- 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
Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on Palm Sunday, April 9. In the five days of the week of peace, the President relaxed and watched the shooting fireworks, laughing when mischievous Tad took time out to wave a Rebel flag behind his father’s back. At meals in the White House Mr. Lincoln was the cordial host to the guests whom his wife delighted to summon with her meticulously written invitations.
A circumspect ordained minister, the Reverend George Buzelle from Bangor, Maine, summed up everyone’s feelings when he wrote his family a letter postmarked City Point, Virginia, April 9, 1865:
Great News!! Lee’s army of Northern Virginia is surrendered—Lee has surrendered—so goes the news. Guns–drums—yells—cheers—shaking hands, general confusion and wildness—hip! hip! hurrah! Bully! Yi! Ge whoop! Keee-ih! Then—just then— our dog Jack came into the tent and I told him to holler but he wouldn’t and I grabbed him by the throat and choked him until he gave a half strangled Yakerwakrrr and I threw him off and knocked the table and upset the lamp and smashed the chimney and set the table in a blaze—whowray!! Yi keeoo Yeep! Keweew!!
Good! Well good night and thank God.
The President’s reaction was more sedate, but his joy was no less real. “I’ve never been so happy in my life,” Abraham Lincoln said in that first week of peace. Long careworn under the burden of the war, suddenly he was erect and buoyant—the President looked grand, absolutely grand, people said. Those who knew him best said that he was not merely happy, he was transfigured with joy over the ending of the war. There were those who looked at Lincoln and looked again and swore they could see a radiance shining from him that was almost physical.
That week after the surrender, Lincoln asked every band he met parading the avenues to play “Dixie” for him: it was, he said, a wonderful song rightfully captured. Now Lincoln could let himself start thinking again of Springfield, of his little brown house out West—there was a good chance he would be going home in four years.
Mrs. Lincoln said his very happiness frightened her, that the only other time he had said, “I have never been so happy in my life,” they had lost their three-year-old Eddie the next day. Besides, Mary Lincoln had examined the verses in the Bible which had been used at her husband’s second swearing-in on March 4 and studied the words at the exact spot where he had kissed the page on taking the oath. It was in Isaiah 5, and the prophet was speaking of the enemies of Israel: “None shall be weary nor stumble among them … Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind …”
To Mary Lincoln the words were clearly a warning of danger—she must be vigilant and on guard to protect the President: how cruel it was, with all the care she had taken of him, to have this worry now, in peacetime.
The President was anxious for her to get over her nervousness. He felt that close involvement in war was probably too great a strain for any woman. “We must both,” he told Mary, “be more cheerful in the future … we have both been very miserable.”
She would try. She would begin by dwelling on the blessed word peace. That Bible warning might have been helpful five weeks ago, but who would want to commit an act of violence now?
At eleven thirty that Good Friday morning of April 14, 1865, less than eight hours before curtain time, a White House messenger arrived at Ford’s Theatre with the welcome news that the President accepted the management’s invitation to attend that evening’s performance of Our American Cousin. The news was received by James Ford, the business manager. His twenty-one year-old brother Harry, realizing that a presidential visit during the week of national victory was an occasion, personally set about furnishing and decorating the ample space provided by throwing boxes seven and eight together. He used flags, a framed engraving of George Washington, and a set of furniture—a sofa, two stuffed chairs on casters, and a rocking chair that he thought the President would find comfortable. He added six straight-legged chairs for extra guests. The rocking chair (lower right) was placed where its long rockers exactly fitted, in the left-hand corner.
The President and Mrs. Lincoln had a hard time assembling guests for their theatre party. That very morning their oldest son, twenty-one-year-old Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, had arrived home from the war, and even at breakfast he was so sleepy he could barely keep his eyes open. After dinner, his father sought him out in his room and said the few words that Robert would never forget all his life.
“Son,” he said, “we want for you to come to the theatre with us tonight.”
Robert explained that he was too sleepy, that he was longing to lie down in a real bed between sheets.
“All right, son,” said the President, “run along to bed.”