My friend Jacob Rudolfsson from Sweden joined me this morning with roughly a thousand people outside Ford’s Theater in Washington.
We had come for an early morning tribute. Today is the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. Doctors who rushed to the Presidential Box that night in the theater knew the stricken leader could not survive a trip back to the White House, so they ordered him to be carried across the street. They placed him in the back room of the Petersen House. They had to position the 6’4” Lincoln diagonally on the bed for his final hours.
At 7:22 am on Saturday, April 15, 1865, he was pronounced dead. Today, the church bells of Washington tolled at that hour. It was after that long death vigil that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton uttered his most famous words:
“Now he belongs to the ages.”
The Secretary of War had spent the night in the Petersen House. “Mars,” as Lincoln playfully called his sternly efficient military Supremo, had briskly taken command of the deathwatch. He gave orders all night. He had to. No one knew how far the plot extended.
The keepers of the death watch in the Petersen House soon learned that Sec. of State William H. Seward had also been attacked that bloody night. One of the co-conspirators, a muscular young giant of a man, had pushed past soldiers and family members to enter Seward’s sickroom.
The cagey Seward, an experienced New York politico, was recovering from a near-fatal carriage accident and was savagely hacked that night. Only the metal and leather brace on his neck saved him from death.
John Wilkes Booth was a major actor of his day. He had starred in many roles on stage and was known for his athleticism. He was to demonstrate his style when he shot the President and then leaped to the stage. But he did not plan on catching his spur on the bunting draped on the Presidential Box. Hitting the stage at an angle, he broke his ankle.
Still, he held up his bloody dagger and yelled: “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” Thus ever to Tyrants is Virginia’s state motto. When reports of Booth’s actions circulated, many people throughout the North naturally thought Booth might have been part of a Virginia-based conspiracy.
Booth had used his dagger to slash at Major Henry enrHenryRathbone. The army officer was the escort for Miss Clara Harris that evening. She was the daughter of a U.S. Senator.
Several other couples had declined the President’s invitation to join him and Mrs. Lincoln in the reserved box for that Friday performance of “Our American Cousin.” Had all of the invited ones accepted, there might have been no way for Booth to enter the crowded box.
Booth could have shot the President almost any day. Lincoln had seen his elder brother Edwin Booth perform various Shakespeare plays. Had John Wilkes Booth simply presented a calling card to the White House Head Usher, he might well have been admitted to the President’s office. He then could have shot Lincoln at his desk.
But John Wilkes Booth craved an audience for his evil deed. James Swanson was also one of the speakers at this morning’s event. He related the story of the assassination in his excellent book, Manhunt. Booth the actor hid out in the Maryland woods for days. Injured and in pain, hungry, hunted, Booth nonetheless demanded newspapers. He wanted to read his “reviews.” He was shocked to find himself condemned North and South.
Today, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spoke appreciatively of the American people—all of the people—whom Lincoln served and loved. Crowded together on Tenth Street, we witnessed a military band. They were outfitted in Union blue uniforms of the Civil War.
They played song after song on period instruments. The tunes echoed the heritage of faith and freedom that Americans in 1865 unashamedly sang and shared. “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “The Old Hundredth (Praise God from whom All Blessings Flow),” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and “America (My Country `Tis of Thee”). These great tunes alternated with lesser known songs of the era.
It was especially moving to see the window washers stop in their labors on the upper floors of the buildings that now overshadow Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House. They were watching the scene below with interest. Some of them might not have understood the English being spoken, but they knew they were a part of this history, too. After all, Lincoln’s dying hours were spent in the home of the Petersens, immigrants from Germany.
Perhaps the most powerful moment was when Jacob and I joined the assembly to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s worth reading the lyrics to understand how our history cannot be understood without reference to the cause for which Abraham Lincoln and hundreds of thousands of others fought and died:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
Jacob’s presence reminds me of the universal appeal of Lincoln’s ideals. Last week, attendees at the Lincoln Cottage heard a discussion of the new Don Doyle book, The Cause of All Nations. That work emphasizes the international implications of our American Civil War.
To conclude this morning’s Lincoln Observance, bagpipers in kilts skirled “Amazing Grace.” At least one New York regiment in the Civil War had been uniformed as Scots Highlanders. And what was “Amazing Grace” if not the ex-slaver John Newton’s expression of repentance for his regretted past and his joy at his redemption by Jesus Christ? Once blind, he now can see.
Without the freedom to speak and to pray, to sing and to witness, how could America have survived that terrible fiery trial? And without our flag of freedom, why should the world care about America?
If this column has been helpful, Family Research Council recommends 'We Have Long Remembered,' a 2013 at FRC lecture by Prof. Daniel Dreisbach on the enduring greatness of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.