1861-1865 - In the White House, Assassination
Aloof and eccentric even as a prairie lawyer, the unique demands and pressures of the White House did even more to separate Lincoln from his fellow men. At once folksy and haughty, Lincoln was an unusual combination of backwoods boy turned autodidact who must have presented a formidable puzzle to the Washington set.
Beyond his curious background, Lincoln was captive to an extremely irregular schedule during his years in office, keeping odd hours, grooming himself only sporadically, and eating whenever he got the chance, which was rarely. This regimen was partly out of necessity, but partly by design. In characteristic homespun fashion, Lincoln once explained the oddities of his diet by remarking, "well, I cannot take my vittles regular. I kind of just browse round."
But if Lincoln to some extent cultivated his more bizarre mannerisms, his wife was less in control of her idiosyncrasies. After the death of their son Willie in February 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln went into an extended period of mourning, wearing bl ack at all times, like Britain's Queen Victoria. To alleviate her grief, she became increasingly liberal with the budget for internal improvements to the White House, spending $2500 on a single rug. In addition, she purchased three hundred pairs of glov es for herself in a four-month period, and bought several expensive evening dresses that she never wore, ringing up a clothing debt of almost $30,000.
Many have speculated that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane even at this early stage, although she was not committed to a sanatorium until 1875. The neglect she suffered at the hands of her husband must have only increased as the war escalated. To make matte rs worse, with many members of the Todd family having joined the Confederacy, she was constantly suspected of being a traitor. While such reservations were unfounded, the war clearly caused a significant strain on her for various reasons.
Lincoln himself, in living with the weight of the war for four years, aged tremendously during his time in the White House. From the moment he departed Springfield for Washington right up until his dying day, he lived under the constant threat of ass assination. Nevertheless, he frequently refused the bodyguards that were assigned to him. As he once explained in a letter of 1863, "I long ago made up my mind that if anybody wants to kill me, he will do it. If I wore a shirt of mail and kept myself s urrounded by a body-guard, it would be all the same. There are a thousand ways to getting at a man if it is desired that he should be killed."
Nevertheless, there were times when Secretary of War Stanton insisted that Lincoln accept a military escort. The daily open carriage rides that Lincoln took around Washington with his family were generally attended by two dozen cavalrymen. But as Li ncoln well knew, such protection did not grant him an immunity from attack. Through it all, Lincoln attempted to maintain a sense of calm, and even humor, amidst the threat and menace. In the aftermath of an assassination attempt in which a bullet grazed his stovepipe hat, Lincoln acted with perfect equanimity bordering on lightheartedness.
As the war wound to a conclusion, Lincoln still realized that he was in danger. As he explained to a cabinet member before his Second Inaugural Address, "if it is the will of Providence that I should die by the hand of an assassin, it must be so." T hroughout his presidency, Lincoln had been haunted by dreams of a dark character. The most well known of these dreams is the nightmare Lincoln suffered on the night before he was shot, in which he imagined the particulars of a mysterious funeral occurrin g inside the White House.
April 14, 1865 dawned as an optimistic day for the Union. Lee had surrendered to Grant less than a week earlier, and the long war was finally at an end. With various states considering their prospects for readmission to the United States, the St ars and Stripes was once again raised over Fort Sumter in a symbolic gesture of victory.
After their usual midday carriage ride through Washington, the Lincolns prepared to attend Ford's Theater that evening, for a performance of a play titled "Our American Cousin." Lincoln was reluctant to spend yet another evening out, but felt it was his duty as president to make a public appearance. Although scheduled to attend with General and Mrs. Grant, arrangements were changed at the last minute, and a young engaged couple, Clara Harris and Major Henry R. Rathbone, accompanied the Lincolns inst ead.
Shortly after ten o'clock that evening, with the play well underway, a shadowy man made his way into the presidential box, eluding the guard who had gone downstairs to get a better view of the stage. Leveling his pistol to Lincoln's head at point blank r ange, the assassin fired a muffled shot and fled from the box across the stage. Brandishing a knife as he went, the murderer tripped and fell as he made his way across the stage, yelling "sic semper tyrannis," or "thus always to tyrants," the state motto of Virginia.
Lincoln's assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a twenty-six-year-old actor sympathetic to the Southern cause. In the previous year, he had made an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap Lincoln. Now, with the Confederacy in shambles, Booth viewed his cause a s all the more desperate, and became involved in an elaborate plan to murder various federal leaders, including Vice President Johnson, General Grant and Secretary of State Seward. While Johnson and Grant escaped the plot unscathed, Seward himsel f narrowly averted death that very same evening after being assailed by a gunman while in bed.
Lincoln would not prove so fortunate. Amidst the fearful screams of a stunned theater audience, Lincoln was carried unconscious to a nearby house. Suffering from a massive head wound that entered the back of his head and lodged near his right eye, Linco ln was laid up diagonally in a bed far too short for his lanky frame. As doctors attended to him throughout the night, family, friends and associates kept a bedside vigil, listening to his labored breathing. It was only at 7:22 the next morning that Lin coln finally breathed his last. With Lincoln's passing, Stanton uttered the memorable words, "now he belongs to the ages."
After his death, Lincoln laid in state for in the East Room of White House for a period of days. After this, an extended funeral procession brought him west by railroad to Springfield, in an eerie bookend to the inauguration journey that had borne him ea st just over four years earlier. Stops were made in various locales, and people all along the line turned out to pay their respects. At last, on May 4, 1865, Lincoln was laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery, near Springfield, Illinois.
Meanwhile, attempting to flee justice, Booth escaped to Maryland on horseback and was later smuggled into Virginia. But on April 26 federal agents trapped Booth in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia, where he was shot and killed. Thereafter, several ot her conspirators involved in the grand assassination plot were brought to justice. Seven men and one woman faced trials in the summer of 1865. Four of these were later hanged, one died in prison, and the other three were pardoned by President Johnson in 1869.
With this last chapter closed on the life of Lincoln, the legend began its long and fruitful blossom. In recent years, much has been made of the similarities between the lives and deaths of Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy. The two men were first e lected to Congress and as president 100 years apart. Each man was keenly concerned with civil rights, and each man had a troubled marriage, losing a child while in the White House. Both men were shot on a Friday, in the head, by a Southerner, and both w ere succeeded by a Southerner named Johnson. In addition, both assassins were known by three names, born 100 years apart, and assassinated themselves before they could be brought to trial.
Such are the coincidences that sustain the myths of both Lincoln and Kennedy today. But at the time of Lincoln's assassination, the event had a religious, rather than secular, significance. Because he was assassinated on Good Friday, Lincoln was viewed for years afterward as a martyr to and savior of the causes of emancipation and union. And ironically, in assassinating Lincoln, Booth may have killed the South's own last best chance at salvation. For after the death of Lincoln, reconstruction took on an even greater tone of vengefulness.
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