April 14 – 16, 1865
The President was dying.
As the grim news spread through Washington City, angry crowds spilled into the cold, muddy night. Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford's Theatre, on Tenth Street. The wounds were mortal, people were saying. There was no way he could survive. The war was over, the South utterly vanquished, yet somehow its withered hand had reached up into the nation's capital and extracted this bitter revenge. The crowds became mobs, looking for somebody to hang. Some wanted to burn Ford's to the ground. Others marched toward Old Capitol Prison, where many leaders of the late rebellion were still being held. Rumors passed from mouth to mouth: The Vice- President had been murdered in his rooms at Kirkwood House. The Secretary of State had been stabbed to death in his mansion on Lafayette Square. Confederate troops were advancing on the city. Or Union troops: nobody seemed to know for sure, and a coup d'état had been rumored for years. Outside Ford's Theatre, a man in the blood-spattered uniform of an army major and a doctor carrying a candle fought their way into the street. A group bearing Lincoln's unmoving body followed behind. Mrs. Lincoln, face like chalk, clutched her husband's stiff hand. People leaned in, trying to see or touch. Men groaned. Women wept. A soldier banged on the door of a row house across the way. They carried the President inside and shut the door. People craned to peer in the windows. Minutes later, Secretary of War Stanton, the most feared man in Washington, arrived in an unguarded carriage and raced inside. Other officials followed. Furious soldiers took up positions on the sidewalk but seemed to have no clear orders. They battered members of the crowd for practice. Other men went in. The people who had been closest to the body passed on the story: the President's head was a mass of blood.
Meanwhile, the hue and cry had been raised. That actor fellow. Wilkes Booth. He had shot the President and leaped to the stage, then escaped on horseback. Somehow the mob was armed now, looking for someone to whom they might do mayhem. Booth would be best, but any Southern sympathizer or paroled Confederate soldier would do, or, in the absence of so obvious a target, any man dressed in gray, or a Catholic, or a darkie. In the confusion, Stanton took command. He ordered the city sealed. Trains were stopped. Guards allowed no one across the bridges. Telegrams were sent to military commanders in Virginia and Maryland, warning them to watch for men on horses fleeing Washington. On the Potomac River, a steamer was prepared as a floating prison should any of the conspirators be apprehended, the better to protect them from the mob: good order required that they be hanged swiftly by soldiers rather than by citizens.
The Union had been struck a hard blow, and wanted revenge.
From Philadelphia to New York to Chicago, newspapers were out with special late editions, their entire front pages devoted to the shooting. Some headlines pronounced the President already dead. Editors who had been Lincoln's sworn foes eulogized him as the nation's savior; others, who had openly despised Mrs. Lincoln, assured the nation that they stood beside the First Lady in her impending widowhood. In the war-ravaged South, where few telegraph lines were intact, the news moved more slowly. Lincoln's longtime bodyguard, Allan Pinkerton, was in New Orleans, and would not learn of the shooting for several days. In the cities of the North, vengeful citizens marched. Church doors were flung open so that people might pray for the President's recovery. But the prayers, like the mobs, seemed fruitless. Everybody knew that it was too late. Little squares of black crepe began to appear in windows, signaling a nation already mourning.
That was Friday. By Saturday, however, the rumors began to change. Perhaps all was not lost. The doctors had cleaned the wound repeatedly and removed the clotting blood. And a miracle was occurring. The President's indomitable will was asserting itself. He was breathing strongly on his own, his eyes were fl uttering open, and the damage to his brain appeared less severe than first thought. The telegraph flashed the news across the country: Lincoln lives! True, Vice-President Andrew Johnson was dead, and the Secretary of State so badly wounded that he might not see another day, but Abraham Lincoln, savior of the nation, seemed to be improving.
He had been shot on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, he rose.
By the middle of the week, the President was sitting up, meeting with his staff, once again in charge of the affairs of the nation. Across the country, people cheered. Those who felt otherwise kept their disappointment to themselves, content to bide their time.
Excerpted from The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter. Copyright 2012 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.