President Lincoln is Shot, 1865
President Lincoln awoke the morning of April 14 in a pleasant mood. Robert E. Lee had surrendered several days before to Ulysses Grant, and now the President was awaiting word from North Carolina on the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston. The morning papers carried the announcement that the President and his wife would be attending the comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater that evening with General Grant and his wife.
At 11 o'clock that morning, Lincoln held a meeting with Grant and the Cabinet. Following the conference, Grant gave his regrets that he and his wife could no longer attend the play that evening. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pleaded with the President not to go out at night, fearful that some rebel might try to shoot him in the street. At lunch the President told his wife the news about the Grants. Disappointed, the Lincolns nonetheless decided to maintain their announced plans and asked Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, to join them.
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After an afternoon carriage ride and dinner, Mary complained of a headache and considered not going after all. Lincoln commented that although he was feeling a bit tired, he needed a laugh and was intent on going with or without her. She relented. He made a quick trip to the War Department with his personal body guard, William Crook, but there was no news from North Carolina. On the way back to the White House, Crook implored the President not to go to the theater. Rebuffed, the body guard then asked that he be allowed to accompany the President as an extra guard. Lincoln also rejected the offer and shrugged off Crook's fears of assassination. Lincoln knew that a guard would be posted outside their private box at the theater.
Arriving after the play had started, the two couples swept up the stairs and into their seats. The box door was closed, but not locked. As the play progressed, police guard John Parker, a notorious drinker, left his post in the hallway leading to the box and went to a saloon next door for a drink. During the third act, the President and Mrs. Lincoln drew closer together, holding hands while enjoying the play. Behind them, the door opened. A shadowy figure stepped into the box, pointed a derringer at the back of Lincoln's head and pulled the trigger. Mary reached out to her slumping husband and began shrieking. Now wielding a dagger, the man yelled, "Sic semper tyrannus" ("Thus always to tyrants"), slashed Rathbone's arm open to the bone, and then leapt from the box. Catching his spur in a flag, he crashed to the stage, breaking his left shin in the fall. Rathbone and Harris both yelled for someone to stop him, but he escaped out the back stage door.
An unconscious Lincoln was carried to a bording house across the street and into the room of a War Department clerk. The bullet had entered behind the left ear and ripped a path through the left side of his brain, mortally wounding him. He died the next morning. Upon learning of his demise, Mary cried, "His dream was prophetic!"
Major Henry Rathbone, sat with the Lincolns in their theater box and later testified at the official inquiry into the assassination. We join his story as he and his fiancÚ accompany the Lincolns to the theater. . .
"On the evening of the 14th of April last, at about twenty minutes past 8 o' clock, I, in company with Miss Harris, left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them, in their carriage, to Ford's Theater, on Tenth Street. On reaching the theater, when the presence of the President became known, the actors stopped playing, the band struck up "Hail to the Chief," and the audience rose and received him with vociferous cheering. The party proceeded along in the rear of the dress-circle and entered the box that had been set apart for their reception. On entering the box, there was a large arm-chair that was placed nearest the audience, farthest from the stage, which the President took and occupied during the whole of the evening, with one exception, when he got up to put on his coat, and returned and sat down again.
When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was 'Freedom!' I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm .... The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, 'Stop that man.' I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.
The execution of the conspirators
in the assassination, July 7, 1865
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On reaching the outer door of the passage way, I found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, one end of which was secured in the wall, and the other resting against the door. It had been so securely fastened that it required considerable force to remove it. This wedge or bar was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. I removed the bar, and the door was opened. Several persons, who represented themselves as surgeons, were allowed to enter. I saw there Colonel Crawford, and requested him to prevent other persons from entering the box.
I then returned to the box, and found the surgeons examining the President's person. They had not yet discovered the wound. As soon as it was discovered, it was determined to remove him from the theater. He was carried out, and I then proceeded to assist Mrs. Lincoln, who was intensely excited, to leave the theater. On reaching the head of the stairs, I requested Major Potter to aid me in assisting Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the house where the President was being conveyed. . .
In a review of the transactions, it is my confident belief that the time which elapsed between the discharge of the pistol and the time when the assassin leaped from the box did not exceed thirty seconds. Neither Mrs. Lincoln nor Miss Harris had left their seats."
This eyewitness account originally appeared in: Pitman, Benjamin The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (1865), reprinted in: Hofstadter, Richard and Michael Wallace eds. American Violence: A Documentary History (1970); Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody (1988). Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1977).
How To Cite This Article:
"President Lincoln is Shot, 1865," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2009).