Part 1 in a narrative of Lincoln’s Assassination
April 14, 1865 was one of the Holiest days of the Christian faith. Based on Christian beliefs Good Friday is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper, with his apostles. They would gather for the feast of unleavened bread, and Jesus would provide them the gift of the New Covenant – His Body and Blood – signified by bread and wine. He would also state that there was a traitor amongst the twelve. On the same day, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, would turn Jesus over to the high priests, at the garden – Gethsemane. While President Abraham Lincoln was not a prophet, or the Son of God, and was often considered to be a man of limited faith, Good Friday 1865 would martyr him.
Lincoln was said to be in incredibly high spirits on this particular day. Hugh McCullough, Lincoln’s new Treasury Secretary had said of this day, “I never saw Mr. Lincoln so cheerful and happy.”(i) This is understandable. Less than one week earlier US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had captured Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, receiving his surrender on April 9, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On this day Mary Lincoln had convinced her husband that it would do him well to go to Ford’s Theater for a popular comedy, “Our American Cousin.” Lincoln had invited the victorious General Grant, and his wife Julia, to join them. Upon speaking to Julia, Grant declined Lincoln’s invitation, stating they were traveling to Philadelphia. After inviting several other couples, US Major Henry Rathbone, and his fiance Clara Harris, accepted Lincoln’s invitation.
Meanwhile, the actor John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer, had visited Ford’s Theater and learned that Lincoln, Grant and their wives would be at the theater that night. Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln and ransom the U.S. Government for his release by recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America. This plan failing, Booth continued to seek a way to aid the Confederacy. In a speech, from the White House, on April 11, Lincoln stated, “Grant that he (the black man) desires the elective franchise…….if we reject Louisiana (from coming back into the Union), we also reject one vote in favor of the proposed amendment (to Constitutionally illegalize slavery)* to the National Constitution. To meet this proposition, it has been argued that no more than three-fourths of those states which have not attempted secession are necessary to validly ratify the amendment. I do not commit myself against this, further than to say that such a ratification would be questionable, and sure to be persistently questioned; while a ratification by three-fourths of all the States would be unquestioned and unquestionable.”(ii) Booth was there to hear this speech and would state, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through.”(iii) Booth now had the opportunity to carry this threat to fruition. His plan was much more elaborate than killing Lincoln. His other conspirators had their orders for April 14. Lewis Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward and George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. It was Booth’s plan to cripple the U.S. Government, sending it into a state of anarchy, allowing the South another opportunity for independence.
Arriving at Ford’s Theater after the start of the play, the Lincoln’s, Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were escorted to their seats. After a brief pause to recognize the President with applause, the play continued. Around 9:00 P.M. Booth arrived at the back door of the theater. Leaving his horse with stagehand, Edmund Spangler, he entered the theater. Knowing his way around the theater, Booth quickly made his way to the hallway between Lincoln’s box and the balcony. He barricaded the door. Mrs. Lincoln thoroughly enjoying the moment with her husband, who was holding her hand, stated, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so?” Lincoln replied, “She won’t think anything about it.” On the stage actor Harry Hawk stated this line, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!” Booth, anticipating the coming laughter, rushed into Lincoln’s booth, shooting Lincoln, at point blank range, in the back of the head. It was 10:15 P.M. As Lincoln slumped forward in his chair, Rathbone quickly realizing what had happened tried to grab Booth. Booth quickly stabbed Rathbone in the arm. Bleeding profusely, Rathbone again tried to stop Booth, only to be stabbed again. Jumping out of the box, Booth’s riding spur caught on a Treasury flag and he landed awkwardly on the stage, breaking his left leg. Raising himself, he yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants!). Some in the crowd also said he yelled, “The South is avenged.” With that Booth made his escape, to his horse, and headed towards the Navy Yard Bridge.
Meanwhile, Lewis Powell had entered William Seward’s home at Lafayette Park. Seward, recently injured in a carriage accident, was confined to his bed. Powell would gain entrance by claiming to have medicine for the secretary. Going upstairs, Powell would encounter Seward’s son, Frederick, who told him Seward was sleeping. At this time Fanny, Seward’s daughter, opened Seward’s door, telling Fred that his father was awake. Now knowing where Seward was Powell started towards Seward’s room. After a few steps Powell turned around and attempted to shoot Frederick. The revolver misfired. Powell would repeatedly hit young Fred, over the head with his revolver, until he collapsed. Running into Secretary Seward’s bedroom, Powell would stab the infirmed man, in the neck and face. Had it not been for the neck brace Seward wore, he likely would have died. Seward rolled onto the floor from the force of the attack. Seward’s other son, Augustus, Fanny and Sergeant Robinson would come to the Secretary’s aid and would also be wounded. Seward would live through his attack, and would remain Secretary of State through the Johnson presidency.
Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood Hotel. George Atzerodt had rented room 126, directly above Johnson’s room. Atzerodt would go to the hotel’s bar room and take up a conversation with bartender, Michael Henry. Atzerodt would inquire about the vice president. Well prepared for his task, with a large knife and a revolver, he would lose his nerve. Later, he would leave the hotel, throwing the knife away and would later check into another hotel, the Pennsylvania House. Booth, apparently concerned that Atzerodt would not complete his assignment, had left a note at the hotel for Johnson, “I don’t wish to disturb you. Are you home? – J. Wilkes Booth” Investigators would later believe that Booth was trying to implicate Johnson in the assassination conspiracy – potentially having him arrested and removed from office.
Thus ended the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Watch for Part 2, “Lincoln Martyred – The Death of Abraham Lincoln,” on my blog April 15. Part two can be read here.
(i) Abraham Lincoln Assassination, at Wikipedia, was used to research this article.
(ii) Abraham Lincoln’s Last Public Address, at Abraham Lincoln Online, was used to research this article.
(iii) Kauffman, Michael W., American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, published by Random House, 2004,Pg. 210.
* Text in parenthesis is added by the author of this article.