Abraham Lincoln

1861-1865 - In the White House, Assassination

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."