 743.
[xxx] See id.
[xxxi] See id. at 744.
[xxxii] Id. at 744-45.
[xxxiii] The New York Herald, April 22, 1865.
[xxxiv] See id.
[xxxvi] See id.
[xxxvii] See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 747.
[xlii] Id. at 748.