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President Lincoln Assassinated!!
The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning
By Harold Holzer
The Library Of AmericaCopyright © 2014 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Charles Carleton Coffin
Scenes in Richmond
Worn down by the pressures of Washington and eager to be at the front when the war ended, President Lincoln arrived at Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia, on March 24, 1865, for an extended visit. On April 2 Union troops ended a nine-month-long siege by breaking through the Confederate lines at Petersburg, forcing Robert E. Lee to retreat westward and Jefferson Davis to flee Richmond. As the Confederate government abandoned its capital, the city's military commander ordered the destruction of its tobacco and cotton stockpiles. The fires rapidly spread and devastated much of Richmond before Union forces arrived the next morning. When Lincoln telegraphed Edwin M. Stanton of his intention to visit Petersburg on April 3, he received a stern admonition from his secretary of war: "Allow me respectfully to ask you to consider whether you ought to expose the Nation to the consequence of any disaster to yourself in the pursuit of a treacherous and dangerous Enemy like the rebel army." Hours later the President told Stanton that he planned to go to Richmond the next day, and added: "I will take care of myself." The arrival in Richmond on April 4 of Lincoln and his twelve-year-old son, Thomas (Tad), was witnessed by Charles Carleton Coffin (1823–1896), who had been reporting on the war for the Boston Journal since 1861.
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Richmond, April 4, 1865.
To the Editor of The Boston Journal:
President Lincoln is in Richmond. The hated, despised, ridiculed, the brute, the beast, the baboon of the Yankee nation, as the Richmond editors have named him, is here, in the house from which Jeff. Davis fled in haste and terror on Sunday last! The thought sets one's brain in a whirl, and yet it is my business to write coolly of the great events now transpiring in this city. To write connectedly I will make simply a record of personal observations, taking up the narrative broken abruptly in my letter of yesterday by the departure of the mail messenger.
APPEARANCE OF THE CITY.
Language fails me in any attempt to describe correctly the appearance of the city as I passed through the streets this morning at an early hour. The ruins were still smoking. The fire was still flaming furiously in several places. The pavements were hot to my feet, so intense had been the flames. Granite columns, iron pillars, marble facings broken into thousands of pieces, with cart loads of bricks, blocked the streets. The firemen were still at work. One of the engineers stated that nearly a thousand buildings of all kinds had been burned. The Bank of Richmond, Bank of the Commonwealth, Traders' Bank, Bank of Virginia, Farmers' Bank, a score of private banking houses, the American Hotel, the Columbian Hotel, the Enquirer and theDispatch printing offices, the Confederate Post Office Department, the State Court House, the Mechanics' Institute, all the insurance offices, the Confederate War Department, the Confederate Arsenal, the Laboratory, Dr. Read's Presbyterian Church, several foundries and machine shops, the Henrico county Court House, the Danville and the Petersburg depots, the three bridges across the James, Haxall's great flouring mills (the largest in the world), all the best stores of the city, were destroyed. The Libby Prison was not burned. It still stands a monument of rebel cruelty and inhumanity. In vain were the protests of the citizens to General Ewell; he detailed men to set the fires. When the rebel authorities fired Charleston, negro troops from Massachusetts saved the city from utter destruction; and here Massachusetts, in common with other soldiers of the North, white and negro alike, threw down their guns and did what they could to save the city. General Devens' division was the first to enter the city after Major Stevens with the cavalry detachment. He detailed soldiers to battle with the flames. Some mounted the roof of the Capitol, and others the Governor's Mansion, and extinguished the flames, which were kindled again and again.
"If it had not been for the soldiers the whole city would have been destroyed," was the remark of a Richmond citizen to-day. So the despised Yankees, the greasy mechanics and mudsills, became the saviors of their fond old city, which the leaders of the rebellion, who claim to be cavaliers, set on fire in their impotent rage. What cared they even if they made their best friends houseless and homeless and penniless? Jeff. Davis, Secretary Breckinridge, Gen. Lee and Gen. Ewell have been feasted by many families who to-day are poverty stricken, who have lost property, houses, lands, and all those who are in mourning for loved ones who have fallen on the battle field, through the insane ambition and malignant hate of those in whom they blindly trusted.
When the rebel rear guard left the city they broke open the stores; panes of window glass, which cost hundreds of dollars, were smashed without compunction; dry goods, boots, shoes, jewelry, everything was taken which pleased their fancy. Why should they not plunder after the example set them by their leaders?
The rebel soldiers are to be judged leniently. They have suffered privation and hardship, but their leaders have reveled in luxury, have had places of power, have plundered and robbed the nation, and with provident forethought have hundreds of thousands of dollars in London and Paris.
The poor people and negroes who have had hard work to keep soul and body together, improved the opportunity to help themselves to what was left. There was a grand rush to the stores. Some very ludicrous scenes. One negro had three Dutch ovens on his head, piled one above another, a stew pan in one hand and a skillet in another. Women had bags of flour in their arms, baskets of salt and pails of molasses, or sides of bacon. No miser ever gloated over his gold so eagerly as they over their supply of provisions. They had all but starved, but now they could eat till satisfied.
VISIT TO THE CAPITOL.
The Capitol square was full of furniture, beds, bedding, barrels, baskets, pots, kettles, pianos, sofas, looking glasses, crockery, and hundreds of women and children who had passed the night in the open air, among the soldiers of Gen. Devens' division, who cheerfully shared with them their rations.
The capitol outside and in, like the Confederacy, is exceedingly dilapidated. The windows are broken, the carpets faded, the paint dingy, the desks rickety. The members of the Legislature had left their letters and papers behind. Gen. Weitzel was in the Senate Chamber issuing his orders. Gen. Shepley, Military Governor, was also there; also Gen. Devens.
The door opened and a smooth faced man with a keen eye, firm, quick, resolute step entered. He wore a plain blue blouse with three stars on the collar. It was the old hero who opened the way to New Orleans, and who fought the battle of the Mobile forts from the mast head of his vessel—Admiral Farragut. He was accompanied by Gen. Gordon of Massachusetts, now commanding the Department of Norfolk. They heard the news yesterday noon and made all haste up the James, landing at Varina and taking horses to the city. It was a pleasure to take the brave Admiral's hand, and answer his eager questions as to what Grant had done. Being latest of all present from Petersburg I could give him the desired information. "Thank God, it is about over," said he, meaning the rebellion.
ARRIVAL OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN.
I was standing upon the bank of the river, viewing the scene of desolation, when a boat, pulled by twelve sailors, came up stream. It contained President Lincoln and his son, Admiral Porter, Capt. Penrose of the army, Capt. A. H. Adams of the navy, Lieut. W. W. Clemens of the signal corps. Somehow the negroes on the bank of the river ascertained that the tall man wearing a black hat was President Lincoln. There was a sudden shout. An officer who had just picked up fifty negroes to do work on the dock, found himself alone. They left work and crowded round the President. As he approached I said to a colored woman:
"There is the man who made you free."
"That is President Lincoln."
"Dat President Linkum?"
She gazed at him a moment, clapped her hands and jumped straight up and down, shouting "Glory, glory, glory!" till her voice was lost in the universal cheer.
There was no carriage near, so the President, leading his son, walked three-quarters of a mile up to Gen. Weitzel's headquarters—Jeff. Davis's mansion. What a spectacle it was! Such a hurly-burly—such wild indescribable ecstatic joy I never witnessed. A colored man acted as guide. Six sailors, wearing their round blue caps and short jackets and bagging pants, with navy carbines, was the advance guard. Then came the President and Admiral Porter, flanked by the officers accompanying him and the correspondent of The Journal, then six more sailors with carbines—twenty of us all told—amid a surging mass of men, women and children, black, white and yellow, running, shouting, dancing, swinging their caps, bonnets and handkerchiefs. The soldiers saw him and swelled the crowd, cheering in wild enthusiasm. All could see him, he was so tall—so conspicuous.
One colored woman, standing in a doorway, as the President passed along the sidewalk, shouted: "Thank you, dear Jesus, for this! thank you, Jesus!" Another standing by her side was clapping her hands and shouting: "Bless de Lord!"
A colored woman snatched her bonnet from her head, whirled it in the air, screaming with all her might, "God bless you, massa Linkum."
A few white women looking out from the houses waved their handkerchiefs. One lady in a large and elegant building looked awhile, and then turned away her head as if it was a disgusting sight.
President Lincoln walked in silence, acknowledging the salutes of officers and soldiers and of the citizens, black and white! It was the man of the people among the people. It was the great deliverer, meeting the delivered. Yesterday morning the majority of the thousands who crowded the streets and hindered our advance were slaves. Now they were free, and behold him who had given them their liberty. Gen. Shepley met the President in the street, and escorted him to Gen. Weitzel's quarters. Major Stevens hearing that the President was on his way suddenly summoned a detachment of the Massachusetts 4th Cavalry, and cleared the way.
After a tedious walk the mansion of Jeff. Davis was reached. The immense crowd swept round the corner of the street and packed the space in front. Gen. Weitzel received the President at the door. Cheer upon cheer went up from the excited multitude—two-thirds of whom were colored.
The officers who had assembled were presented to the President in the reception room of the mansion.
Judge Campbell, once on the Supreme bench of the United States, who became a traitor, came in and had a brief private interview with the President in the drawing-room. Other citizens called—those who have been for the Union through all the war.
The President then took a ride through the city, accompanied by Admiral Porter, Gens. Shepley, Weitzel and other officers. Such is the simple narrative of this momentous event, but no written page of illuminated canvas can give the reality of the event—the enthusiastic bearing of the people—the blacks and poor whites who have suffered untold horrors during the war, their demonstrations of pleasure, the shouting, dancing, the thanksgivings to God, the mention of the name of Jesus—as if President Lincoln were next to the son of God in their affections—the jubilant cries, the countenances beaming with unspeakable joy, the tossing up of caps, the swinging of arms of a motley crowd—some in rags, some bare-foot, some wearing pants of Union blue, and coats of Confederate gray, ragamuffins in dress through the hardships of war, but yet of stately bearing—men in heart and soul—free men henceforth and forever, their bonds cut asunder in an hour—men from whose limbs the chains fell yesterday morning, men who through many weary years have prayed for deliverance—who have asked sometimes if God were dead—who, when their children were taken from them and sent to the swamps of South Carolina and the cane brakes of Louisiana, cried to God for help and cried in vain, who told their sorrows to Jesus and asked for help, but who had no helper—men who have been whipped, scourged, robbed, imprisoned, for no crime. All of these things must be kept in remembrance if we would have the picture complete.
No wonder that President Lincoln who has a child's heart, felt his soul stirred; that the tears almost come to his eyes as he heard the thanksgivings to God and Jesus, and the blessings uttered for him from thankful hearts. They were true, earnest and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to God. There are thousands of men in Richmond to-night who would lay down their lives for President Lincoln—their great deliverer—their best friend on earth. He came among them unheralded, without pomp or parade. He walked through the streets as if he were only a private citizen and not the head of a mighty nation. He came not as a conqueror—not with bitterness in his heart, but with kindness. He came as a friend, to alleviate sorrow and suffering—to rebuild what has been destroyed.
Thomas T. Eckert
Testimony Before the House Judiciary Committee
The President returned to Washington on the evening of April 9, Palm Sunday, just a few hours before Grant telegraphed the War Department with news of Lee's surrender earlier that day at Appomattox Court House. When Lincoln spoke to a large crowd gathered at the White House on the evening of April 11, he devoted only a single paragraph of his speech to the recent Union victories before turning to the difficulties of reconstruction. Publicly addressing for the first time the question of black suffrage in Louisiana, he said: "It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers." Listening in the crowd was the actor John Wilkes Booth, who had been plotting for months to abduct the President and then exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. Two of his co-conspirators later provided accounts of Booth's reaction to Lincoln's words. In Katy of Catoctin, his 1886 novel about the Lincoln assassination, George Alfred Townsend, a former correspondent for the New York World, depicted Booth telling his co-conspirator David Herold: "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God! I'll put him through." In a footnote, Townsend wrote that Booth's remarks had been related to him by Herold's defense counsel, Frederick Stone. Another version of Booth's response was given by Major Thomas T. Eckert (1825–1910), superintendent of the War Department telegraph office and acting assistant secretary of war in April 1865. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on May 30, 1867, Eckert described his questioning of the conspirator Lewis Powell, alias Payne, after Powell's arrest.
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Q. Did he make any statement with regard to what other persons were to be assassinated?
A. No, sir, nothing, except as to the President and Mr. Seward. He knew in reference to the intention to assassinate the President, because Booth tried to get him to shoot the President the night of the celebration after the fall of Richmond. The President made a speech that night from one of the windows of the White House, and he and Booth were in the grounds in front. Booth tried to persuade him to shoot the President while in the window, but he told Booth he would take no such risk; that he left then and walked around the square, and that Booth remarked: "That is the last speech he will ever make."
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Introduction by Harold Holzer,
THE ASSASSINATION OF THE PRESIDENT AND THE PUNISHMENT OF THE CONSPIRATORS,
MOURNING AND REMEMBERING LINCOLN,
Sources and Acknowledgments,
What People are Saying About This
"Harold Holzer is one of our greatest Lincoln scholars."