The Fourteenth Of April
( Originally Published 1906 )
REFRESHED in body by his visit to City Point, and greatly cheered by the fall of Richmond, and unmistakable signs that the war was over, Mr. Lincoln went back to Washington intent on the new task opening before him—that of restoring the Union, and of bringing about peace and good will again between the North and the South. His whole heart was bent on the work of "binding up the nation's wounds" and doing all which lay in his power to "achieve a just and lasting peace." Especially did he de-sire to avoid the shedding of blood, or anything like acts of deliberate punishment. He talked to his cabinet in this strain on the morning of April 14, the last day of his life. "No one need expect that he would take any part in hanging or killing these men, even the worst of them," he exclaimed. Enough lives had been sacrificed already. Anger must be put aside. The great need now was to begin to act in the interest of peace. With these words of clemency and kindness in their ears they left him, never again to come together under his wise chairmanship.
Though it was invariably held in check by his vigorous commonsense, there was in Mr. Lincoln's nature a strong vein of poetry and mysticism. That morning he told his cabinet a strange story of a dream that he had had the night before-a dream which he said came to him be-fore great events. He had dreamed it before the battles of Antietam, Murfreesboro', Gettysburg and Vicksburg. This time it must foretell a victory by Sherman over Johnston's army, news of which was hourly expected, for he knew of no other important event likely to occur. The members of the cabinet were deeply impressed; but General Grant, who had come to Washington that morning and was present, remarked with matter-of-fact exactness that Murfreesboro' was no victory and had no important results. Not the wildest imagination of skeptic or mystic could have pictured the events under which the day was to close.
It was Good Friday, a day observed by a portion of the people with fasting and prayer, but even among the most devout the great news of the week just ended changed this time of traditional mourning into a season of general thanks-giving. For Mr. Lincoln it was a day of unusual and quiet happiness. His son Robert had re-turned from the field with General Grant, and the President spent an hour with the young cap-tain in delighted conversation over the campaign. He denied himself generally to visitors, admitting only a few friends. In the afternoon he went for a long drive with Mrs. Lincoln. His mood, as it had been all day, was singularly happy and tender. He talked much of the past and future. After four years of trouble and tumult he looked forward to four years of quiet and normal work; after that he expected to go back again to Illinois and practice law. He was never more simple or more gentle than on this day of triumph. His heart overflowed with sentiments of gratitude to Heaven, which took the shape, usual to generous natures, of love and kindness to all men.
From the very beginning there had been threats to kill him. He was constantly receiving letters of .warning from zealous or nervous friends. The War Department inquired into these when there seemed to be ground for doing so, but always without result. Warnings that appeared most definite proved on examination too vague and confused for further attention. The President knew that he was in some danger.
Madmen frequently made their way to the very door of the Executive Office; sometimes into Mr. Lincoln's presence; but 'he himself had so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred deadly enough to lead to murder. He summed up the matter by saying that since he must receive both friends and strangers every day, his life was of course within the reach of any one, sane or mad, who was ready to murder and be hanged for it, and that he could not possibly guard against all danger unless he shut himself up in an iron box, where he could scarcely perform the duties of a President.
He therefore went in and out before the people, always unarmed, generally unattended. He received hundreds of visitors in a day, his breast bare to pistol or knife. He walked at midnight, with a single Secretary or alone, from the Executive Mansion to the War Department and back. In summer he rode through lonely roads from the White House to the Soldiers' Home in the dusk of the evening, and returned to his work in the morning before the town was astir. He was greatly annoyed when it was decided that there must be a guard at the Executive Mansion, and that a squad of cavalry must accompany him on his daily drive ; but he was always reasonable, and yielded to the best judgment of others.
Four years of threats and boastings that were unfounded, and of plots that came to nothing passed away, until precisely at the time when the triumph of the nation seemed assured, and a feeling of peace and security settled over the country, one of the conspiracies, seemingly no more important than the others, ripened in a sudden heat of hatred and despair.
A little band of desperate secessionists, of which John Wilkes Booth, an actor of a family of famous players, was the head, had their usual meeting-place at the house of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the mother of one of the number. Booth was a young man of twenty-six, strikingly handsome, with an ease and grace of manner which came to him of right from his theatrical ancestors. He was a fanatical southerner, with a furious hatred against Lincoln and the Union. After Lincoln's reelection he went to Canada, and associated with the Confederate agents there ; and whether or not with their advice, made a plan to capture the President and take him to Richmond. He passed a great part of the autumn and winter pursuing this fantastic scheme, but the winter wore away, and nothing was done. On March 4 he was at the Capitol, and created a disturbance by trying to force his way through the line of policemen who guarded the passage through which the President walked to the East front of the building to read his Second Inaugural. His intentions at this time are not known. He afterwards said he lost an excellent chance of killing the President that day.
After the surrender of Lee, in a rage akin to madness, he called his fellow-conspirators together and allotted to each his part in the new crime which had risen in his mind. It was as simple as it was horrible. One man was to kill Secretary Seward, another to make way with Andrew Johnson, at the same time that he murdered the President. The final preparations were made with feverish haste. It was only about noon of the fourteenth that Booth learned that Mr. Lincoln meant to go to Ford's Theatre that night to see the play "Our American Cousin." The President enjoyed the theatre. It was one of his few means of recreation, and as the town was then thronged with soldiers and officers all eager to see him, he could, by appearing in public, gratify many whom he could not personally meet.
Mrs. Lincoln asked General and Mrs. Grant to accompany her. They accepted, and the announcement that they would be present was made in the evening papers, but they changed their plans and went north by an afternoon train. Mrs. Lincoln then invited in their stead Miss Harris and Major Rathbone, daughter and stepson of Senator Ira Harris. Being detained by visitors, the play had made some progress when the President appeared.. The band struck up "Hail to the Chief," the actors ceased playing, the audience rose and cheered, the President bowed in acknowledgment, and the play went on again.
From the moment he learned of the President's intention Booth's actions were alert and energetic. He and his confederates were seen in every part of the city. Booth was perfectly at home in Ford's Theatre. He counted upon audacity to reach the small passage behind the President's box. Once there, he guarded against interference by arranging a wooden bar, to be fastened by a simple mortice in the angle of the wall and the door by which he entered, so that once shut, the door could not be opened from the outside. He even provided for the chance of not gaining entrance to the box by boring a hole in the door, through which he might either observe the occupants, or take aim and shoot. He hired at a livery stable a small fleet horse.
A few moments -before ten o'clock, leaving his horse at the rear of the theatre, in charge of a call-boy, he entered the building, passing rapidly to the little hallway leading to the President's box. Showing a card to the servant in attendance, he was allowed to enter, closed the door noiselessly, and secured it with the wooden bar he had made ready, without disturbing any of the occupants of the box, between whom and himself yet remained the partition and the door through which he had bored the hole.
No one, not even the actor who uttered them, could ever remember the last words of the piece that were spoken that night—the last that Abraham Lincoln heard upon earth ; for the tragedy in the box turned play and players alike to the most unsubstantial of phantoms. For weeks hate and brandy had kept Booth's brain in a morbid state. He seemed to himself to be taking part in a great play. Holding a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, he opened the box door, put the pistol to the President's head, and fired. Major Rathbone sprang to grapple with him, and received a savage knife wound in the arm. Then, rushing forward, Booth placed his hand on the railing of the box and vaulted to the stage. It was a high leap, but nothing to such a trained athlete. He would have got safely away, had not his spur caught in the flag that draped the front of the box. He fell, the torn flag trailing on his spur ; but though the fall had broken his leg, he rose instantly brandishing his knife and shouting, "Sic Semper Tyrannis !" fled rapidly across the stage and out of sight. Major Rathbone shouted, "Stop him!" The cry, "He has shot the President !" rang through the theatre, and from the audience, stupid at first with surprise, and wild afterward with excitement and horror, men jumped upon the stage in pursuit of the assassin. But he ran through the familiar passages, leaped upon his horse, re-warding with a kick and a curse the boy who held him, and escaped into the night.
The President scarcely moved. His head drooped forward slightly, his eyes closed. Major Rathbone, not regarding his own grievous hurt, rushed to the door to summon aid. He found it barred, and someone on the outside beating and clamoring to get in. It was at once seen that the President's wound was mortal. He was carried across the street to a house opposite, and laid upon a bed. Mrs. Lincoln followed, tenderly cared for by Miss Harris. Rathbone, exhausted by loss of blood, fainted, and was taken home. Messengers were sent for the cabinet, for the Surgeon-General, for Dr. Stone the President's family physician, and for others whose official or private relations with Mr. Lincoln gave them the right to be there. A crowd of people rushed instinctively to the White House, and bursting through the doors shouted the dreadful news to Robert Lincoln and Major Hay who sat together in an upper room.
The President had been shot a few minutes after ten o'clock. The wound would have brought instant death to most men. He was unconscious from the first moment, but he breathed throughout the night, his gaunt face scarcely paler than those of the sorrowing men around him. At twenty-two minutes past seven in the morning he died. Secretary Stanton broke the silence by saying, "Now he belongs to the ages."
Booth had done his work thoroughly. His principal accomplice had acted with equal audacity and cruelty, but with less fatal result. Under pretext of having a package of medicine to de-liver, 'he forced his way to the room of the Secretary of State, who lay ill, and attacked him, inflicting three terrible knife wounds on his neck and cheek, wounding also the Secretary's two sons, a servant, and a soldier nurse who tried to overpower him. Finally breaking away, he ran downstairs, reached the door unhurt, and springing upon his horse rode off. It was feared that neither the Secretary nor his eldest son would live, but both in time recovered.
Although Booth had been recognized by dozens of people as he stood before the footlights brandishing his dagger, his swift horse soon carried him beyond any hap-hazard pursuit. He crossed the Navy Yard bridge and rode into Maryland, being joined by one of his fellow-conspirators. A surgeon named Mudd set Booth's leg and sent him on his desolate way. For ten days the two men lived the lives of hunted animals. On the night of April 25 they were surrounded as they lay sleeping in a barn in Caroline County, Virginia. Booth refused to surrender. The barn was fired, and while it was burning he was shot by Boston Corbett, a sergeant of cavalry. He lingered for about three hours in great pain, and died at seven in the morning. The remaining conspirators were tried by military commission. Four were hanged, including the assailant of Secretary Seward, and the others were sentenced to imprisonment for various lengths of time.
Upon the hearts of a people glowing with the joy of victory the news of the President's death fell as a great shock. In the unspeakable calamity the country lost sight of the great national successes of the past week ; and thus it came to pass that there was never any organized celebration in the North over the downfall of the rebellion. It was unquestionably best that it should be so. Lincoln himself would not have had it otherwise, for he hated the arrogance of triumph.
As it was, the South could take no offense at a grief so genuine ; and the people of that section even shared, to a certain extent, in the mourning for one who, in their inmost hearts, they knew to have wished them well.
Within an hour after Mr. Lincoln's body was taken to the White House the town was shrouded in black. Not only the public buildings, the shops, and the better class of dwellings were draped in funeral decorations; still more touching proof of affection was shown in the poorest class of homes, where laboring men of both colors found means in their poverty to afford some scanty bit of mourning. The interest and veneration of the people still centered at the White House, where, under a tall catafalque in the East Room the late chief lay in the majesty of death, rather than in the modest tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the new President had his lodgings, and where the Chief Justice administered the oath of office to him at eleven o'clock on the morning of April 15.
It was determined that the funeral ceremonies in Washington should be held on Wednesday, April 19, and all the churches throughout the country were invited to join at the same time in appropriate observances. The ceremonies in the East Room were simple and brief, while all the pomp and circumstance that the government could command were employed to give a fitting escort from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol, where the body of the President lay in state. The procession moved to the booming of minute guns, and the tolling of all the bells in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria; while, to associate the pomp of the day with the great-est work of Lincoln's life, a detachment of colored troops marched at the head of the line.
When it was announced that he was to be buried at Springfield every town and city on the way begged that the train might halt within its limits, to give its people opportunity of showing their grief and reverence. It was finally arranged that the funeral cortege should follow substantially the same route over which Lincoln had come in 1861 to take possession of the office to which he added a new dignity and value for all time. On April 21, accompanied by a guard of honor, and in a train decked with somber trappings, the journey was begun. At Baltimore, through which, four years before, it was a question whether the President-elect could pass with safety to his life, the coffin was taken with reverent care to the great dome of the Exchange, where, surrounded with evergreens and lilies, it lay for several hours, the people passing by in mournful throngs. The same demonstration was repeated, gaining constantly in depth of feeling and solemn splendor of display in every city through which the procession passed. In New York came General Scott, pale and feeble, but resolute, to pay his tribute of respect to his de-parted friend and commander.
Springfield was reached on the morning of May 3. The body lay in state in the Capitol, which was richly draped from roof to basement in black velvet and silver fringe, while within it was a bower of bloom and fragrance. For twenty-four hours an unbroken stream of people passed through, bidding their friend and neighbor welcome home and farewell. At ten o'clock on the morning of May 4 the coffin lid was closed, and a vast procession moved out to Oak Ridge, where the town had set apart a lovely spot for his grave. Here the dead President was committed to the soil of the State which had so loved and honored him. The ceremonies at the grave were simple and touching. Bishop Simpson delivered a pathetic oration, prayers were offered, and hymns were sung, but the weightiest and most eloquent words uttered anywhere that day were those of the Second Inaugural, which the Committee had wisely ordained to be read over his grave, as centuries before, the friends of the painter Raphael chose the incomparable canvas of "The Transfiguration" to be the chief ornament of his funeral.
Though President Lincoln lived to see the real end of the war, various bodies of Confederate troops continued to hold out for some time longer. General Johnston faced Sherman's army in the Carolinas until April 26, while General E. Kirby Smith, west of the Mississippi River, did not surrender until May 26.
As rapidly as possible Union volunteer regiments were disbanded, and soon the mighty host of 1,000,000 men was reduced to a peace footing of only 25,000. Before the great army melted away into the greater body of citizens its soldiers enjoyed one final triumph—a march through the capital of the nation, undisturbed by death or danger, under the eyes of their highest commanders and the representatives of the people whose country they had saved. Those who witnessed the solemn yet joyous pageant will never forget it; and pray that their children may never see its like. For two days this formidable host marched the long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, starting from the shadow of the Capitol and filling the wide street as far as Georgetown, its serried ranks moving with the easy yet rapid pace of veterans in cadence step. As a mere spectacle this march of the mightiest host the continent has ever seen was grand and imposing, but it was . not as a spectacle alone that it affected the beholder. It was no holiday parade. It was an army of citizens on their way home after a long and terrible war. Their clothes were worn, and pierced with bullets, their banners had been torn with shot and shell, and lashed in the winds of many battles. The very drums and fifes had called out the troops to night alarms, and sounded the onset on historic fields. The whole country claimed these heroes as part of themselves. They were not soldiers by profession or from love of fighting; they had become soldiers only to save their country's life. Now, done with war, they were going joyously and peaceably back to their homes to take up the tasks they had willingly laid down in the hour of their country's need.
Friends loaded them with flowers as they swung down the Avenue—both men and officers, until some were fairly hidden under their fragrant burden. Grotesque figures were not absent, as Sherman's legions passed with their "bummers" and their regimental pets. But with all the shouting and the joy there was, in the minds of all who saw it, one sad and ever-recurring thought—the memory of the men who were absent, and who had, nevertheless, so richly earned the right to be there. The soldiers in their shrunken companies thought of the brave comrades who had fallen by the way; and through the whole vast army there was passionate unavailing regret for their wise, gentle and powerful friend Abraham Lincoln, gone forever from the big white house by the Avenue—who had called the great host into being, directed the course of the nation during the four years that they had been battling for its life, and to whom, more than to any other, this crowning peaceful pageant would have been full of deep and happy meaning.
Why was this man so loved that his death caused a whole nation to forget its triumph, and turned its gladness into mourning? Why has his fame grown with the passing years until now scarcely a speech is made or a newspaper printed that does not have within it somewhere a mention of his name or some phrase or sentence that fell from his lips? Let us see if we can, what it was that made Abraham Lincoln the man that he became.
A child born to an inheritance of want ; a boy growing into a narrow world of ignorance; a youth taking up the burden of coarse and heavy labor; a man entering on the doubtful struggle of a local backwoods career—these were the beginnings of Abraham Lincoln if we look at them only in the hard practical spirit which takes for its motto that "Nothing succeeds but success." If we adopt a more generous as well as a truer view, then we see that it was the brave hopeful spirit, the strong active mind, and the great law of moral growth that accepts the good and rejects the bad, which Nature gave this obscure child, that carried him to the service of mankind and the admiration of the centuries as certainly as the acorn grows to be the oak.
Even his privations helped the end. Self-reliance, the strongest trait of the pioneer was his by blood and birth and training, and was developed by the hardships of his lot to the mighty power needed to guide our country through the struggle of the Civil War.
The sense of equality was his also, for he grew from childhood to manhood in a state of society where there were neither rich to envy nor poor to despise, and where the gifts and hardships of the forest were distributed without favor to each and all alike. In the forest he learned charity, sympathy, helpfulness—in a word neighborliness—for in that far-off frontier life all the wealth of India, had a man possessed it, could not have bought relief from danger or help in time of need, and neighborliness became of prime importance. Constant opportunity was found there to practice the virtue which Christ declared to be next to the love of God—to love one's neighbor as one-self.
In such settlements, far removed from courts and j ails, men were brought face to face with questions of natural right. The pioneers not only understood the American doctrine of selfgovernment—they lived it. It was this understanding, this feeling, which taught Lincoln to write: "When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism;" and also to give utterance to its twin truth : "He who would be no slave must consent to have no slave."
Lincoln was born in the slave State of Kentucky. He lived there only a short time, and we have reason to believe that wherever he might have grown up, his very nature would have spurned the doctrine and practice of human slavery. Yet, though he hated slavery, he never hated the slave-holder. His feeling of pardon and sympathy for Kentucky and the South played no unimportant part in his dealings with grave problems of statesmanship. It is true that he struck slavery its death blow with the hand of war, but at the same time he offered the slave-owner golden payment with the hand of peace.
Abraham Lincoln was not an ordinary man. He was, in truth, in the language of the poet Lowell, a "new birth of our new soil." His greatness did not consist in growing up on the frontier. An ordinary man would have found on the frontier exactly what he would have found elsewhere—a commonplace life, varying only with the changing ideas and customs of time and place. But for the man with extraordinary powers of mind and body—for one gifted by Nature as Abraham Lincoln was gifted, the pioneer life with its severe training in self-denial, patience and industry, developed his character, and fitted him for the great duties of his after life as no other training could have done.
His advancement in the astonishing career that carried him from obscurity to world-wide fame—from postmaster of New Salem village to President of the United States, from captain of a back-woods volunteer company to Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, was neither sudden nor accidental, nor easy. He was both ambitious and successful, but his ambition was moderate, and his success was slow. And, because his success was slow, it never outgrew either his judgment or his powers. Between the day when he left his father's cabin and launched his canoe on the headwaters of the Sangamon River to begin life on his own account, and the day of his first inauguration, lay full thirty years of toil, self-denial, patience; often of effort baffled, of hope deferred; sometimes of bitter disappointment. Even with the natural gift of great genius it required an average lifetime and faithful unrelaxing effort, to transform the raw country stripling into a fit ruler for this great nation.
Almost every success was balanced—sometimes overbalanced, by a seeming failure. He went into the Black Hawk war a captain, and through no fault of his own, came out a private. He rode to the hostile frontier on horseback, and trudged home on foot. His store "winked out." His surveyor's compass and chain, with which he was earning a scanty living, were sold for debt. He was defeated in his first attempts to be nominated for the legislature and for Congress; defeated in his application to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office; defeated for the Senate when he had forty-five votes to begin with, by a man who had only five votes to begin with; defeated again after his joint debates with Douglas; defeated in the nomination for Vice-President, when a favorable nod from half a dozen politicians would have brought him success.
Failures? Not so. Every seeming defeat was a slow success. His was the growth of the oak, and not of Jonah's gourd. He could not become a master workman until he had served a tedious apprenticeship. It was the quarter of a century of reading, thinking, speech-making and law-making which fitted him to be the chosen champion of freedom in the great Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It was the great moral victory won in those debates (although the senatorship went to Douglas) added to the title "Honest Old Abe," won by truth and manhood among his neighbors during a whole lifetime, that led the people of the United States to trust him with the duties and powers of President.
And when, at last, after thirty years of endeavor, success had beaten down defeat, when Lincoln had been nominated, elected and inaugurated, came the crowning trial of his faith and constancy. When the people, by free and lawful choice, had placed honor and power in his hands, when his name could convene Congress, approve laws, cause ships to sail and armies to move, there suddenly came upon the government and the nation a fatal paralysis. Honor seemed to dwindle and power to vanish. Was he then after all not to be President? Was patriotism dead? Was the Constitution only a bit of waste paper? Was the Union gone?
The outlook was indeed grave. There was treason in Congress, treason in the Supreme Court, treason in the army and navy. Confusion and discord were everywhere. To use Mr. Lincoln's forcible figure of speech, sinners were calling the righteous to repentance. Finally the flag, insulted and fired upon, trailed' in surrender at Sumter; and then came the humiliation of the riot at Baltimore, and the President for a few days practically a prisoner in the capital of the nation.
But his apprenticeship had been served, and there was to be no more failure. With faith and justice and generosity he conducted for four long years a war whose frontiers stretched from the Potomac to the Rio Grande; whose soldiers numbered a million men on each side. The labor, the thought, the responsibility, the strain of mind and anguish of soul that he gave to this great task, who can measure? "Here was place for no holiday magistrate, no fair weather sailor," as Emerson justly said of him. "The new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado. In four years—four years of battle days—his endurance, his fertility of resources, his magnanimity, were sorely tried and never found wanting." "By his courage, his justice, his even temper, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the centre of a heroic epoch."
What but a lifetime's schooling in disappoint-ment, what but the pioneer's self-reliance and freedom from prejudice, what but the clear mind, quick to see natural right and unswerving in its purpose to follow it; what but the steady self-control, the unwarped sympathy, the unbounded charity of this man with spirit so humble and soul so great, could have carried him through the labors he wrought to the victory he attained?
With truth it could be written, "His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong. So, "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gave him to see the right" he lived and died. We who have never seen him yet feel daily the influence of his kindly life, and cherish among our most precious possessions the heritage of his example.