April 14, 1865 (Good Friday)
“I had this strange dream again last night,” said Abraham Lincoln. He was speaking to his Cabinet and General Grant. The morning’s Cabinet meeting mostly concerned itself with what was to be done with the heads of the Confederate government. Lincoln had already spoken to his son, Robert, about Lee’s surrender, but now that Grant was in the room, he delved into the details. Grant was certain that General Sherman would soon be receiving Joe Johnston’s surrender.
Lincoln agreed, but for reasons more ethereal than Grant’s. Prior to “nearly ever great and important event of the War,” Lincoln had dreamed of the water. According to Naval Secretary Gideon Welles, who was at he meeting, the President “seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.”
This dream was had before Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, Wilmington, and more. And now here it was again, said Lincoln, “and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in that direction, as are most of yours.”
Of this, Secretary of State Seward held that it couldn’t presage of victory since the war was at an end. “Perhaps,” he said, “at each of these periods there were possibilities of great change or disaster, and the vague feeling of uncertainty may have led to the dim vision in sleep.”
Lincoln allowed that it might be so, and the talk moved from the subtle to the matters at hand. The details of trade were discussed, as was politics. But soon the details melted away.
“I hope there will be no persecution, no bloody work, after the war is over,” Lincoln said. “No one need expect me to take part in hanging or killing those men, even the worse of them. Frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off.” The President waved his arms as if shooing away pigeons. “Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentment if we expect harmony and union. There has been too much of a desire on the part of some of our very good friends to be masters, to interfere with and dictate to those states, to treat the people not as fellow citizens; there is too little respect for their rights. I do not sympathize in these feelings.”
Even through this, Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, saw that Lincoln “was more cheerful and happy than I had ever seen him.” The President “rejoiced at the near prospect of firm and durable peace at home and abroad, manifested in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.”
Mary Lincoln, too, noticed this. Following the Cabinet meeting, she and her husband climbed aboard their carriage and rode through the streets of Washington. “Mary,” said Lincoln to his wife, “we have had a hard time of it since we came to Washington; but the war is over, and with God’s blessing we may hope for four years of peace and happiness, and then we will go back to Illinois, and pass the rest of our lives in quiet.”
He planned, he said, to reopen his law office in Springfield, “and at least do enough to help give us a livelihood.” Perhaps thinking of both now and later, he turned to her and said, “Let us both try to be happy.”
Just prior to taking dinner, the President had found himself in his office with several friends, including Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby, reading aloud a book of humorous stories. “They kept sending for him to come to dinner,” remembered Oblesby. “He promised each time to go, but would continue reading the book. Finally he got a sort of peremptory order that he must come to dinner at once. It was explained to me by the old man at the door that they were going to have dinner and then go to the theater.”
It had not been the easiest of times for Mary in Washington. But then, she had not been the easiest of people. That morning, she had made plans for herself and her husband, along with General Grant and his wife, and the Stantons to take in a play at Ford’s Theatre. Mrs. Stanton, however, did not feel anything resembling friendship for Mrs. Lincoln, and Secretary Stanton objected to President Lincoln appearing in public. The Grants had declined as they had to be up early the next morning to take a train to Philadelphia to see their children. Upon learning that Mrs. Grant could not make it, Mrs. Stanton refused the invitation, leaving the Lincolns as the only couple.
There were others she had tried to wrangle into the evening. Friend and reporter Noah Brooks had come down with a cold, and their son, Robert, having just arrived from Appomattox, bowed out gracefully due to being too tired. The President, too, tried to find friends to accompany them. Thomas Eckert, from the telegraph office made his list, but Secretary Stanton insisted that he was needed in the War Department, stressing again that Lincoln should not go at all.
It was Mrs. Lincoln who found their guests. The daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York, Clara Harris, had joined the Presidential couple to the theater at least once before. Her fience would come as well, and the party was now a respectable four.
The play, Our American Cousin, was a British comedy about a brash and vulgar American who visits his proper English relatives. This was not high drama, but would be a fine escape from the war and the politics of late.
The theater knew well in advance that the Lincolns would be among the audience. A booth was prepared for them, and fine velvet chairs were placed within. They had playbills printed advertising as much.
The Lincolns, however, were running late, mostly likely due to the President’s friends and the late dinner. They didn’t leave the White House until just after 8pm, when the play was to have started. The theater, now packed, did not have to wait. The show went on, the curtain rising at 8:30. The first act was well started when the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The crowd and actors alike rose, cheered and waved at the Lincolns, who had just entered their box above the hall.
Lincoln returned the wave, smiling and even bowing. And then the play resumed. Asa Trenchard, the rustic American, shocked and amused his British kin by questioning the need for bathing.
Though the second act, the President took his wife’s hand in his. “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so?” asked Mary with a playful smile. “She won’t think anything about it,” came her husband’s reply.
As the third act began, Lincoln continued to watch the play. The American, Trenchard, tries to court, with some surprising success, his cousin’s friend. But even this wasn’t without awkward hilarity. Mrs. Mountchessington, a proper English lady if there ever was one, wished for her unfortunate daughter to marry this too-bold, but wealthy American. When when Tenchard confesses to her that he isn’t actually rich, she lambastes him.
“I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” With that, Mrs. Mountchessington exited the stage, leaving Tenchard alone to fire upon her one more uncouth rebuttal:
“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap.”
The audience burst into the loudest of laughter and applause, the sound swirling uproariously into the rafters of the theater, filling the air, and almost drowning the report of John Wilkes Booth’s pistol. And Lincoln’s head dropped, his body slumped and dying.
“Freedom!” Shouted Booth, leaping to the stage below. “Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!”1
- Sources: Diary by Gideon Welles; The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Ida Minerva Tarbell; A. Lincoln, His Last 24 Hours by Waldo Emerson Reck; Manhunt by James L. Swanson; The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein. [↩]