On April 9, 1865, Abraham Lincoln received a telegram from Ulysses S. Grant reporting Robert E. Lee’s surrender, formally ending the Civil War. Six days later, on Good Friday, April 14, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth during a performance at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln died the next morning. This tragedy, 155 years ago this month, terminated Lincoln’s critical leadership just as he had turned to mending a broken nation. Focusing on forgiveness and justice, Lincoln sought to accelerate Reconstruction and establish voting rights for former slaves.
The assassination plan devised by Booth and other Confederate sympathizers epitomized the formidable obstacles Lincoln faced. A few days prior to the assassination, Booth had listened to Lincoln advocating for black suffrage. Booth declared: “That is the last speech he will ever make.” Booth and his conspirators plotted to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and the Secretary of State at three locations on the evening of April 14. Johnson’s assigned attacker abandoned the plan, while the Secretary was injured before his assailant fled. Only Booth succeeded. As an actor known at the theater, Booth gained access to Lincoln’s private viewing balcony, barred the door, and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth then leapt from the balcony to the stage and escaped, but was later captured.
Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house and was laid diagonally to fit his tall frame on the bed. Throughout the night, doctors, government officials, and his wife Mary attended to him. When he died early the next morning, War Secretary Edwin Stanton declared: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
After public viewing in Washington, Lincoln’s body traveled by train to his Springfield home, viewed by multitudes of mourners along the way. Noted Russian author Leo Tolstoy declared that Lincoln was “worshipped throughout the world” because “his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”
What legacy was lost when Lincoln was prevented from bringing his moral power to bear in leading a national reunion and rebirth? Could Lincoln have persuaded a recalcitrant Congress to implement his Reconstruction plans? Mitigated the calls for revenge? Moved us closer to that “just and lasting peace?”
Early in his career, Lincoln described his ambition as “that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” He became increasingly reflective concerning his mortality and his legacy. He reportedly experienced a prescient dream of wandering the White House and learning of the President’s assassination. Prior to his Second Inauguration, Lincoln stated: “Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.” Certainly, Lincoln rooted out a thorny thistle that had taken root. But we will never know what may have bloomed had he been allowed to cultivate and nurture all that he planted in our soil.
Susan Iuliano is a Board Member of the Lincoln Fellowship of PA, which is committed to commemorating the Gettysburg Address during the annual Dedication Day ceremonies, supporting “100 Nights of Taps” at the Soldiers' National Cemetery, and other educational activities. To learn more and support these efforts, go to www.lincolnfellowship.org.