150 Years Ago This Week: The President is shot!

April 1865

On Wednesday, April 12, on the fourth anniversary of the start of the war, with the city of Charleston, South Carolina in Union hands, Maj. Thomas Hugenan, Fort Sumter’s last Confederate commander, simply evacuated the crumbling fort. The symbol of Confederate resistance had survived until the war’s end.

That same day, another of the Confederacy’s major cities, Mobile, Alabama, surrendered to Maj. Gen. Edward S. Canby. Two days later, on Good Friday, April 14, Fort Sumter’s last Federal commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson (he had been a major when he surrendered to Confederate forces in 1861) raised the same flag he had lowered four years before.

In Washington, President Lincoln met with his Cabinet and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant. The chief topics discussed were the terms of surrender that Gen. Grant had given to Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, and what terms Maj. Gen. William Sherman would give to Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston when it became apparent that the Army of Tennessee would have to surrender. Reconstruction and the restoration of the Southern states into the Union were also discussed in detail.

The Cabinet meeting concluded and Gen. Grant declined the president’s offer to go to Ford’s Theatre that night. He and Mrs. Grant were leaving on the 6 p.m. train to visit their children in New Jersey; it was a well-known fact in Washington that Mrs. Grant detested Mrs. Lincoln and refused to socialize with her.

At 8:30 that night, the president and Mrs. Lincoln arrived at Ford’s with Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fianceé, Clara Harris. Partway through the play, a farce called “Our American Cousin,” Mrs. Lincoln, holding onto her husband’s right arm, whispered to the president, “What will Miss Harris say about my hanging on to you so?”, to which the president spoke his last words, “She won’t think anything of it.”

At about 10:15 p.m., actor John Wilkes Booth crept into the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a single-shot Derringer pistol. Then he slashed Maj. Rathbone in the arm with his knife before vaulting over the rail to the stage below. After facing the audience and loudly saying the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants), Booth turned and made his escape through the backstage door, leaped onto his horse, and headed for the Navy Yard Bridge across the Anacostia River and into southern Maryland.

Bedlam broke out in the theatre when the audience heard Mrs. Lincoln scream and it became known that the president had been shot. The president was carried unconscious across the street to the boarding house of William Petersen, and placed in the back bedroom on the first floor.

At about the same time that Booth shot the president, Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s conspirators, made his way into the home of Secretary of State William Seward, who was bedridden following the carriage accident he sustained on April 5. When Powell finally escaped the home, Seward was severely injured in the knife attack, and Seward’s son Augustus lay on the floor with a fractured skull, after Powell pistol-whipped him. Several others in the house were also badly injured.

President Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on a rainy April 15. As Lincoln drew his last breath, Corporal James Tanner (who had been taking eyewitness testimony for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton all night) attempted to record the prayer that Rev. Phineas Gurley offered, but his pencil broke and there is thus no record. Stanton said of Lincoln, “Now he belongs to the ages,” but Corporal Tanner recalled later that Stanton actually said, “Now he belongs to the angels.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.