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APRIL 14, 1865 — WASHINGTON, D.C. 
Using Primary Documents: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

"A house divided against itself can not stand." Days after the end of the Civil War, an echoing gunshot An eerie prelude to an echoing gunshot that claimed the life of a now-beloved American president, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln cast a s

Use two primary sources to recall the moment that an assassin struck down 16th President Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of those who lived it. First: a letter penned by a woman present at Ford's Theater on that fateful night provides a firsthand account of the atmosphere, emotions, and chaos.

Objective: Gain insight into the immediate aftermath of the assassination and debate the complex motivations and repercussions of Lincoln's death.


Document A: Julia Adelaide Shepard letter to father as published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine


Source Information: This letter was written by Julia Adelaide Shepard who was in attendance at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. She wrote to her father on the 16th recounting the Lincoln Assassination. It was printed in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine Volume 77 (Nov. 1908 - April 1909)

This source is a primary source, meaning it was written at the time of the event by someone who witnessed the event or had direct, first-hand knowledge of it. In this case: a member of the audience at Ford's Theatre.


Dear Father,

It is Friday night and we are at the theatre. Cousin Julia has just told me that the President is in yonder upper right hand private box so handsomely decked with silken flags festooned over a picture of Washington. The young and lovely daughter of Senator Harris is the only one of the party we can see, as the flags hide the rest. But we know that "Father Abraham" is there; like a father watching what interests his children, for their pleasure rather than his own. It has been announced in the papers he would be there. How sociable it seems, like one family sitting around their parlor fire...  

... Every one has been so jubilant for days, since the surrender of Lee, that they laugh and shout at every clownish witticism. One of the actresses, whose part is that of a very delicate young lady, talks of wishing to avoid the draft, when her lover tells her "not to be alarmed for there is no more draft," at which the applause is long and loud... 

We are waiting for the next scene. 

The report of a pistol is heard... Is it all in the play? A man leaps from the President's box, some ten feet, on to the stage. The truth flashes upon me. Brandishing a dagger he shrieks out "The South is avenged," and rushes through the scenery. No one stirs.


"Did you hear what he said, Julia? I believe he has killed the president."


Miss Harris is wringing her hands and calling for water. Another instant and the stage is crowded - officers, policemen, actors, and citizens. "Is there a surgeon in this house?" they say. Several rush forward and with superhuman efforts climb up to the box. Minutes are hours, but see! They are bringing him out. A score of strong arms bear Lincoln's loved form along. A glimpse of a ghastly face as they pass along. 

... On the stairs we stop aghast and with shuddering lips - "Yes, see, it is our President's blood" all down the stairs and out on the pavement. It seemed sacrilege to step near. We are in the streets now. They have taken the President into the house opposite. He is alive, but mortally wounded.

What are those people saying, "Secretary Seward and his son have had their throats cut in the own house." Is it so? Yes, and the murderer of our President has escaped through a back alley where a swift horse stood awaiting him. Cavalry came dashing up the street and stand with drawn swords... too late! Too late! What mockery armed men are now. 

... You will hear all this from the papers, but I can't help writing it for things seen are mightier than things heard. It seems hard to write now. I dare not speak of our great loss. Sleeping or waking, that terrible scene is before me.

Analysis Questions (3)


Textual Evidence

1. Using evidence from the text, according to Shepard, how was President Lincoln viewed by those in attendance? Be sure to cite specific lines or information from document above. 



2. Based on Shepard's account, how did the end of the Civil War seem to influence or play a part in what transpired?
(Consider both positively or negatively, directly or indirectly)



3. Using Shepard's description of the crowd's reaction and the immediate aftermath of the assassination, how might President Lincoln's death impact the nation and its efforts to rebuild after the Civil War?

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Document B: Wilkes Booth's Journal Entries as a Fugitive


Source Information: These entries were recovered from an appointment book kept by assassin John Wilkes Booth as he fled Ford's Theater and escaped authorities. Booth's writings help historians understand his motivations as they begin to uncover that Booth had not acted alone; rather, their investigation revealed a deeply troubling conspiracy to ________.

This source is a primary source, meaning it was written at the time of the event by someone who witnessed the event or had direct, first-hand knowledge of it. In this case: the assassin himself.

April 13-14, 1865

Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture,
but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who
did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In
jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at
every jump. I can never repent it, though
we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply
made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I
care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. 


April 21, 1865

After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return, wet, cold and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for—what made Tell a hero. And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself, the other had not only his country’s but his own wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done (except what I did myself), and it fills me with horror. God, try and forgive me, and bless my mother. Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name - which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God's will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may He, may He spare me that, and let me die bravely. I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so, and it's with Him to damn or bless me. As for this brave boy with me, who often prays (yes, before and since) with a true and sincere heart - was it crime in him? If so, why can he pray the same? I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but 'I must fight the course.' 'Tis all that's left to me.

Analysis Questions (3)


Additional Research

1. "I shouted Sic semper before I fired" (Paragraph 1, line 4). Use internet sources to research what the phrase "sic semper" may refer to and what it means. Why do you believe Booth shouted this particular phrase?



2. "The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved." (Paragraph 1, lines 7-8)
From your understanding of the Civil War, what do you believe Booth meant by "forced union" and how could it have motivated his actions?



3. How did Booth justify his actions and intentions in assassinating President Abraham Lincoln? You should cite evidence from the text and use your understanding of Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War to answer. 


Supplement/Visual: Co-Conspirators


Source Information: These entries were recovered from an appointment book kept by assassin John Wilkes Booth as he fled Ford's Theater and began his _____ 

This source is a primary source, meaning it was written at the time of the event by someone who witnessed the event or had direct, first-hand knowledge of it. In this case: a member of the audience at Ford's Theatre.

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Lewis Powell a.k.a.
(Lewis Payne)

Former Confederate Prisoner of War and member of the Confederate Secret Service. Payne was tasked with assassinating  Secretary of State William Seward at Seward's family home. Payne injured Seward, as well as Seward’s son and bodyguard. All three targets survived. 

FATE   Executed by hanging

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