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Abraham Lincoln: Death of the President

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On April 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Only hours before, President Jefferson Davis had fled. As Lincoln walked through the streets escorted by ten sailors, crowds of African Americans shouted "Glory to God! Glory! Glory! Glory! Glory, Hallelujah. The Great Messiah!"A few miles away, the great commander of the Confederate Army of Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, his army reduced to 35,000 weary men, confronted Grant's 120,000 bluecoats. Faced with the inevitable, Lee, making the most difficult decision of his life, sent word to Grant that he would meet him in a farm house at the village of Appomattox Courthouse to surrender his army and thereby end the war. The surrender occurred on April 9. As a sign of Union respect for Confederate valor, the defeated officers of Lee's army were allowed to retain their swords.

Five days later, as the victorious Lincoln watched Laura Keene's light comedy Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., a darkly clad figure burst through the door of Lincoln's box in the balcony and shot the President point-blank in the back of his head. Mary Todd Lincoln screamed and tried to shield Lincoln with her body. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, leaped from the box to the stage to make his escape, shouting "Sic semper Tyrannis! [Thus always to Tyrants] The South is avenged!" Ten days later, after a near hysterical search by the army and the secret service, Booth was discovered hiding in a barn in rural Virginia. In the attempt to capture him, the barn was set on fire and Booth either shot himself or was killed in the shoot-out.

The wound to Lincoln's head took the President's life early the next morning. For the citizens of the Union, Lincoln's death muted the celebration of victory over the Confederacy. After seven days of official mourning in the capitol, Lincoln's coffin was carried on a slow-moving funeral train back to Springfield, Illinois. All along the 1,700 mile route, in small towns and villages, in fourteen different cities, including New York, and across the midwestern countryside, people gathered to see the train pass and to offer their last respects to the "Great Emancipator." Thousands of Americans remembered over the years the sight of the passing funeral train as one of the most deeply emotional events of their lives. Among those watching Lincoln's final journey to Springfield was a young Theodore Roosevelt who observed Lincoln's coffin pass in parade from the upstairs window of his family home in Manhattan.

Lincoln's assassin was the member of a well-known acting family and an ardent Confederate sympathizer. For most of the war, Booth, a Shakespearean performer, continued his theatrical career in the North while brooding and plotting to assist the Confederate cause by kidnapping Lincoln and holding him hostage as a bargaining chip. When he heard Lincoln endorse black suffrage on April 11, 1865, Booth conspired with several accomplices to kill Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Four of his coconspirators were convicted and hanged for taking part in the plot or for having known about it in advance.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael Burlingame

Professor Burlingame is the May Buckley Sadowski ’19 Professor Emeritus of History at Connecticut College. His writings include:

Abraham Lincoln: A Life (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda And Other Writings Of John G. Nicolay, 1860–1865 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006)

Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)

Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (Southern Illinois University Press, 1997)

The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1994)