Anniversary: A nation mourns the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination

“Now he belongs to the ages.”
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, upon the death of President Lincoln

Drawing of assassination of President Lincoln

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 14: This date in April was Good Friday in 1865, and despite the general solemnity of the Christian holiday, President Abraham Lincoln was in a joyful mood: “The Friday, I never saw him so supremely cheerful,” Mary Lincoln later wrote. The American Civil War had ended days earlier, yet the 16th President told his wife that he felt this was the day the war had come to a close. His eldest son, Robert, had returned home, and Lincoln had urged his wife that they should both be more cheerful from that day forward. Despite dreams of his impending assassination—which had continued for three nights in a row—Abraham Lincoln took his wife, Mary, to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. The show would be his last.

While seated in a private box in attendance of “Our American Cousin,” Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot in the back of the head at approximately 10:15 p.m., by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The muffled noise of the gunshot caused confusion in the Ford’s Theatre audience, but after Booth jumped to the stage, the First Lady screamed. Booth ran from the theater to escape from Washington on horseback.

Slumped in his chair and struggling to breathe, soldiers carried the President to a house across the street. In a bed too small for his 6-foot, 4-inch stature, the President was laid diagonally. When the surgeon general arrived at the house, he told those who had gathered that Lincoln would, inevitably, die during the night. Vice President Andrew Johnson, members of Lincolns’ cabinet and several of his friends stood by his bedside through the night, until the President was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m.

Did you know? Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated.

A temporary coffin carried Lincoln’s body to the White House, where an autopsy was performed. By the end of the day, news of the President’s death had spread across the country, and flags were flown at half-mast while businesses closed their doors. (Learn more from Wikipedia and History.com.) On April 21, Lincoln’s body was boarded onto a train headed for Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried. Tens of thousands of Americans paid their respects along the railroad route.

Black-and-white drawing of men in small room gathered around man in bed

President Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, a frantic search for John Wilkes Booth had thousands of soldiers, detectives and citizens on his trail. A $100,000 reward was offered for anyone who located Booth. Twelve days following the assassination, soldiers found Booth hiding on a farmstead; Booth was killed, and four of his convicted accomplices were later hanged. Booth’s last words were, “Useless, useless.”

WHY AN ASSASSINATION?

As the American Civil War entered its final stages, the Confederacy was becoming desperate: John Wilkes Booth and several associates created a plot to kidnap the President and take him to Richmond, the Confederate capital. When the planned kidnapping fell through, however, Booth hatched a plot to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward—with the intention of throwing the U.S. government into chaos. Last-minute changes in plans prevented this plot from being carried out successfully, although Lincoln suffered a tragic end that, many believe, he had long felt was inescapable.

SESQUICENTENNIAL EVENTS

From the bullet that killed him to the top hat he was wearing to the chair he sat in on that fateful night, museums across the country will be showcasing exhibits dedicated to Abraham Lincoln for the sesquicentennial of his assassination.

In Dearborn, Mich., visitors to The Henry Ford will have a rare chance to view the chair that Lincoln was assassinated in outside of its usual enclosure, as part of the museum’s observance of the sesquicentennial. In New York, “Abraham Lincoln and Civil War New York” will lead visitors on a walking tour of sites significant to Lincoln and the Civil War in New York. The National Park Service will launch Lincoln’s Journey Home April 18-May 3, with commemorations in many of the major cities that held a service for Lincoln. Ford’s Theatre will host events on April 14 and through to the following morning, with events culminating in a wreath-laying ceremony accompanied by church bells at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. The cottage of President Lincoln in Washington, D.C., will be draped in black.

Even those unable to visit an historic site for the sesquicentennial can tour Ford’s Theatre online, through an interactive field trip available for viewing April 13-14, at www.fords.org. Also on the digital front, a massive archive—containing more than 100,000 documents related to Lincoln, and entitled, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln—is growing rapidly as a project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (Read the full story here.) Public access to the digitized documents is currently available through a temporary website, and a more in-depth website is planned for when the project is closer to completion.

Looking for more coverage of the sesquicentennial? Forbes, CNN, the Washington Post, Smithsonian and the Chicago Tribune all covered this important milestone.