Excerpt from Diary of Gideon Welles
Covering events from April 1865; first published in 1911
A Cabinet member recalls the day President Lincoln died
"The giant [Lincoln] sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking."
In April 1865, it became clear to most Americans that the Confederacy was on the verge (edge) of total collapse. The Union's successful capture of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in early April showed that no Southern city was safe from Yankee troops. Then, a few days later, on April 9, 1865, the South lost its largest and best army when Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox, Virginia.
News of these military victories raced through Northern communities. People across the North knew that such triumphs meant that the war was drawing to a close, and that the Union would be preserved. All across the Northern states, people poured out into the streets to celebrate. Laughing and crying in happiness, these crowds spent hours congratulating each other on the good news. Thousands of townspeople and villagers celebrated by firing rifles and fireworks into the air and ringing church bells, while countless others galloped or ran or paraded through the streets waving flags and singing patriotic songs. "Never did so many flags wave in the nation's history, even though half the country wasn't waving any," wrote Robert Hendrickson in The Road to Appomattox. "Enemies shook hands and strangers hugged each other. Those against the war and those for the war all joined in rejoicing that the war was over, and all cried that Monday as they celebrated. People from every walk of life—from doctors and lawyers to foundry workers and porters—shouted: 'The war is over! Hurrah for Grant! Hurrah for Lincoln! The boys are coming home!'"
News of Lee's surrender gladdened the heart of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), too. At times it had seemed to him that the war might never end, or that it would end in failure for the Union after years of heartache and pain. But Lee's surrender was a sure sign that Lincoln's heroic efforts to restore the Union had succeeded. When thousands of people gathered outside the White House to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other patriotic songs, the president led them in raucous cheers for General Grant and his soldiers.
In the days immediately after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln spent a good deal of time thinking about how to bring the Southern states back into the Union. He knew that reestablishing a sense of unity and brotherhood between the two regions was going to be a big challenge. Lincoln realized that many people in the North wanted to punish the South for its actions. The president also knew that many Northerners did not want to readmit Southern states into the Union until they showed their loyalty to the United States and their willingness to honor laws that granted important new freedoms to blacks. But Lincoln believed that reunification would never work if the Southern states were not welcomed back with open arms. He wanted to give the Southern states significant control over their own affairs and help them rebuild their ruined cities and farmlands.
But Lincoln never got a chance to produce a comprehensive policy for reconstructing the rebel states and restoring them to the Union. On April 14, 1865, he and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882), attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington called
Upon arriving at the theatre, Lincoln and his party were seated in a fine balcony overlooking the stage so that they would have a good view of the play. Midway through the performance, however, a young actor from Maryland named John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865) slipped into the rear of the balcony, also known as the presidential box.
John Wilkes Booth was a fanatical supporter of the Confederacy, even though he never offered his services to its military. During the last few months of the war, Booth joined a small band of other anti-Union conspirators who devised several different plots to kidnap Lincoln. All of these plans fell apart for one reason or another, but Booth continued to plot against the president.
When Richmond fell, and Lee surrendered, Booth knew that the Confederate collapse was nearly complete. But he decided that if he killed Lincoln and other leading Union officials, the Confederacy might yet survive to fight. He also thought that if he carried out a successful assassination, he would be a famous hero throughout the South. This murderous reasoning led Booth to cast aside his kidnapping plans and concoct (invent) a new plot to assassinate Lincoln, General Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), and Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872).
In order to carry out his scheme, Booth recruited a number of drifters, rebel spies, and deserters from the Confederate Army to his cause. Some of Booth's plan collapsed almost immediately, and the attempts on the lives of Grant and Johnson never even took place. But on the evening of April 14, one of Booth's accomplices (partners in crime), Lewis Payne, attacked Secretary Seward in his bedroom, where he was recovering from a carriage accident. Seward's son Frederick rushed to defend his father, but the secretary's son was seriously injured by the invader. Secretary Seward suffered numerous knife wounds, too, but he warded off his attacker until the man fled into the night. A few blocks away, meanwhile, Booth awaited the arrival of President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.
After entering the rear of the president's box at Ford's Theatre, Booth withdrew a one-shot pistol called a derringer from his jacket and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Major Rathbone leaped to his feet to stop the assassin, but Booth slashed the officer with a knife and leaped out of the balcony, landing on the stage below. He broke his leg in the fall, but still managed to hobble to his feet. He yelled the state motto of Virginia, "Sic semper tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants"), at the stunned audience, then hurriedly limped off the stage to the rear of the theater. Rathbone called down to the audience and stage crew to stop Booth, but the assassin escaped on horseback before anyone could grab him.
Booth left behind him a scene of confusion and sorrow. Physicians in the audience rushed to Lincoln's side, but they could do nothing for him. Concerned that the president would not survive any attempt to carry him to the White House, which was more than six blocks away, the doctors decided to take him to a boarding house across the street from the theater.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Diary of Gideon Welles:
- President Lincoln knew that the post-Civil War period in America would be full of challenges, as the North and the South tried to learn to live together again. Historians have offered a variety of opinions about the Reconstruction policies that he would have instituted had he lived. But most people agree that he would have favored moderate positions designed to: 1) address Northern concerns about black rights and Southern loyalty to the Union, and 2) make the South feel like a part of the United States once again.
- President Lincoln initiated many changes in American law and society that made life much better for black people. As a result, news of his death profoundly saddened black Americans across the country. They mourned his death not only because of his past leadership in abolishing slavery across the nation, but also because they felt that it made their future much more uncertain.
Excerpt from Diary of Gideon Welles
I had retired to bed about half past-ten on the evening of the 14th of April, and was just getting asleep when Mrs. Welles, my wife, said some one was at our door. Sitting up in bed, I heard a voice twice call to John, my son, whose sleeping-room was on the second floor directly over the front entrance. I arose at once and raised a window, when my messenger, James Smith, called to me that Mr. Lincoln, the President, had been shot, and said Secretary Seward and his son, Assistant Secretary Frederick Seward, were assassinated. James was much alarmed and excited. I told him his story was very incoherent and improbable, that he was associating men who were not together and liable to attack at the same time. "Where," I inquired, "was the President when shot?" James said he was at Ford's Theatre on 10th Street. "Well," said I, "Secretary Seward is an invalid in bed in his house yonder on 15th Street." James said he had been there, stopped in at the house to make inquiry before alarming me.
I immediately dressed myself, and, against the earnest remonstrance and appeals of my wife, went directly to Mr. Seward's, whose residence was on the east side of the square. . . . James accompanied me. As we were crossing 15th Street, I saw four or five men in earnest consultation, standing under the lamp on the corner by St. John's Church. Before I had got half across the street, the lamp was suddenly extinguished and the knot of persons rapidly dispersed. For a moment, and but a moment I was disconcerted to find myself in darkness, but recollecting that it was late and about time for the moon to rise, I proceeded on, not having lost five steps, merely making a pause without stopping. Hurrying forward into 15th Street, I found it pretty full of people, especially so near the residence of Secretary Seward, where there were many soldiers as well as citizens already gathered.
Entering the house, I found the lower hall and office full of persons, and among them most of the foreign legations, all anxiously inquiring what truth there was in the horrible rumors afloat. I replied that my object was to ascertain the facts. Proceeding through the hall to the stairs, I found one, and I think two, of the servants there holding the crowd in check. The servants were frightened and appeared relieved to see me. I hastily asked what truth there was in the story that an assassin or assassins had entered the house and assaulted the Secretary. They said it was true, and that Mr. Frederick was also badly injured. They wished me to go up, but no others. . . . As I entered, I met Miss Fanny Seward [Seward's wife], with whom I exchanged a single word, and proceeded to the foot of the bed. Dr. Verdi and, I think, two others were there. The bed was saturated with blood. The Secretary was lying on his back, the upper part of his head covered by a cloth, which extended down over his eyes. His mouth was open, the lower jaw dropping down. I exchanged a few whispered words with Dr. V. Secretary [of Wa
As we descended the stairs, I asked Stanton what he had heard in regard to the President that was reliable. He said the President was shot at Ford's Theatre, that he had seen a man who was present and witnessed the occurrence. I said I would go immediately to the White House. Stanton told me the President was not there but was at the theatre. "Then," said I, "let us go immediately there."
The President had been carried across the street from the theatre, to the house of a Mr. Peterson. We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily. Several surgeons were present, at least six, I should think more. Among them I was glad to observe Dr. Hall, who, however, soon left. I inquired of Dr. H., as I entered, the true condition of the President. He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer.
The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.
Senator [Charles] Sumner was there, I think, when I entered. If not he came in soon after, as did Speaker [of the House Schuyler] Colfax, Mr. Secretary [of the Treasury Hugh] McCulloch, and the other members of the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward. A double guard was stationed at the door and on the sidewalk, to repress the crowd, which was of course highly excited and anxious. The room was small and overcrowded. The surgeons and members of the Cabinet were as many as should have been in the room, but there were many more, and the hall and other rooms in the front or main house were full. One of these rooms was occupied by Mrs. Lincoln and her attendants, with Miss Harris. Mr. Dixon and Mrs. Kinney came to her about twelve o'clock. About once an hour Mrs. Lincoln would repair to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion.
(April 15.) A door which opened upon a porch or gallery, and also the windows, were kept open for fresh air. The night was dark, cloudy, and damp, and about six it began to rain. I remained in the room until then without sitting or leaving it, when, there being a vacant chair which some one left at the foot of the bed, I occupied it for nearly two hours, listening to the heavy groans, and witnessing the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me. . . .
A little before seven, I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death-struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals, and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven. . . .
I went after breakfast to the Executive Mansion. The
What happened next . . .
Lincoln's death shocked the North out of its celebratory mood and plunged it into one of deep anger and sadness. After all, the Union's victory in the Civil War had made the president very popular across much of the North. Northern communities realized that during the previous four years, Lincoln had managed to keep the dream of a restored Union alive despite many periods of doubt and discouragement. They also knew that victory would not have been possible without his guidance and determination. One Northern newspaper described the change in mood across the Union by simply stating that "the songs of victory are [now] drowned in sorrow."
The nation entered into a period of mourning in the weeks following Lincoln's death. Thousands of citizens paid their respects to their fallen president when the White House held a service in his honor. On April 20, Lincoln's body was placed on a train so that he could be buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. As Lincoln's funeral car passed through the American countryside during the next few days, millions of farmers and townspeople gathered along the train's route to pay their respects.
In the South, meanwhile, some people were glad to hear of Lincoln's death. But black families were horrified to learn about the assassination, and many white people reacted with sadness as well. Some of these people were simply war-weary citizens who wanted to return to a life of peace. Othersrecognized that the assassination might lead the North to treat the South more harshly in the coming months. Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), for example, admitted that he had "no special regard for Mr. Lincoln," but stated that "there are a great many men of whose end I had rather hear than his. I fear it will be disastrous to our people, and I regret it deeply."
As Davis suspected, Lincoln's death resulted in a transfer of governmental power to lawmakers who were determined to punish the South for the war and for the death of their president. Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after Lincoln's assassination, and both he and leaders in the Republican-controlled Congress indicated that their Reconstruction policies toward the South would be very stern.
The man who assassinated Lincoln, meanwhile, lived for less than two weeks after escaping from Ford's Theatre. Federal soldiers tracked Booth and an accomplice named David Herold to a tobacco barn in Virginia. On April 26, the soldiers surrounded the barn and demanded that the two men surrender. Herold gave himself up, but Booth refused to surrender, and the soldiers set fire to the barn. Booth died of a gunshot wound while still in the burning barn, but it remains uncertain whether the wound was self-inflicted or whether one of the soldiers shot him.
In the weeks following Booth's violent death, eight other alleged participants in the assassination plot were captured and put on trial. All eight were convicted by a military court of being involved in the plan to kill Lincoln, and four of them were hanged. Three others—including Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883), who treated Booth's broken leg several hours after the shooting—were sentenced to life in prison, but they were pardoned (officially forgiven and released from further punishment) in 1869. The eighth person was sentenced to six years in prison for helping Booth get out of Ford's Theatre.
Did you know . . .
- At first, President Johnson and the Republican-controlled Congress seemed to have similar views on Reconstruction. Within a matter of months, however, the relationship between Johnson and Congress deteriorated, as the president resisted legislative efforts to toughen some of his Reconstruction policies. These differences became so great that Congress impeached Johnson (formally accused him of wrongdoing and tried to remove him from office). This effort to get rid of Johnson almost succeeded, but the Senate vote to remove him fell one vote short.
- John Wilkes Booth had an older brother, Edwin Booth (1833–1893), who also made his living as an actor. In fact, many people considered Edwin Booth to be the finest actor of the American theater during the late 1850s and early 1860s. Strongly loyal to the Union, Edwin was very distressed when he learned that his brother had assassinated Lincoln. He spent a year away from the stage following his brother's death, then returned to the theater in 1866. Booth worried that theatergoers might not welcome him back because of his brother's murderous actions, but most audiences accepted him. Edwin Booth continued to make his living as an actor and theatrical manager until 1891, when he retired.
- General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant (1826-1902) were originally supposed to join President Lincoln and the First Lady for the play at Ford's Theatre on the night that the president was shot. But Julia Grant was anxious to visit their children, who were staying in New Jersey. As a result, General Grant politely declined the president's invitation to accompany them to the play, and Mrs. Lincoln invited Major Rathbone and his fiancée instead.
- Today, American presidents are protected by large numbers of agents who are dedicated to defending them from any attack, even if they have to sacrifice their own lives in the process. These protective units were formed to stop tragic incidents like the attack on President Lincoln from ever taking place again. Unfortunately, several presidents were later shot at, including three who died as a result of an assassin's bullet: James A. Garfield (1831–1881), William McKinley (1843–1901), and John F. Kennedy (1917–1963).
- Historians continue to debate various conspiracy theories about the Lincoln assassination today. Some people think that Booth was aided by officials in the Confederate government. Other people have speculated that Booth was helped by officials in the U.S. War Department. Others have charged that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) took part in the assassination plot because of concerns that Lincoln's Reconstruction policies would not sufficiently punish the South for its wartime actions. Some people have even claimed that Booth escaped from his pursuers, and that the federal agents actually killed a man who only resembled the assassin. But as James M. McPherson noted in Ordeal by Fire, "although a number of ambiguities and unanswered questions remain about the assassination, there is no real evidence to support any of these myths. Booth and his handful of accomplices appear to have acted on their own. And indeed, the man killed in Virginia was John Wilkes Booth."
For Further Reading
Harrell, Carolyn L. When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Jakoubek, Robert. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
January, Brendan. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Children's Press, 1998.
Lloyd, Lewis. The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Nash, Thomas P., Jr. A Naval History of the Civil War. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1972.
Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.