Table of Contents
Ward H. Lamon asserts that there was no day, from the morning Lincoln left Springfield to the night of his assassination, when his life was not in serious peril. If we make generous allowance for the fears which had their root in Lamon’s devoted love for his chief, and for that natural desire to magnify his office–for his special charge was to guard the President from bodily harm–which would incline him to estimate trifles seriously, we are still compelled to believe that the life was in frequent, if not continual, danger. There are, and always have been, men whose ambition is in the direction of a startling crime. There were not less than three known attempts on the life of Lincoln between Springfield and Washington. There may have been others that are not known. If any one was in a position to know of real and probable plots against the President’s life, it was Lamon. It was he, too, who showed the greatest concern upon the subject, though he was personally a man of unlimited courage.
An event occurred early in 1862, which we here transcribe, not merely because of its intrinsic interest, but especially because it hints of dangers not known to the public. Lincoln was at this time residing at the Soldier’s Home and was accustomed to riding alone to and from this place. His friends could not prevail on him to accept an escort, though they were in daily fear of kidnapping or murder. Lamon narrates the occurrence substantially (in the President’s words) as follows: One day he rode up to the White House steps, where the Colonel met him, and with his face full of fun, he said, “I have something to tell you.” The two entered the office, where the President locked the door and proceeded:
“You know I have always told you I thought you an idiot that ought to be put in a strait jacket for your apprehensions of my personal danger from assassination. You also know that the way we skulked into this city in the first place has been a source of shame and regret to me, for it did look so cowardly!”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well, I don’t now propose to make you my father-confessor and acknowledge a change of heart, yet I am free to admit that just now I don’t know what to think: I am staggered. Understand me, I do not want to oppose my pride of opinion against light and reason, but I am in such a state of ’betweenity’ in my conclusions, that I can’t say that the judgment of this court is prepared to proclaim a decision upon the facts presented.”
After a pause he continued:
“Last night about eleven o’clock, I went to the Soldiers’ Home alone, riding Old Abe, as you call him; and when I arrived at the foot of the hill on the road leading to the entrance to the Home grounds, I was jogging along at a slow gait, immersed in deep thought, when suddenly I was aroused–I may say the arousement lifted me out of my saddle as well as out of my wits–by the report of a rifle, and seemingly the gunner was not fifty yards from where my contemplations ended and my accelerated transit began. My erratic namesake, with little warning, gave proof of decided dissatisfaction at the racket, and with one reckless bound he unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug hat, with which I parted company without any assent, express or implied, upon my part. At a break-neck speed we soon arrived in a haven of safety. Meanwhile I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway Federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwhacker in the middle of the night.”
“I tell you there is no time on record equal to that made by the two Old Abes on that occasion. The historic ride of John Gilpin, and Henry Wilson’s memorable display of bareback equestrianship on the stray army mule from the scenes of the battle of Bull Run, a year ago, are nothing in comparison to mine, either in point of time made or in ludicrous pageantry.”
“No good can result at this time from giving [this occurrence] publicity. It does seem to me that I am in more danger from the augmentation of an imaginary peril than from a judicious silence, be the danger ever so great; and, moreover, I do not want it understood that I share your apprehensions. I never have.”
When one takes into account the number of Lincoln’s bitter enemies, and the desperate character of some of them, the wonder is that he was not shot sooner. There were multitudes of ruffians in Washington City and elsewhere, who had murder in their hearts and plenty of deadly weapons within reach. Yet Lincoln lived on for four years, and was reluctant to accept even a nominal body guard. The striking parallel between him and William the Silent will at once occur to the reader. He, like Lincoln, would take no precaution. He exposed himself freely, and there were plots almost innumerable against his life before he was slain. Such persons seem to have invisible defenders.
Lincoln was not a fatalist, but he did believe that he would live to complete his specific work and that he would not live beyond that. Perhaps he was wise in this. Had he surrounded himself with pomp and defense after the manner of Fremont he could not have done his work at all, for his special calling required that he should keep near to the people, and not isolate himself. Moreover, it is a question whether an elaborate show of defense would not have invited a correspondingly elaborate ingenuity in attack. His very trustfulness must have disarmed some. The wonder is not that he was slain at last, but that under the circumstances he was not slain earlier.
Much has been written, and perhaps justly, of Lincoln’s presentiments. It is not exceptional, it is common in all rural communities to multiply and magnify signs. The commonest occurrences are invested with an occult meaning. Seeing the new moon over the right shoulder or over the left shoulder, the howling of a dog at night, the chance assemblage of thirteen persons, the spilling of salt,–these and a thousand other things are taken to be signs of something. The habit of attending to these things probably originates in mere amusements. It takes the place, or furnishes the material, of small talk. But years of attention to these things, especially in the susceptible period of childhood and youth, are almost certain to have a lasting effect. A person gets into the habit of noting them, of looking for them, and the influence becomes ingrained in his very nature so that it is next to impossible to shake it off. This condition is a feature of all rural communities, not only in the West, but in New England: in fact, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Lincoln shared the impressibility of the community in which he grew up; no more, no less. Like all the rest, indeed, like all of mankind, he counted the hits, not the misses. Being unusually outspoken, he often told of impressions which another would not have mentioned. The very telling of them magnified their importance. He had been having premonitions all his life, and it would be strange if he did not have some just before his death. He did, and these are the ones that are remembered.
In spite of all, he was in excellent spirits on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. The burdens and sorrows of bloodshed had made an old man of him. But the war was at an end, the stars and stripes were floating over Sumter, the Union was saved, and slavery was doomed. There came back into his eyes the light that had long been absent. Those who were about him said the elasticity of his movements and joyousness of his manner were marked. “His mood all day was singularly happy and tender.”
The events of the day were simple. It was the day of the regular meeting of the cabinet. Grant, who had arrived in Washington that morning, attended this meeting. It was the President’s idea that the leaders of the Confederacy should be allowed to escape,–much as he had already jocularly advised Grant to let Jeff Davis escape “all unbeknown to himself.” He spoke plainly on the subject. “No one need expect me to take any part in hanging or killing these men, even the worst of them. Enough lives have been sacrificed.” After the discussion of various matters, when the cabinet adjourned until the following Tuesday, the last words he ever uttered to them were that “they must now begin to act in the interests of peace.”
In the afternoon he went for a drive with Mrs. Lincoln. The conversation embraced plans of living–in Chicago? or California?– after the expiration of his term of office. This fact shows that his presentments did not make so real an impression on him as many people have believed.
Three days before this his devoted servant Colonel Lamon–we might almost call him his faithful watch-dog, so loving, loyal, and watchful was he–had gone on an errand for him to Richmond. Lamon, who was loath to start, tried to secure from him a promise in advance of divulging what it was to be. Lincoln, after much urging, said he thought he would venture to make the promise. It was that he would promise not to go out after night in Lamon’s absence, and particularly to the theater (italics Lamon’s). The President first joked about it, but being persistently entreated said at last: “Well, I promise to do the best I can towards it.”
But for the evening of the day under consideration, Mrs. Lincoln had got up a theater party–her husband was always fond of the diversion of the theater. The party was to include General and Mrs. Grant. But the general’s plans required him to go that evening to Philadelphia, and so Major Rathbone and Miss Harris were substituted. This party occupied the upper proscenium box on the right of the stage.
About ten o’clock, J. Wilkes Booth, a young actor twenty-six years of age, and very handsome, glided along the corridor towards that box. Being himself an actor and well known by the employees of the theater, he was suffered to proceed without hindrance. Passing through the corridor door he fastened it shut by means of a bar that fitted into a niche previously prepared, and making an effectual barricade. A hole had been bored through the door leading into the box so that he could survey the inmates without attracting their attention. With revolver in one hand and dagger in the other he noiselessly entered the box and stood directly behind the President who was enjoying the humor of the comedy.
“The awful tragedy in the box makes everything else seem pale and unreal. Here were five human beings in a narrow space–the greatest man of his time, in the glory of the most stupendous success in our history, the idolized chief of a nation already mighty, with illimitable vistas of grandeur to come; his beloved wife, proud and happy; a pair of betrothed lovers, with all the promise of felicity that youth, social position, and wealth could give them; and this young actor, handsome as Endymion upon Latmos, the pet of his little world. The glitter of fame, happiness, and ease was upon the entire group, but in an instant everything was to be changed with the blinding swiftness of enchantment. Quick death was to come on the central figure of that company–the central figure, we believe, of the great and good men of the century. Over all the rest the blackest fates hovered menacingly– fates from which a mother might pray that kindly death would save her children in their infancy. One was to wander with the stain of murder on his soul, with the curses of a world upon his name, with a price set upon his head, in frightful physical pain, till he died a dog’s death in a burning barn; the stricken wife was to pass the rest of her days in melancholy and madness; of those two young lovers, one was to slay the other, and then end his life a raving maniac” (Nicolay and Hay, X. 295).
The revolver was thrust near to the back of the head of the unsuspecting victim–that kind man who had “never willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom,” who could not bear to witness suffering even in an animal. The report of the pistol was somewhat muffled and was unnoticed by the majority of the audience. The ball penetrated the President’s brain, and without word or sound his head dropped upon his breast. Major Rathbone took in the situation and sprang at the murderer who slashed him savagely with the dagger, tore himself free, and leaped over the balustrade upon the stage. It was not a high leap for an athletic young man, but his spur caught in a flag with which the box was draped, so that he did not strike quite squarely on his feet. The result was that he broke his leg or ankle. But gathering himself up, he flourished his dagger, declaiming the motto of Virginia, Sic semper Tyrannis (Thus ever to tyrants), and before the audience could realize what was done, he disappeared. He ran out of the rear of the theater where a fleet horse was in waiting. He mounted and rode for his life. For eleven days he was in hiding, with the curse of Cain upon him, suffering all the while excruciating agonies from his broken leg, which could be but imperfectly cared for. He was finally corralled in a barn, the barn was set on fire, and while thus at bay he was shot down.
Aid came at once to the President, but the surgeons saw at a glance that the wound was mortal. They carried him out into the open air. When they reached the street the question arose, Where shall we take him? On the opposite side of the street was an unpretentious hotel. A man, standing on the front steps, saw the commotion and asked what it meant. On being told, he said, “Take him to my room.” It was thus that the greatest man of the age died in a small room of a common hotel. But this was not unfitting; he was of the plain people, he always loved them, and among them he closed his earthly record. He lingered unconscious through the night, and at twenty minutes after seven o’clock, on the morning of April 15th, he died.
The band of assassins of which Booth was the head, planned to murder also other officials. Grant escaped, having suddenly left the city. The only other person who was actually attacked was Seward. Though the assassin was a giant in stature and in strength, though he fought like a madman, and though Seward was at the time in bed with his right arm and jaw fractured, he having been thrown from a horse, yet strangely enough he was not killed. The assassin inflicted many and terrible wounds, especially upon Frederick Seward, his son, who did not regain consciousness for weeks; but no one in that house was killed.
Surely never did the telegraph hear heavier news than when it flashed the message, “Lincoln has been assassinated.” More than one ex- Confederate stoutly declared that “when Lincoln was murdered the South lost its best friend.” And thousands of others replied, that was the truth! At the dedication of his monument in 1874 General Grant gave utterance again to this thought: “In his death the nation lost its greatest hero; in his death the South lost its most just friend.”