April 15, 1865 (Saturday)
Robert Lincoln, the 21-year old son of Abraham and Mary, had declined the invitation to accompany them to Ford’s Theater the night previous. He claimed weariness from his recent campaign as General Grant’s staff officer, but mostly wanted to catch up with his old friend John Hay. His little brother, Tad, had been taken to the National Theatre to see a children’s play, and so now with his duties of son and brother at rest, his pleasures as a friend could be rekindled.
John and Robert talked of the war and gossiped over comrades until late – until around 10:30, when both heard riders galloping up to the front door of the White House. At first, they made little of it, figuring they were simply a changing of the guard. But then the noises grew louder, and moved into. The foyer was filled with voices, and shortly the door to Robert’s room sprang open, and in a confused panic Robert was told that his father had been shot.
Both sprang up and ran down the stairs to the waiting carriage. They heard the clamor of rumor from the mouths of those they passed by. Bits hear and other words there, and they had stitched together a rough draft of the events. Robert’s father, the President, had been shot in the arm. Just as they were about to climb into the car, a friend told them that most of the Presidential Cabinet had been murdered. Details were scant, but it was certain that Secretary of State William Seward had been assassinated.
To the two friends, both the President’s son and the President’s personal secretary, this all seemed so improbable. And they were driven to the theater, seven blocks away. When they were about to turn onto Tenth Street, they found it blocked by the masses steadily gathering. Some nervous, some crying, others wandering in confusion.
The two friends forced their way through the crowd, which seemed to be funneled toward the small house across the street from the theater – a boarding house owned by William and Anna Peterson. Robert rushed for the door and was met by the family physician, Dr. Stone. Amid the awful sounds of a frenzied throng, the doctor broke to Robert the news of his father.
There was no hope, he had told him. His father was shot not in the arm, but in the head. He was still clinging to some life, but he would probably not survive the night. Braced now, Robert walked up the small stairs and entered the house. The hallway was filled, but he found his mother, Mary. She had been heard to cry out “Why didn’t he kill me? Why was I not the one?” as they carried her husbands limp body from the theater across the street. “Oh doctor!,” she implored of one, “is he dead? Can he recover? Will you take charge of him? Do what you can for him. Oh, my dear husband!”
She had made her way down the hall into the room, shortly after her husband had been carried and laid diagonally on the small bed. She stumbled to his side, breathing through sobs “How can it be so? Do speak to me!” She kissed him and tried to hold him and someone, she did not know who, pulled her away and dragged her to the front room.
But now Robert was with her. Now her son held her, placing into a drawer his own confusion and grief, he comforted her, now almost completely estranged from reality. She called many times for her own death, begging why this had happened. Calmly and in his arms, he told her to trust in God, that all would be well. In short moments of what might pass for calm, Robert was able to rise and excuse himself to the hall, outside the view of his mother. Perhaps to John Hay, Robert would “give vent to the most heart-rending lamentations” only to be compelled into a disguised recovery and re-enter the room holding his mother.
At other times, Robert would be in his father’s room, watching his father slowly breathing, listening to the hushed speech of surgeons and officers. What could be assembled of the Cabinet. Gideon Welles had first went to Secretary Seward’s house, meeting there Edwin Stanton. Seward, as rumor held, had been murdered, but they discovered it was not so. Both he and his son had been viciously attacked. The Secretary had been repeated stabbed, and the son beaten, but both, it seemed, would live.
Through the night, Robert saw Secretary of War Edwin Stanton enter. The War Secretary , calmed and stilled, established an impromptu office in an adjacent room. There, as best it could, the government would function.
This night seemed to Robert that it would never end – that this agony was now normal, that the grief permanent and eternal. He was there when the doctors changed his father’s pillow, soaked with the gore of brains and stained with blood, seeping unstoppable from the wound. As this endless night slogged on, his father’s face changed, what peace it had held now left it. The right side, under the eye, was swelling, turning black where the bullet had been stopped.
And at times, the stoic Robert could no longer hold back, and sobbed, though rarely before his mother. Into the shoulder of family friend Charles Sumner, he bawled quietly until he could regain composure, which was short in coming. The agony seemed forever.
Even by the cloudy dawn, damp with rain, the crowd outside the house had not dispersed. Many of the white people had moved away or gone home, and most surrounding were of the city’s black population, grief, now enough for everyone, overwhelming them all. And by this dawn, the gathered physicians noted that the President’s breathing had turned to a rattle – the death rattle. And it would not be long.
Robert now among them, the doctor’s in attendance felt the President’s pulse. This father and husband was fading. They often checked their watched, waiting. It drew closer, but was resisted somehow by this struggling man lying naked before them. But he could not win. He could not move or see or hear. He could only fight it, but in the end, he could only be overcome. He could only let go.
And at twenty-two minutes past seven, Robert’s father, Mary’s husband, the crowd’s emancipator, the country’s President breathed no more.
“He is gone,” said one of the voices, “he is dead.” And there was a lasting silence, with Stanton finally breaking it, asking the family minister if he had anything now to say. “I will speak to god,” came the reply. There was quiet and forgettable prayer, heartfelt and wrenching, but as automatic as crying. There was more silence, more than a pause. But this too was broken by Stanton, who quietly and unclearly whispered.
“Now he belongs to the angels.”
The events following the death of Abraham Lincoln necessarily took place with cold rapidity. The Vice-President, Andrew Johnson was sworn in at 10am, and by noon, the Cabinet, saw Seward, met at the White House. The government, wish President Johnson, was to “proceed without interruption.” There would be little ceremony, there would be no inaugural address – his acts, he said, “would be disclose his policy,” which he claimed would be the same as Lincoln’s.
After the Cabinet meeting, Gideon Welles noted in his journal –
“There was a cheerless cold rain and everything seemed gloomy. On the Avenue in front of the White House were several hundred colored people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss. This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, we day; they seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them.” 1
- Sources: Abraham Lincoln, a History, Volume 10 by John George Nicolay and John Hay; Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean Harvey Baker; John Hay by William Roscoe Thayer; Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson; Diary by Gideon Welles. [↩]