Part 2 in a narrative of Lincoln’s Assassination
April 15, a day many modern American’s dread – Tax Day! A thousand tax days are better than what happened on April 15, 1865. In 1865, the United States woke up to a tragedy. By then, with the invention of the telegraph, America had become a smaller place. Newspapers, on April 15, 1865, all had similar headlines, declaring that, “Abraham Lincoln shot at Ford’s Theater!” – New York Times. Early that morning, the country was left wondering what had happened. They knew Lincoln had been shot, but little else.
At approximately 10:15 P.M. on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth had entered Ford’s Theater, gained access to the Presidential Box, and fired one round, from his Philadelphia Deringer, into the back of Lincoln’s head. Lincoln slumped over, having just moments before, spoken his last words to Mary Lincoln, “She won’t think anything about it.,” to Mary’s inquiry, “What will Miss Harris think of me hanging on to you so?”(i) The audience, originally thinking the “crack,” from Booth’s deringer, was part of the show, soon realized it was not so. Mary Lincoln was screaming, and Major Henry Rathbone, Lincoln’s guest that night, yelled, “Stop that man!” With chaos breaking out in the theater, young army surgeon Charles Leale rushed to make his way to the president’s box. Arriving, he was unable to enter as Booth had blocked the door. Rathbone quickly let him in. Inevitably, the first thing Leale noticed was the profuse amount of blood coming from the knife wound Booth inflicted on Rathbone’s left arm. He quickly rushed towards Lincoln, who was slumped over in Mary’s arms. Quickly checking for a pulse, Leale was unable to detect it – he believed Lincoln was already dead. Another doctor, in the audience, Charles S. Taft, was hoisted into the booth. Together the two doctors cut away Lincoln’s collar and felt around for a wound. Leale located it on the back of Lincoln’s head, near his left ear. Removing a clot from the entry wound caused Lincoln’s breathing to improve. However, both doctors knew Lincoln would die, Leale would state, “His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover.” Determining to remove Lincoln from the theater, the doctors located a room for their use, at William Petersen’s Boarding House, across the street. The mortally wounded Lincoln was carried across the street, and placed in a bed on the first floor. Being too tall for the bed, he was laid across it diagonally.
Word traveled fast to key members of Lincoln’s political family. Shortly Surgeon General Joseph Barnes joined the three physicians already at Lincoln’s bedside. Barnes brought with him Major Charles Henry Crane, his assistant. Additionally doctors Anderson Ruffin Abbot and Robert K. Stone arrived, Stone being Lincoln’s personal physician. Soon members of Lincoln’s cabinet arrived including Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln’s two remaining children, Robert, and Tad, arrived as well. Mary Lincoln was disconsolate. After a period when she was making a significant commotion she would be sent out of the room, by Stanton. With the government needing to continue operating, Stanton set up an office in the rear parlor to attend to critical government business including interviewing witnesses and issuing orders for Booth’s pursuit.
The president, that had become part of the American fabric, lay dying. He had led the nation through a bloody Civil War, freed the slaves in the rebellious states, with the Emancipation Proclamation, was Commander-In-Chief of the largest army in the world and in his final days, had demanded that his conquering troops, “let ‘em down easy,” setting a positive tone for reconstruction. Unfortunately nothing could be done for him as he struggled breathing, his body fighting to survive the .41 caliber projectile that lodged behind his right eye. At 7:00 A.M. Dr. Stone announced that death was at hand. With colleagues, friends and doctors gathered around his bed, Abraham Lincoln stopped breathing. The time was 7:22 A.M. Secretary Stanton, approaching Lincoln stated, “Now he belongs to the ages.”(ii) Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, Lincoln’s pastor, quickly dropped to his knees praying for the repose of Lincoln’s soul. Afterward, leaving Lincoln’s bedside he went to comfort and pray with Mary Lincoln.
At 9:00 A.M. soldiers arrived and placed Lincoln’s body in a temporary coffin, wrapped in the U.S. Flag. The soldiers, cavalry and other dignitaries formed a procession to take Lincoln to his home – the White House. He would be placed in his bed, in what is now called the Lincoln bedroom. Thus Lincoln, having accomplished so much, passed from the mortal world.
Watch for an upcoming article on Lincoln’s Last Train Ride. The first article, “Good Friday 1865 – Assassination for Victory,” can be read by clicking here.
(i) Abraham Lincoln Assassination, at Wikipedia, was used to research this article.
(ii) Oldroyd, Osborn, H., The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: The Flight, Pursuit, Capture and Punishment of the Conspirators, published by the Mershon Company Press 1901, Pg. 31.