Lincoln’s Last Hours

The assassination of President Lincoln: at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., April 14th, 1865, Currier & Ives lithograph, Library of Congress

Source: Charles A. Leale, Lincoln’s Last Hours: Address delivered before the Commandery of the State of New York Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States at the regular meeting, February 1909, City of New York in observance of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of President Abraham Lincoln (New York: 1909), pp. 2-4

Production: Tom Taylor, Our American Cousin, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, 14 April 1865

Text: One of the most cruel wars in the history of the world had nearly closed.

The people of the United States were rejoicing at the prospect of peace and returning happiness. President Lincoln, after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, visited Richmond, Virginia, exposing himself to great danger, and on his return delivered an address from the balcony of the White House.

I was then a Commissioned Officer in the Medical Department of the United States Army, having been appointed from my native State, New York, and was on duty as Surgeon in charge of the Wounded Commissioned Officers’ Ward at the United States Army General Hospital, Armory Square, Washington, District of Columbia, where my professional duties were of the greatest importance and required constant and arduous attention. For a brief relief and a few moments in the fresh air I started one evening for a short walk on Pennsylvania Avenue. There were crowds walking toward the President’s residence. These I followed and arrived just at the commencement of President Lincoln’s last public address to his people. From where I stood I could distinctly hear every word he uttered and I was profoundly impressed with his divine appearance as he stood in the rays of light, which penetrated the windows of the White House.

The influence thus produced gave me an intense desire again to behold his face and study the characteristics of the “Savior of his Country.” Therefore on the evening of April 14, 1865, after the completion of my daily hospital duties, I told my Ward Master that I would be absent for a short time. As a very large number from the Army stationed near Washington frequently visited the city, a general order was in force that none should be there without a special pass and all wearing uniform and out at night were subject to frequent challenge. To avoid this inconvenience officers stationed in Washington generally removed all signs of their calling when off duty. I changed to civilian’s dress and hurried to Ford’s Theatre, where I had been told President Lincoln, General Grant, and Members of the Cabinet were to be present to see the play, “Our American Cousin.” I arrived late at the theatre, 8.15 p. m., and requested a seat in the orchestra, whence I could view the occupants of the President’s box, which on looking into the theatre, I saw had been beautifully decorated with American flags in honor of the occasion. As the building was crowded the last place vacant was in the dress circle. I was greatly disappointed, but accepted this seat, which was near the front on the same side and about 40 feet from the President’s box, and soon became interested in the pleasing play.

Suddenly there was a cheering welcome, the acting ceased temporarily out of respect to the entering Presidential party. Many in the audience rose to their feet in enthusiasm and vociferously cheered, while looking around. Turning, I saw in the aisle a few feet behind me, President Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone and Miss Harris. Mrs. Lincoln smiled very happily in acknowledgment of the loyal greeting, gracefully curtsied several times and seemed to be overflowing with good cheer and thankfulness. I had the best opportunity to distinctly see the full face of the President, as the light shone directly upon him. After he had walked a few feet he stopped for a moment, looked upon the people he loved and acknowledged their salutations with a solemn bow. His face was perfectly stoical, his deep set eyes gave him a pathetically sad appearance. The audience seemed to be enthusiastically cheerful, but he alone looked peculiarly sorrowful, as he slowly walked with bowed head and drooping shoulders toward the box. I was looking at him as he took his last walk. The memory of that scene has never been effaced. The party was preceded by a special usher, who opened the door of the box, stood to one side, and after all had entered closed the door and took a seat outside, where he could guard the entrance to the box. The play was resumed and my attention was concentrated on the stage until I heard a disturbance at the door of the President’s box. With many others I looked in that direction, and saw a man endeavoring to persuade the reluctant usher to admit him. At last he succeeded in gaining an entrance, after which the door was closed and the usher resumed his place.

For a few moments all was quiet, and the play again held my attention until, suddenly, the report of a pistol was heard, and a short time after I saw a man in mid-air leaping from the President’s box to the stage, brandishing in his hand a drawn dagger. His spur caught in the American flag festooned in front of the box, causing him to stumble when he struck the stage, and he fell on his hands and knees. He quickly regained the erect posture and hopped across the stage, flourishing his dagger, clearing the stage before him and dragging the foot of the leg, which was subsequently found to be broken, he disappeared behind the scene on the opposite side of the stage. Then followed cries that the President had been murdered, interspersed with cries of “Kill the murderer!” “Shoot him!” etc., from different parts of the building. The lights had been turned down, a general gloom was over all, and the panic-stricken audience were rushing toward the doors for exit and safety.

Comments: Charles Augustus Leale (1842-1932) was an American surgeon, who served with the Union army during the American Civil War. He attended to President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth during a performance of English playwright Tom Taylor‘s three-act comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, Washington in the evening of 14 April 1865. Leale’s attentions meant that Lincoln lived a little longer, dying the following morning.

LinksCopy at Internet Archive

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