THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

APRIL 14, 1865 WASHINGTON, D.C. 

"On April 11, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech from the White House about the challenges of reconstructing the nation after the Civil War. In his speech, he publicly endorsed black voting rights for the first time and sent a clear message that the way forward had to be peaceful. Yet, there were some people who thought otherwise. Among those in attendance was John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, Confederate sympathizer, and white supremacist. Booth found Lincoln’s ideas radical and unacceptable, and upon hearing Lincoln endorse voting rights for blacks, he declared, “I’ll put him through.”

Chicago History Museum

DOCUMENT #1

A NIGHT AT THE 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: How was President Lincoln viewed by those in attendance?

Analysis: What evidence from the text supports the idea that the author's reaction of heartbreak and loss was shared by most Americans?

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.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Crime Scene

Ford's Theatre (Washington, D.C.)

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Watch How it Happened

via Smithsonian Channel (YouTube)

DOCUMENT #2

THE MURDERER'S MOTIVE

"John Wilkes Booth, a popular 26-year-old actor who was also a Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist, had been plotting for months to abduct Lincoln. On the morning of April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), Booth learned the president would attend a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theatre Booth frequently performed at. He realized his moment had arrived." Click for Source (Ford's Theatre)

 

Frustrated with how the nation had judged his intentions, Booth's private diary while on the run sought to set the record straight: he had been left no choice and he certainly had no regrets.

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. 

Research: What does "sic semper (tyrannis)" mean?

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: How did Booth justify his actions/intentions?

Source Information: These entries were recovered from an appointment book kept by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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: Booth himself.

View Booth's Diary

via Ford's Theatre (Fords.org)

 

MEET THE CO-CONSPIRATORS

Booth did not act alone and President Lincoln was not the only target. Meet the co-conspirators in Booth's

plot to take down the federal government.

 

Targets of the Conspiracy

President Abraham Lincoln (Successful)

Vice President Andrew Johnson (Unattempted)

Secretary of State William Seward (Unsuccessful)

General Ulysses S. Grant (Not Present)

LEWIS POWELL (LEWIS PAYNE)

Former Confederate Prisoner of War. Attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. He injured Seward, as well as Seward’s son and bodyguard. All three survived. Executed by hanging.

Fate: Executed by hanging.

 

FORD'S THEATRE

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Where should one take a dying president?

That dilemma faced the doctors who made it into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre. Dr. Charles Leale knew Lincoln would not survive, and many people at the time felt a theatre was no place for a president to die.

Why not just take him to the White House?

The White House was only six blocks away—but Washington’s streets were not paved. A bumpy carriage ride might kill Lincoln immediately. Soldiers carried Lincoln down the stairs of the theatre, and out onto Tenth Street.

Were there other targets? How far did the conspiracy go?

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived and set about investigating answers to those questions. He interrogated witnesses to the assassination. He quickly learned that Booth had carried out the act. James Tanner, a War Department clerk and disabled soldier who lived next door, wrote down the witness statements.

Did Lincoln have any last words?

More than 40 people came in and out of the room, hoping to hear the president’s famed wit and wisdom one final time, but in vain. President Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Mary Lincoln was not in the room with him. Soldiers quickly removed his body to the White House for an autopsy and to prepare for a funeral.

Source: https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/

This page was created by Mr. Michael Clark (Rahway High School) for the students of his American History I courses.
All information is sourced and reproduced for educational purposes.