Civil War, U.S. - Unforgettable Sights - LINCOLN'S DEATH and AFTERMATH

LINCOLN'S DEATH and AFTERMATH (Illustration) American Presidents Civil Wars Famous Historical Events Famous People Social Studies Nineteenth Century Life American History

In this lithograph by Dominique C.  Fabronius, based on original art by Trevor McClurg, we see a Civil-War soldier returning home to his family. Much of the war’s aftermath, however, did not proceed as President Lincoln had hoped.  Published by Endicott & Co., in New York, circa 1866. Online via the Library of Congress.


Soon after General Lee's 9 April 1865 surrender at the Wilmer Wilmer McLean home in the Virginia village of Appomattox Court House, the President and Mrs. Lincoln went to Ford's Theater with friends. It was April 14th. They were going to attend a performance of the English play, "My American Cousin."

Earlier in the day, according to William H. Crook, the President's bodyguard, Lincoln confided his thoughts about assassination. He was haunted by a dream he had had three days earlier. But his words to Crook are eerie:

Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it...I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.

The President and First Lady arrived at Ford's Theater after the performance was started. They were accompanied by 28-year-old Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris. The performance had already begun as the President took his seat in a red rocking chair in the presidential box.

At around 10 P.M., John Wilkes Booth - an actor with Southern sympathies - entered the presidential box with his derringer. Crook, the President's chief bodyguard, was off-duty. In his place, John F. Parker was responsible for the President's safety.

Accounts vary on Parker's whereabouts at the precise moment Booth entered the box. Some say the President permitted him to take a better seat, thereby leaving Lincoln unguarded. Others say he was in a tavern across the street and wasn't seen again until around 6 a.m. the next morning.

With no one around to stop him, Booth pulled out his pistol and fired one shot into the President's head. The bullet entered through his left ear and lodged behind his right eye.

As the President slumped forward, Major Rathbone struggled with Booth who, using his knife, slashed Rathbone's arm. Booth jumped from the box but the spur of his boot caught a flag. Falling to the floor, he fractured his leg.

Undaunted, Booth fled the theater through the back door and escaped on horseback.  He crossed the bridge over the "East Branch" of the river as he fled to Anacostia.

The President, meanwhile, was carried across the street to Petersen's Boarding House. He was diagonally placed on a bed which was too small for his 6'4" frame. His wound was mortal. Shocked, his closest advisors gathered round him. Mary Lincoln was hysterical and, for the most part, was not with the President as he lay dying.

At 7:22 a.m. the next morning, President Abraham Lincoln died of his wound. Colonel George G. Rutherford placed silver half-dollars on both of the President's eyes immediately after his death. Lincoln had never regained consciousness. In his pockets were reading glasses and other personal items.

To allow people around the country to actively participate in funeral services, officials arranged for a funeral train to transport the President's body to several different cities before he was laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois. In New York someone took a picture of the President in his open coffin. (It is one of only two known pictures of the President in his coffin.) In Chicago, more than 125,000 people viewed his body.

With a price on his head, John Wilkes Booth was captured and shot while hiding in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia. He died the same day - April 26, 1865 - which was also the day that Confederate General Johnston surrendered to Union General Sherman.

Conspiracy charges were brought against several people; four were convicted and sentenced to death. Mary Surratt, whose guilt has long been questioned, was publicly hanged with three others on July 7, 1865 at the old Penitentiary. Today Ft. McNair has been built over the place of that execution.

The Civil War, with all its horror, continues to haunt and fascinate Americans. The first President to be assassinated, Lincoln - for many individuals - remains the most popular Chief Executive ever elected to serve in that capacity. 

At the time, however, the plea of his second inaugural - to "bind up the nation's wounds" with "malice toward none" - was often ignored as the North began its harsh Reconstruction of the South.  Without Lincoln helming the executive branch, some members of Congress wanted to exact a heavy price for the "war of rebellion."

Integration of former slaves into American life also proceeded much slower than Lincoln would have approved.  Even as Congress gave new constitutional rights to African-Americans, soon after the President's death, those rights were quickly eroded (or taken away) by subsequent lawmakers and/or state voters. 

For example ... Republican Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels - a freedman from Mississippi who was appointed to serve as the first African-American in Congress - lost his seat when it came time for the people to vote. 

The aftermath of the war, in other words, did not proceed as President Lincoln had so eloquently urged.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Feb 01, 2003

Updated Last Revision: Apr 29, 2019

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