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Facts and Images: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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News of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln traveled quickly across the telegraph wires, shocking the nation in April 1865. And images of the assassination and the events surrounding it gripped the American public and remain fascinating to the present day.

Early April 1865, Lincoln Visited Richmond

Lincoln in Richmond
New York Public Library

As the Civil War came to a close, and the city of Richmond fell to Union troops, President Lincoln, along with his young son Tad, traveled to the Confederate capital city by taking an Army gunboat up the James River.

Columns of smoke were rising from the city when Lincoln arrived on April 4, 1865. As he walked onto a dock, accompanied by a dozen heavily armed sailors, a number of freed blacks noticed him and gathered about, screaming, "God bless you."

As white citizens of Richmond stared silently from their windows, Lincoln and Tad, accompanied by a growing number of blacks, walked about the city. The scene was depicted later by the artist Thomas Nast, who produced an evocative illustration for Harper's Weekly.

The Confederacy Surrendered

The Confederate Army Surrenders
New York Public Library

As Lincoln arrived back in Washington from his trip to Virginia on April 9, 1865, he was handed a telegram from General Ulysses S. Grant informing him that Robert E. Lee had surrendered that morning at Appamattox Courthouse.

The next morning, April 10, the city of Washington erupted. Cannons thundered in celebration, and thousands of people marched to the White House behind a brass band. They cheered Lincoln. The president's young son, Tad Lincoln, waved joyfully to the crowd from an upstairs window.

On the night of April 11 a large crowd gathered on the White House lawn, and Lincoln addressed them from a window of the mansion.

In Virginia, the Confederate Army was disbanding. An artist recorded soldiers stacking their rifles as they prepared to go home to their farms.

The Embittered John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth
New York Public Library

The actor John Wilkes Booth, a member of a noted theatrical family, was a Confederate sympathizer. He had gotten involved with a gang of conspirators who had wanted to kidnap Lincoln in March 1865, in an attempt to make the United States negotiate an end to the war. That plan was frustrated.

On April 14, 1865, which happened to be Good Friday, Booth learned that Lincoln planned to attend a play at Ford's Theater in Washington that night. The conspirators saw an opportunity to murder Lincoln. They also planned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

Lincoln Shot at Ford's Theater

Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater
MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The other conspirators bungled their plans, but Booth struck that evening. As Abraham and Mary Lincoln, along with two guests, sat in the theater's presidential box, Booth managed to enter the box and fire a derringer into the back of Lincoln's head.

Despite the horrifying subject matter, illustrations depicting the murder became popular. This print, by the famous firm of engravers Currier & Ives, is typical. Other lithography firms produced similar depictions of the scene.

Perhaps seeing how the murder was committed provided some solace to a public that was shocked and intensely curious about what had happened.

Booth Escaped

Booth Leaps to the Stage
Library of Congress

After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of the theater, exclaiming the state motto of Virginia, "Sic semper tyrannis" ("thus ever to tyrants"). Some reported that he also yelled, "The south is avenged," or "the south shall be free."

Booth broke his leg in his leap to the stage, but managed to flee the theater and escape on horseback into the night.

A month after the assassination, Frank Leslie's Illustrated, a popular magazine of the day, published a depiction of Booth's dramatic leap on its front page.

Lincoln Died the Next Morning

Lincoln Deathbed
New York Public Library

Mortally wounded, Lincoln was carried to a rooming house across the street from Ford's Theater and placed in a bed. Government officials gathered around, and Lincoln finally succumbed to his wound on the morning of April 15, 1865.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton remarked, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Depictions of the Lincoln deathbed scene were sold as prints. In this particular lithograph by Currier & Ives, Lincoln's son Robert, in his Army uniform, weeps in the foreground. Mary Lincoln is also shown weeping. And young Tad Lincoln is depicted in the room, overcome by grief, though the boy was actually at home in the White House at the time.

A New President Was Sworn In

Andrew Johnson Takes the Oath of Office
New York Public Library

The conspirators had intended to murder Andrew Johnson at his residence, the Kirkwood House, a Washington hotel. But the man assigned to that task lost his nerve, and Johnson, unaware of what was happening, went to bed.

By about 11 p.m., Johnson was awakened by a loud rapping on his door. Another Kirkwood House resident happened to have been at Ford's Theater, and informed Johnson of what had happened.

Johnson got dressed and briefly visited Lincoln's bedside, then returned to the hotel. The next morning word came that Lincoln had died.

Andrew Johnson became president when he took the oath of office in the parlor of the Kirkwood House on April 15, 1865. The scene was depicted in a magazine illustration.

Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Wanted Poster
Library of Congress

It was immediately apparent that Lincoln's murder was part of a conspiracy. While the planned attack on Vice President Johnson hadn't happened, Secretary of State William Seward had been attacked in his residence, and was lucky to survive with knife wounds.

As the nation mourned, a massive manhunt was mounted for John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Though Booth received some assistance during his time on the run, the help he expected to receive from sympathetic southerners never materialized. He was able to cross the Potomac and get to Virginia, but even people in the south wanted to shun him.

This wanted poster was distributed to offer an enormous reward for Booth's capture.

A Thousand Mile Funeral

Lincoln Funeral in New York
New York Public Library

Lincoln's body lay in state in the East Room of the White House on April 19, 1865. And then a funeral train took the body along a circuitous route back to Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois, where it arrived on May 3, 1865.

In New York City the funeral procession marched up Broadway. Many thousands of mourners lined the streets and watched from windows. As it approached Union Square, a young future president, Theodore Roosevelt, watched from a window of his grandfather's house.

In this stereoscopic photograph of the funeral procession in New York, the Roosevelt residence is the large house on the left side of Broadway. Legend has it that young Teddy Roosevelt was looking out the second floor window.

Booth Was Killed

Post-Mortem on Booth's Body
New York Public Library

Less than two weeks after the assassination, the manhunt for Booth closed in as he hid at a farm in Virginia. Surrounded by cavalry troopers on April 26, 1865, Booth barricaded himself in a barn, was wounded, and died hours later.

At a post-mortem examination held aboard a US Navy warship of the Monitor class, the Montauk, his body was identified by a physician who had known him.

An illustration of the post-mortem examination of Booth appeared in Harper's Weekly in mid-May 1865. Despite the apparent proof that Lincoln's killer was dead, rumors circulated in the late 19th century that Booth had escaped and was living in the west.

Justice Came At the End of a Rope

Lincoln Conspirators Hanged
New York Public Library

Most of the conspirators who worked with Booth were rounded up and put on trial by a military tribunal. They were convicted, and four of them were hanged in a military prison in Washington, DC, on July 7, 1865.

Disputes about the fairness of the trial and the reliability of the government's evidence have always persisted.

Noted Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner took a remarkable series of photographs of the executions. Most members of the public would have actually seen a woodcut in a magazine based one one of Gardner's photos.

David Herold, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, and Mary Suratt were hanged. The execution of Mrs. Suratt, who was wearing a black dress, was particularly controversial.

Veneration of Lincoln in Death

Whitman Lectures on Lincoln
New York Public Library

The murder of President Lincoln as the Civil War ended was a trauma to the nation. And the event would be commemorated in a variety of ways for many years.

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, was a fan of Lincoln in life. And after Lincoln's death Whitman venerated the memory of the fallen leader. One of his most beautiful poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" was written about Lincoln's death and evokes scenes of his funeral.

On the 22nd anniversary of Lincoln's assassination Whitman gave a speech about Lincoln at a theater in New York City.

Note that Whitman initialed this ticket for the lecture.

 

Grateful acknowledgment for images is given to the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

 

 

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