The Last Words of Abraham Lincoln

The Last Words of Abraham Lincoln

Among the memories of those who lived through that dreadful April day so many years ago was how the afternoon sunshine quickly descended into evening gloom. With darkness had come fog and a gentle mist that dampened the nation’s capital. A chill followed, an unwelcome surprise after the warmth of day. Then there was the moon. It appeared late on that Friday night, leaving the hours just after sunset dark and unusually dreary. It announced itself first in the silvered edges of clouds and then, unhurriedly, came fully, brightly into view. In the years after, many a man swore that before the night was done, the moon had turned blood red. If true, it was a fitting banner over the events unfolding below.

At the White House, the Lincolns dined together. The president and First Lady listened as their son Robert, a young officer on General Grant’s staff, excitedly described the siege of Petersburg and the magnificence of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The Lincoln’s other son, twelve year-old Tad, felt slighted by the attention trained on his older brother and misbehaved to correct the injustice. It worked. Mrs. Lincoln scolded him for neglecting his meal and then, prompted by the mention of the Grants, told her husband that she had invited that lovely Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York, to accompany them to Ford’s Theater later in the evening. Young Miss Harris had thrilled at the chance to attend the play Our American Cousin with the First Family and had assured Mrs. Lincoln that her beau, Major Henry R. Rathbone, would cherish the opportunity as well. It was settled then. The Lincoln’s would collect the young couple at the Harris home on H Street near Fourteenth.

Lincoln answered the news with a nod but must have winced inwardly. He knew the truth: Miss Harris and Major Rathbone were to accompany the Lincolns because the more distinguished names in Washington had refused to attend. This, Lincoln had long understood, was his wife’s fault. She was notoriously jealous and screamed viciously at any woman who dared to even walk next to her husband. Many a Washington official’s wife had been humiliated in public by the enraged First Lady, who thought nothing of making loud and tearful allegations of impropriety no matter who looked on. After one such scene, General Grant’s wife swore she would never be in Mary Lincoln’s presence again. So the Grants had excused themselves from this night at the theater, as had half a dozen of the city’s eminent couples. This left the President of the United States and his First Lady to an outing with a junior officer and his date. It was galling to Lincoln, particularly on this night—when victory was in the air and the president was the toast of the Union. All of Washington knew that Mary’s antics kept her husband from the honor due him.

Still, it had been a good day. After breakfast and the usual early visitors, there had been a cabinet meeting, this one attended by the victorious General Grant. As always when Lincoln’s cabinet assembled, there was fierce debate. Today, the topic was how Confederate leaders should be treated after the war and what economic aid ought to be offered to the southern states. Lincoln listened, commented almost absentmindedly from time to time, and then turned with eagerness to General Grant. The president was desperate to know: What had it been like at Appomattox those five days before? What kind of man was General Lee and how had he handled himself in surrendering to his foe? With each word Grant spoke, Lincoln grew increasingly peaceful, ever more satisfied. There had been so much horror, so many years. He could be forgiven for reveling in the details of the end.

After a lunch with Mary, he had endured a series of still more meetings—with Vice President Johnson, with the assistant Secretary of War, and with Nancy Bushrod, a former slave. Before the day’s paperwork was done, he had pardoned a deserter who had been sentenced to death. “I think the boy can do us more good above ground than underground,” he quipped.

Then came a promised carriage ride with Mary. It was a magical day. The sun’s warmth seemed to penetrate the soul while the perfume of flowers filled the nostrils and dogwood trees displayed their beauty like strutting peacocks. The Lincolns rode alone. Only their carriage driver attended them and this rare privacy encouraged intimacy. Mrs. Lincoln commented that her husband almost startled her with his cheerfulness. He replied that it was because the war was at a close. “We must both be cheerful in the future. Between the war, and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.” It was true, though the mention of the son lost to typhoid a few years before stung the still grieving Mary. Fortunately, the pain did not linger. The two continued happily toward the Navy Yard, lost in imagining the future and how they would travel and learn to love life again in the years to come.

This was the mood that pervaded as the Lincolns left the White House for Ford’s Theater at 8:05 that evening. From their carriage, they waved in the black, wet night to well wishers along the road. They were joined by their guests at Senator Harris’ home and arrived finally at the theater sometime shortly after 8:30. The play had already begun.

It didn’t matter. When the president’s party entered the second story viewing box reserved for them that evening, the orchestra’s conductor took note, raised his baton to interrupt the actors on stage, and signaled the start of “Hail to the Chief.” The more than 1600 people in the theater exploded into applause. Lincoln bowed in response, his hand over his heart, and then bowed again when those below continued their grateful cheers.

Order returned and the play resumed. Not overly interested in the happenings on stage, the Lincolns quietly continued the flirty intimacy they had kindled earlier that afternoon.

“What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so,” Mary asked, referring to her grip on her husband’s hand.

“Why, she will think nothing about it,” he assured.

This teasing continued. Unnoticed was the figure that had just stepped through the outer door of the president’s box. The man was deliberate, even graceful in his movements. He locked the door behind him and then braced it shut with a board he had placed nearby on a visit to the theater earlier that day. Turning then to the inner door, he peered through a hole he had bored just hours before with his pocketknife. He could see what he needed to see: the back of the president’s head.

Unaware of the man, and enjoying a newfound tenderness with his wife, Lincoln returned happily to the theme he and Mary had touched upon during their lovely afternoon carriage ride. In a gentle whisper, the president assured that after the war, “we will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.”

The figure at the door now stepped silently into the president’s box. He paused and took stock of the mere four feet between himself and the president. Slowly, smoothly, the man pulled a .44–caliber Derringer pistol from his pocket and waited. He was listening for lines from the play on the stage below. They would signal his next move.

“We will visit the Holy Land,” Lincoln continued, leaning toward Mary so as not to disturb the others.

Now, hearing what he had been waiting for in an actor’s words, the stranger—himself an actor named John Wilkes Booth—stepped forward and lifted his pistol toward the president’s head.

In the sacred seconds that remained, Lincoln spoke again—before the assassin’s shot entered his brain just inches behind the left ear, before the blood and the confusion and the manhunts and the grief, before the ages took him and the great soul left its earthly home to hover over a nation still struggling to be born. Lincoln spoke once more.

“We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior,” the president said.

And then, nearly as the Derringer ball cracked the air, “there is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”