- Historic Sites
Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
A steward arrived from the hospitals with the bottles, which had been filled with hot water downstairs, and the mustard plasters. Henry Safford trudged up from the basement kitchen with his collection of bottles. The hot-water bottles were laid along the sides of the President’s legs, which had grown cold to a point above the knees. Outsized mustard plasters, like clammy pies, were placed over the entire upper surface of the body from ankles to neck. When in a few minutes Dr. Leale raised the corner of a sinapism —he disliked the layman’s term, plaster—and saw no slightest pink tinge in the parchment skin, he ordered that a stronger paste of mustard and flour be mixed downstairs, and that the army blankets brought from the hospitals be heated. Soon Mr. Lincoln lay between walls of bottles and under steaming layers of wool, and clinging to him as though a death mold were being made of his form was that hot yellow dough, enfolded in an assortment of cloths. There was no reaching the cold within him, though; just as he had always said during the war years, there was no way of reaching the tired spot that was inside.
That night the capital of the United States was completely stricken. Through it all the government was driven and directed by one man—Lincoln’s dynamic, unpredictable, and emotionally unstable Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton.
Stanton had just begun to undress for bed when downstairs a frantic voice shouted the incredible—Secretary of State Seward had been murdered. “Humbug!” Stanton grunted. Hadn’t he just left Seward a few minutes ago? But soon the night outside was filled with the terrible news, and Stanton was dressing and rushing across the square to Seward’s house. The Secretary of State lay unconscious across his bed, his cheek laid back by a deep knife wound inflicted by Booth’s confederate Lewis Paine. The President, they were saying, had been murdered, too, and who knew how many others. Now, through all the floundering and confusion and pain, Stanton assumed total power. And he did so swiftly, rushing by hack to the Petersen house and setting up an office in the room next to where Lincoln lay. Along with his Assistant Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana, Stanton began dictating orders and telegrams. The country had to be alerted, witnesses questioned, the assassins identified and captured. Road blocks were to be set up in Maryland, all passenger trains and ships heading south on the Potomac were to be stopped, the sixty-eight forts and batteries guarding Washington were to be alerted, any suspicious persons in Alexandria were to be arrested, the whole countryside round about the city was to be patrolled. The orders to all commanders: Find a man named John Wilkes Booth, “twenty-five years old [sic], five feet eight inches tall, dark hair and mustache. Use all efforts to secure him.”
It was a frenzied night for Stanton, a pudgy, curt, rude, disobliging but dedicated man who worked with a kind of demon energy every day and far into the night in the crumbling old War Department building, just a short walk for Lincoln across the White House lawn.
Now, all night long, as Stanton issued his orders from the room next door, people moved endlessly in and out of the tiny chamber where the President lay dying. Here came Senator Charles Sumner, Boston Brahmin and impatient abolitionist, together with Robert Lincoln. Sumner sat down at the head of the bed and took the President’s hand. A doctor said, “It’s no use, Mr. Sumner. He can’t hear you. He is dead.” “No, he isn’t dead,” replied Sumner. “Look at his face, he’s breathing.” “It will never be anything more than this,” came the answer. Then Robert broke down in tears and Sumner put his arm around Lincoln’s eldest son and held him close and tried to comfort him.
Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s efficient, garrulous Secretary of the Navy, had attended the Cabinet meeting held on the morning of the President’s last day. Along with the others he had heard the President tell of his strange dream of the night before—one that he always had before some important event—of being in a strange vessel, sailing rapidly toward a shadowy shore. Lincoln had turned to Welles and remarked, “It has to do with your element, Mr. Welles, the water.”
That evening Secretary Welles went up to bed about ten thirty, and soon afterward a Navy Department messenger called up to the window the news about Lincoln and Seward. While Welles was dressing he did an unprecedented thing: swearing in front of his wife. “Damn the Rebels,” he said, “this is their work!”