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April 16, 2015
Column #1,755
A Dark Night in Washington
by Mike McManus

April 14 began as the happiest day of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Five days earlier, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Washington was aglow for hours on the night of April 13 with fireworks lighting up the sky. At breakfast his son, Robert, a junior officer on General Grant’s staff, regaled his parents with his personal observations of Lee’s surrender that were so interesting, Lincoln asked Grant, who was to visit at 9 a.m., to come at 11 instead.

Grant briefed his cabinet on the surrender. “At the cabinet meeting Lincoln was jubilant – everyone in attendance,” such as the Secretaries of War, Navy and Treasury “noticed Lincoln’s good mood,” reports “Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer,” a best seller by James Swanson.

At 3 p.m. Lincoln had an appointment with his wife, Mary, for a carriage ride.
“The war had increased their estrangement,” Swanson wrote. She had been emotionally distraught since the death of their favorite son, 11-year-old, Willie, in 1862. However, Lincoln’s joy was irrepressible. “Dear husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.”

“And well I may feel so, Mary,” the president replied. “I consider this day, the war has come to a close.” He wanted to talk about their future, saying he’d like to see the Pacific Ocean, and return to Chicago to practice law. “We have grown so apart. We must be happy again.”

And that evening, he took her to see a play, a comedy. Gen. Grant and his wife originally planned to join them, but did not. So the Lincolns invited Major Henry Rathbone with his fiancée, Clara Harris.

At midnight on April 14 this week, I sat in Ford’s Theater, hearing James Swanson, give a lecture on what happened exactly 150 years earlier: “This is the place where Abraham Lincoln came to laugh, where he could enjoy himself.” They arrived after the play had begun without guards.

As they walked along a wall on the second floor to their box overlooking the stage, “the actors stopped performing the play, Our American Cousin. The audience erupted in cheers. The band played “Hail to the Chief.” He took off his stovepipe hat, and bowed to the audience.

Swanson said Lincoln had reason to be happy. “He had done three things – won the Civil War, preserved the Union and ended slavery. It was a magical moment at 8:30, bowing to a grateful nation.”

A month earlier, Lincoln gave an eloquent Inaugural Address. It has been raining all day, but as he rose to speak the sun burst through in glory. His words were immortal: “With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”

However, John Wilkes Booth was devastated. His beloved South had lost. On April 12 the president proposed giving blacks the right to vote, which was horrifying. The most famous actor of his time, he easily organized a group of conspirators with a bold plan. He would kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theater which he knew intimately. Another would assassinate the Vice President and others would kill Secretary of State William Seward. (Both survived.)

Booth knew there was a line late in the play that sparked howls of laughter – that might muffle the sound of his shot. Only one person was on stage – making his escape easy. He had a tiny, 4 inch .44 caliber single-shot Deringer pistol, designed for concealment plus a handsome, extremely sharp Bowie knife. Booth slipped into Lincoln’s box and shot him behind the ear as the crowd was laughing.

Major Rathbone jumped up and grabbed Booth, who stabbed him with the knife, a long cut on his upper arm. Booth swung one leg over the balcony, but his riding spurs got caught in the flag, forcing him to fall unevenly to the stage 12 feet below, breaking his ankle.

In his last performance for which he would be remembered for eternity, he moved center stage, holding the bloody dagger triumphantly in the air, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus always to tyrants.” Then Booth yelled, “The South is avenged.”

He rushed out the back door to his waiting horse, evading Union soldiers for 12 days until he was shot.

It was the worst day in American history.

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