1865 April 29: The National Calamity—Further Details of the Assassination
THE NATIONAL CALAMITY.
Further Details of the Assassination.
President Lincoln’s Last Hours.
Heart-rending Grief of Mrs. Lincoln.
Incidents of the Last Day of the President’s Life.
The Attack on Sec. Seward.
The New York Herald’s Washington special of the 15th, gives the following details of events preceding the assassination of the President, and his last hours :
“About half past 7 P. M., the 14th, Hon. George Ashmun called at the White House and was ushered into the parlor, where Schuyler Colfax was seated, waiting for a short interview with the President on business which had bearing on his proposed overland trip. A few moments elapsed, when President Lincoln entered the room, and a short conversation took place on various matters. The president was in a happy and jovial frame of mind. Mr. Ashmun desiring to see him on special business, and there being no time to attend to it then, the President took out a card, and placing it on his knee, wrote as follows :
“ ‘Allow Mr. Ashmun and friend to come to me at 9 A. M. to-morrow. A. LINCON.
“ ‘April 14th, 1865.’
“These were the last words that he penned. It was the last time that he signed his name to any order, document, or message. Mr. Lincoln finally stated that he must go to the theatre, and warmly pressed Speaker Colfax and Mr. Ashmun to accompany him, but they excused themselves on the score of previous engagements.
“At about 8 P. M. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln started for their carriage, the latter taking the arm of Mr. Ashmun, and the President and Mr. Colfax walking together. As soon as the President and Mrs. Lincoln were seated in the carriage, the latter gave orders to the coachman to drive around to Senator Harris’ residence for Miss Harris [Ira Harris, Clara Harris]. As the carriage rolled away they both said “Good bye, good bye,” to Messrs. Ashmun and Colfax and the carriage had in a moment more disappeared from the ground in front of the White House.
“A few moments later, a party of four persons—the President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris and Mr. Rathburn [sic: Henry R. Rathbone], of Albany, stepson of Senator Harris, arrived at the theater, and entered the front and left hand upper private box.
[Further Details of the Assassination.]
“A moment before the attack was made, the President was leaning forward, resting his head on his hand, in his accustomed careless way, his eyes bent upon the stage, and enjoying a hearty laugh.
“Miss Harris, who was in the box with the President, makes the following statement:—‘Nearly one hour before the commission of the deed, the assassin came to the door of the box and looked in, to take a survey of the position of its occupants. It was supposed at the time that it was either a mistake or the exercise of impertinent curiosity. The circumstance attracted no particular attention at the time. Upon his entering the box again, Major Rathburn [sic] rose and asked the intruder his business. He rushed past the Major without making a reply, and, placing his pistol close to the back if the President’s head, actually in contact with it, fired, and instantly sprang upon the cushioned baluster of the box, when he made a backward plunge with his knife, aimed at the face or breast of Mr. Lincoln. Major Rathburn [sic], springing forward to protect the President, received a stab in his arm. The murderer then jumped upon the stage and effected his escape. The rapidity with which all was committed was astounding. Mrs. Lincoln saw the form of a person go down from the box, and thought Mr. Lincoln had fallen out, and looked to see if she could not see him on the floor, and barley saw the culprit jump to the stage.—When all was over, she turned her eyes to the box, and saw that Mr. Lincoln’s head had dropped forward upon his breast, and at once realized what had transpired.’
“The murder of the President was at once announced at Grover’s Theatre. Little Tad Lincoln was in attendance there, and the moment he heard the statement he seemed to go almost crazy. He shrieked and sobbed in a heartrending manner. The poor boy was taken to the White House, and was soon quieted when it was ascertained that his father was still alive.
[President Lincoln’s Last Hours.]
“From the moment the President was shot, up to his death, he was insensible, and exhibited no signs of pain, recognized no person, and in fact, I believe, did not open his eyes. Blood troubled his breathing, often making it extremely difficult. He was watched with tender care, and all that could be was done for him.
“Vice President Johnson [Andrew Johnson] visited the President during the night, but remained only about an hour. In fact, many of those who had rushed to assist in taking care of the President found that their presence obstructed rather that gave assistance, and therefore left. Among these were many members of Congress and western men. The number present reduced to but few before he breathed his last.
“The scene at the President’s bedside was most affecting. It was surrounded by his cabinet ministers, all of whom were bathed in tears, not even excepting Mr. Stanton [Edwin M. Stanton], who, when informed by Surgeon General Barnes [Joseph K. Barnes] that the President could not live until morning, exclaimed, ‘Oh, no, General—no, no !’ and, with an impulse as natural as it was unaffected, immediately sat down on a chair, near his bedside, and wept like a child. Senator Sumner [Charles Sumner] was seated on the right of President’s couch, near his head, holding the right hand of the President in his own. He was sobbing like a woman, with his head bowed down almost on the pillow of the bed on which the President was lying.”
[Heart-rending Grief of Mrs. Lincoln.]
“About 5 o’clock this morning, I reached the house where the President lay in his dying agonies. He was lying upon his bed, apparently breathing with great difficulty. He was entirely unconscious, as he had been since his assassination. His eyes were protruding from their sockets and suffused with blood. In other respects his countenance was unchanged. In an adjoining room were Mrs. Lincoln, her son, Capt. Robert Lincoln, Miss Harris, who was with Mrs. Lincoln at the time of the assassination of the President, Rufus F. Andrews,² and two lady friends of Mrs. Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln was under great excitement and agony, wringing her hands and exclaiming—‘Why did he not shoot me instead of my husband ? I have tried to be so careful of him, fearing something would happen, and his life seemed to be more precious now than ever. I must go with him,’ and other expressions of like character. She was constantly going back and forth to the bedside of the President, exclaiming in great agony, ‘How can it be so ?’ The scene was heartrending, and it is impossible to portray it in its living light. Capt. Robert Lincoln bore himself with great firmness and, constantly endeavored to assuage the grief of his mother by telling her to put her trust in God and all would be well. Occasionally, being entirely overcome, he would recover himself and return to his mother, and with remarkable self-possession try to cheer her broken spirits, and lighten her load of sorrow. His conduct was the most remarkable exhibition of calmness in a trying hour that I have ever seen.
“About a quarter of an hour before the President died, his breathing become very difficult and, in many instances, seemed to have entirely ceased, so that the surgeons who were holding his pulse were supposing him dead. He would breathe with so great difficulty as to be heard in almost every part of the house. Mrs. Lincoln took her last leave of him about twenty minutes before he expired, and was sitting in an adjoining room when it was announced to her that he was dead. When the announcement was made she exclaimed, ‘Oh why did you not tell me he was dying ?’
“The surgeons and members of the Cabinet Senator Sumner, Capt. Robert Lincoln, Gen. Todd,³ Mr. Field [Maunsell B. Field] and Andrews stood leaning over the head watching every motion of the dying President. Robert Lincoln was reclining himself upon his arm. Senator Sumner and members of the Cabinet were standing at the side of the bed—Secretary Stanton on the left of Mr. Andrews, and Mr. Andrews near Mr. Lincoln’s head. Next to him was Mr. Dennison [U.S. Postmaster General William Dennison], and others ranged along at the left. The surgeons were sitting upon the side and foot of the bed, holding the President’s hands and with their watches observing the slow declension of the pulse. Such was the solemn stillness of the space of five minutes that the ticking of the watches could be heard in the room.
“At 22 minutes past seven his muscles relaxed and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln flew from its earthly tabernacle to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. The countenance of the President was beaming with that characteristic smile which only those who have seen him in his happiest moments can appreciate, and except the blackness of his eyes, his face appeared perfectly natural. He died without a struggle, without even perceptible motion of a limb. Calm and silent the great and good man passed away. The morning was calm, and rain was dropping gently upon the roofs of the humble apartment where they laid him down to die. Guards had been stationed to keep the people from the house, and so noise could be heard in the streets save footsteps of the sentry pacing to and fro as he guarded all that remained of Abraham Lincoln. All present felt the awful solemnity of the occasion, and no man could have witnessed the touching scene without melting into tears. Even Secretary Stanton, whose coolness and self-possession were remarkable, could not keep back the silent monitors of inward sorrow which rolled out from his eyes and down his cheeks.
“Mrs. Lincoln remained but a short time, when she was assisted into her carriage, and with her son Robert, and her other friends, was driven to the house which, but last evening she left for the last time with her husband.”
[Incidents of the Last Day of the President’s Life.]
The following incidents of the last day of the President’s life, and other matters, have been obtained from several sources :
His son, Captain Robert Lincoln, breakfasted with him on Friday morning, having just returned from the capitulation of Lee [Robert E. Lee], and the President passed a happy hour listening to all the details. While at breakfast he heard that Speaker Colfax was in the house, and sent word that he wished to see him immediately. He conversed with him nearly an hour about his future policy as to the rebellion, which he was about to submit to the Cabinet. Afterwards he had an interview with Mr. Hale, Minister to Spain, and several Senators and Representatives. At 11 o’clock the Cabinet and General Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] met with him, and in one of the most satisfactory and important Cabinet meetings held since his first inauguration, the future policy of the Administration was harmoniously and unanimously agreed on. When it adjourned, Secretary Stanton said he thought that the Government was stronger than at any previous period since the rebellion commenced.— In the afternoon Mr. Lincoln had a long call from a pleasant interview with Governor Oglesby [Richard J. Oglesby], Senator Yates [Richard Yates] and other leading citizens of his State.
In the evening Mr. Colfax called again at his request, and Mr. Ashmun, of Massachusetts, who presided over the Chicago Convention of 1860, was present. To them he spoke of his visit to Richmond, and when it was stated that much uneasiness prevailed at the North when he was at the rebel capital for fear that some traitor might shoot him, he replied, jocularly, that he would have been alarmed himself if any other had been President and gone there, but that he did not feel any danger whatever. Conversing on a matter of business with Mr. Ashmun, he made a remark that he saw Mr. Ashmun was surprised at, and immediately, with his well-known kindness of heart, said, “You did not understand me, Ashmun. I did not mean what you inferred, and I will take it all back and apologize for it.” He afterwards gave Ashmun a card to admit himself and friend early next morning, to converse further about it.
Turning to Mr. Colfax, he said, “You are going with Mrs. Lincoln and me to the theatre, I hope ?” But Mr. Colfax had other engagements, expecting to leave the city the next morning. He then said Mr. Colfax, “Mr. Sumner has the gavel of the Confederate Congress, which he got at Richmond, to hand to the Secretary of War ; but I insisted that that he must give it to you, and you tell him for me to hand it over.” Mr. Ashmun alluded to the gavel which he still had, and which he had used at the Chicago Convention. The President and Mrs. Lincoln, who was also in the parlor, rose to go the theatre. It was half an hour after the time that they had intended to start, and they spoke of waiting half an hour longer, for the President went with reluctance ; but Gen. Grant had gone North, and he did not wish the people to be disappointed, as they had both been advertised to be there. At the door he stopped and said, “Colfax, do not forget to tell the people in the mining regions, as you pass through them, what I told you this morning about the developments when peace comes ; and I will telegraph you at San Francisco.” He then shook hands with both gentlemen, gave them a pleasant “Goodbye,” and left the Executive Mansion never to return alive.
The Washington Star says that at the Cabinet meeting Friday, which lasted over two hours, the future policy of the Government towards Virginia was discussed, the best feeling prevailing. It is stated that it was determined to adopt a very liberal policy, as was recommended by the President. It is said that this meeting was the most harmonious held for two years, the President exhibiting throughout that magnanimity and kindness of heart which have ever characterized his treatment of the rebellious States, and which have been so illy requited on their part. One of the members of the Cabinet remarked to a friend that he met at the door, “The Government is to-day stronger than it has been for three years past.”
It is learned from a gentleman who was intimate at the Executive Mansion that Mr. Lincoln never feared assassination. He only had a cavalry guard during the summer time when he lived out of town at the Soldiers Home, at the express desire of his friends. During the last fall and winter, sentries were placed around the house by order of the military authorities. The President used to walk to the War Department, through the grounds, unattended, at all hours of the night. On the night of the last Presidential election, however, there were certain intimations that the President might be attacked coming home late from the War Department. On that occasion he was accompanied by two gentlemen thoroughly armed.
[The Attack on Sec. Seward.]
Geo. F. Robinson, a soldier and nurse, who was in attendance on Secretary Seward [William H. Seward] on Friday night, has related circumstantially the proceedings in the sick chamber, from which it appears that it was through his brave and determined endeavors that the consummation of the murderous designs of the fiend were frustrated.
Robinson opened the door to learn the cause of the disturbance without. The man struck at his breast. In his hand he had a long knife, the blade of which appeared to be about 12 inches in length and one inch in width. Robinson determined to oppose his arm to parry the blow. The consequence was that a wound was inflicted in the centre of his forehead, close to the hair. The knife and the clenched hand in which the man held the dagger, came down upon Mr. Robinson’s face and felled him to the floor.
Miss Seward at this juncture escaped from the room and ran to the front window, screaming “murder !”
The assassin then leaped on the bed where Mr. Seward lay, still apparently in a helpless condition, and aimed a tremendous blow at his face. He missed his mark, however, and almost fell across Mr. Seward’s body.
By this time Robinson had recovered, jumped on the bed and caught hold of the assassin’s arms. While he was thus attempting to hold the assassin, the latter struck Mr. Seward on the left side of the face, and then on the right side. The assassin then raised up, and he and Robinson came to the floor together. They both got on to their feet Robinson still keeping a firm hold of him. The assassin reached his left arm over Robinson’s shoulder and endeavored to force him to the floor.
Finding he could not handle Robinson in that position, he changed his position and caught hold of Robinson’s right arm with his left hand, and struck behind Robinson with the knife. They still continued struggling for a few moments, Robinson forcing him towards the door, which was open, with the intention of throwing him over the banisters.
When they had nearly reached the door Maj. Augustus Seward entered the room. Robinson called on him to take the knife out of the assassin’s hand, and Maj. Seward immediately clenched the assassin. The latter then struck Robinson, knocking him down, broke away from Maj. Seward and rushed down stairs.
During the scuffle, he cannot say, Robinson received a wound, quite serious, some two inches in breadth, on the upper part of the right shoulder blade, another a little lower down of the same side, and another one on the left shoulder. While struggling with the man near the bedside, he seized the wrist of his right hand, in which was the dagger, and did not release his hold until knocked down by the assassin near the door, and after Major Seward had come to his assistance.
He returned to the room, and, after he found that the assassin had escaped, he found that the Secretary had got off the bed on the floor, dragging with him the bedclothes, and was lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
Upon going to the Secretary it was found there was no pulse in his wrist, and he stated to Miss Seward, who had re-entered the room and asked if her father was dead, that he believed he was, but upon a second examination Robinson ascertained that his heart was still beating, the Secretary then said “I am not dead, send for the police.” He then placed the Secretary on the bed, telling him he must not talk. Mr. Seward did not speak after that.
Mr. Robinson remained with Mr. Seward until 11 o’clock the next morning, when he was removed to the Douglas Hospital. Every attention is being showed this brave man by the attendants. His condition is very favorable.
1. “Plan of the Box Occupied by President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, April 14, 1865,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden (Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68): 783; available in the UWRF Archives (E 468.7 .G87 1866).
2. Rufus F. Andrews had been appointed by Lincoln as the Surveyor of the Port of New York, but was removed in September, 1864.
3. John Blair Smith Todd (1814-1872), first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln. He graduated from West Point in 1837 and participated in the Seminole War, served on the frontier in Indian Territory, and fought in the Mexican War. He resigned from the United States Army in 1856 and became an Indian trader, settling at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. He was admitted to the bar in 1861 and practicef law in Yankton. When the Civil War broke out, he was appointed a brigadier general of Volunteers and commanded the North Missouri district. He resigned from the Army on July 17, 1862. Todd was a delegate from Dakota Territory to the United States Congress (1861-1865).