By all accounts, Good Friday, just two days before Easter on April 14, 1865, was the happiest day of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. It had most certainly been the happiest few weeks of his life, according to James Swanson, author of the New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12 -Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
“He had won the war. Richmond fell on April 3rd, Lee surrendered on April 9th, and Lincoln gave his final speech from the White House grounds the evening of April 11th,” Swanson told an audience hosted by the Lincoln Forum in 2004.
The night before the night Lincoln was shot by his assassin, local newspapers reported, was the most beautiful night in the history of Washington, as the city celebrated the ending of the bloodiest and costliest war ever fought on American soil: fireworks, flares and other sources of every imaginable variety illuminated the evening sky. “One of the papers said that the Capitol dome was so beautiful that night it looked like a second moon had descended upon the earth as a sign of God’s favor for the union,” Swanson said. “And for the victory.”
The very next morning, an idyllic spring morning on April 14, Lincoln met with his son, who’d been working for General George Meade, and then met with his Cabinet. A rare visitor joined the last meeting Lincoln would ever hold with his staff: General Ulysses S. Grant. They discussed affairs of state, and things ended with Lincoln sharing a dream he’d had the night before. In it, he was at the head of a mysterious vessel moving toward a distant shore, and he was alone.
Lincoln added that whenever he had that dream—and he’d had it many times during the war—something of critical importance transpired. “I’m convinced something of major significance is about to happen,” he told the men.
When the meeting ended, he and his bride, Mary, took a carriage ride to enjoy the open air and talk about matters of the heart. “During that ride, Lincoln told her he knew they’d been very unhappy ever since the death of their 11-year-old son, Willie, in the White House in 1862,” Swanson said. The death count in the Civil War, over 600,000, had taken its toll on Lincoln too. “It had been a crushing burden on him, and the two of them had grown apart during the war for many reasons,” Swanson said. “He told Mary, ‘We must be happy again.'”
Mary wrote a note later that day about her husband’s rejuvenated spirit. “You alarm me because I have never seen you this happy since just before the death of our son,” she told Lincoln.
Just two days before Easter, Lincoln had experienced a resurrection of his own spirit. That night, he and Mary attended Our American Cousin, a popular comedy of the day by British playwright Tom Taylor. The couple arrived 30 minutes late, and the play was stopped immediately. “The band rose up and played ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and the audience went mad,” Mike Robinson, a reenactor at Ford’s Theatre, told Newsweek. It may have been the happiest moment of Lincoln’s life.
On a day that marked a new and happy beginning to Lincoln’s life, John Wilkes Booth was plotting to make it the president’s last. “The 26-year-old was one of the most popular actors in America, exceedingly handsome and athletic. Women and men would stop in the street to watch him as he passed.” Swanson said. “Generous, vain, funny, egomaniacal, politically motivated to be a lover of the South and a supporter of slavery, he once said, ‘Slavery is the best thing to ever happen to the Black man.'”
On the day Lincoln gave his last speech from the White House grounds, Booth was present, seated not far from him. When Lincoln spoke to the adoring crowd about giving Blacks the right to vote, Booth turned to a Confederate sympathizer he knew and said, “That’s the last speech he’ll ever give.”
It turns out Booth had considered killing Lincoln before. At the president’s Second Inaugural Address, he sat within 50 feet of him. “Getting drunk at a bar shortly after that, Booth pounded his fist on the table and said to a friend, ‘What an excellent chance I had to kill the president on Inauguration Day. He was almost as close to me as you are now,'” according to Swanson.
Then came the catalyst that drove Booth into action. While visiting Ford’s Theatre midday to pick up his mail, a woman told the actor that Lincoln was attending the play that night. “That’s the trigger that set off the imaginary clock counting down in Booth’s mind,” Swanson said.
What motivated one of the leading actors of his day to do such a thing? “Lincoln was an American Caesar to Booth,” Swanson explained. “He wanted to punish Lincoln the tyrant, he hoped to change history, and, of course, he wanted eternal fame. He had it in his lifetime, but Booth wanted to be immortalized as a Southerner and, ultimately, an American patriot.”
The rest of the story—what Herman Melville called “that bloody, awful night”—is embedded in the American memory. The details of the assassination notwithstanding, what Booth did that night was advance what Swanson called a new art form: “performance assassination.”
Booth wasn’t on a suicide mission—he had hatched an escape plan. What he really wanted, Swanson said, was to be seen and celebrated. “When he crept to the president’s box and shot Lincoln and jumped to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, Booth wasn’t wearing a disguise. He hadn’t shaved his mustache. He did nothing to conceal himself when he turned to the audience and faced them and cried out the state motto of Virginia.”
That motto—Sic semper tyrannis, a Latin phrase meaning “Thus always to tyrants”—was followed by the last words Booth ever uttered on an American stage: “The South is avenged.”
“As he left the stage, he exulted to himself—only few people heard it: ‘I have done it,'” Swanson said. Booth then escaped to the back of the theater, jumped on his waiting horse and rode off into the night.
The largest manhunt in American history ensued, and Booth was found 12 days later outside of Port Royal, Virginia, trapped in a tobacco barn. The cavalry set the building on fire to force him out. “When he reached for his rifle and headed for the door, Sergeant Boston Corbett pulled his pistol and fired once, striking Booth in the neck and severing his spine. He would die within two hours, a slow miserable death appropriate for a dastardly assassin,” Robinson said.
Booth was convinced that he was the hero of the tragedy he’d authored, directed and starred in. “Tell my mother I died for my country” were his final words.
Back at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday, America’s beloved president lay dying in his box. “He was attended by three doctors, who concluded that the wound was mortal and that the theater was not an appropriate place for such a man to die,” Robinson said. “They carried him from his box, down the stairs and into the street, looking for a place to make the president as comfortable as possible in the few hours of life he had left to live.”
A person staying at the Petersen House, just across the street from the theater, was quick to help. The doctors rushed Lincoln in and took him directly to the back bedroom, where he died the next morning on April 15. “As he died, a light cold rain began to fall over Washington,” Robinson said. “It was as if the very heavens wept at the loss of our beloved president.”
Thus ended the short, happy life of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, at the hands of a delusional, deranged killer.
The opening stanzas of Walt Whitman’s epic poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” captured the nation’s grief in ways mere prose could not:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.