The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy

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"While waves of laughter echoed through the theater, James Ferguson kept his eyes focused on Abraham Lincoln. Although the president joined the crowd with a 'hearty laugh,' his interest seemingly lay more with someone below. With his right elbow resting on the arm of his chair and his chin lying carelessly on his hand, Lincoln parted one of the flags nearby that he might see better.

"As the laughter subsided, Harry Hawk stood on the stage alone with his back to the presidential box. Before he could utter another word, a sharp crack sounded. As the noise echoed throughout the otherwise silent theater, many thought that it was part of the play. But just as quickly, most knew it was not." -from Chapter Twelve

"Among the hundreds of books published about the assassination of our 16th president, this is an exceptional volume.... [It captures] a you-are-there feeling...." -Frank J. Williams, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum, and member of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

It was one of the most tragic events in American history: The famous president, beloved by many, reviled by some, murdered while viewing a play at Ford's Theater in Washington. The frantic search for the perpetrators. The nation in mourning. The solemn funeral train. The conspirators brought to justice. Coming just days after the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has become etched in the national consciousness like few other events. The president who had steered the nation through its bloodiest crisis was cut down before the end, just as it appeared that the bloodshed was over. The story has been told many times, but rarely with the immediacy of The Darkest Dawn. Thomas Goodrich brings to his narrative the care of the historian and the flair of the fiction writer. The result is a gripping account, filled with detail and as fresh as today's news.

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Prologue: The Omen

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THOSE WHO WITNESSED THE PHENOMENON that day would never forget it. The sight was so sudden and unexpected that most could only look to the sky, then to their neighbors, then shake their heads in stony disbelief. Some, those of a religious strain, stared in awe and considered what they were witnessing as nothing short of a heavenly message sent from on high. Others in the throng, those earthbound souls less prone to flights of fancy, nevertheless viewed the event as utterly amazing. Whichever the persuasion, whoever the viewer, no one in the crowd that day would ever forget what they beheld at noon, Saturday, March 4, in the year of their Lord 1865.

The day was all the more remarkable because it had such an evil onset. The sun did not smile down on Washington that morning. At 6 A.M., following a week of nearly uninterrupted gray and gloom, a furious storm burst upon the nation’s capital from the south.1 Although the blast—which uprooted trees and toppled outbuildings—ended in only a matter of minutes, torrential rain soon followed in its wake.2 When the deluge eased around nine that morning, it seemed to many as if the worst had passed. A short time later, though, as thousands of elegantly dressed men and women ventured cautiously up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, again the rain came.3

 

1. Three Electric Words

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CLICK, CLICK, CLICKITY-CLACK. . . . CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. . . . CLICKITY-CLACK. Staccato sounds. It was as far from glory and honor as any man or boy could get. It was here at the War Department in Washington that news from the battlefields of the South first touched the North. Along with other employees, it was the job of a “bright-faced Vermont boy,” Willie Kettles, to translate the clicks and clacks into dots and dashes and the dots and dashes into words and sentences.1 As a volunteer in the department, Kettles held a surprisingly important post for one so young. Battles won and lost, military movements, strategy, supplies, encampments, orders and counter-orders, all came rattling in on his telegraph receiver to be transcribed in pencil by the fourteen-year-old. When the clicking stopped and the scribbling was complete, the boy would then relay the message to his supervisor. If he deemed it important, Willie’s boss then passed on the note to the undersecretary of war, who in turn delivered it to the office of the secretary of war if it was judged critical. Really urgent reports went straight to the president himself. Though an important task, like anything else, after weeks and months the job soon became mundane and monotonous. Each message meant more writing, more paper and pencils, more work, more war.

 

2. The White City

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WHERE THE APPOMATTOX AND JAMES RIVERS JOIN, a long estuary is formed that eventually opens into Chesapeake Bay. Here, at the junction of the two streams, was situated City Point, Virginia. As a staging ground for Northern army operations directed at Richmond, Petersburg, and central Virginia, the site was nearly ideal. With supply lines safe and sound on the bay, the Union navy could disgorge at its leisure all the men and materiel needed to dash the last hope of the dying Confederacy. Sadly, City Point was also the perfect place to bring back the thousands of federal soldiers who had been maimed and crippled in this final attempt to crush the rebellion. Thus, in addition to the docks and warehouses that received the soldiers before they marched off to war, a great network of hospitals had sprung up to shelter the broken wrecks that came limping back again. For hundreds of men, this vast “white city” would be their last stop on earth. Except for a few fine words from their officers, and except for the satisfaction of seeing their names misspelled in hometown newspapers, there was little recognition for the sacrifice these soldiers had made for their country.

 

3. The Last Man

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FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS, the cry “On to Richmond!” had been heard throughout the North. And for the past four years, the cry had gone unheeded. Now, with the coveted prize finally in the Union’s grip, many realized that the grand goal had been illusory. When the shouting, speech-making, and band music had finally faded, most soon understood that it was not the city of Richmond that had thrashed the federal army at Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, and Fredericksburg, nor was it the capital of the Confederacy that had routed the Union army at Chancellorsville, Second Manassas, and the Seven Days; it was Robert E. Lee and his magnificent Army of Northern Virginia that had done all these things. Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, and every other city in the South might be stormed, but as long as the legendary “Gray Fox” marched and fought, the issue would always be in doubt.

Thus, one week after Richmond’s fall, when news from Appomattox Court House reached the North, those who thought they had no more energy to celebrate quickly found out they were wrong. Unlike the earlier news, which arrived at midday on Monday, the latter came in the dead of night on Sunday, April 9, 1865, when most Americans were asleep.

 

4. Star of Glory

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ALTHOUGH MANY OF THE MONUMENTS, statues, and buildings would have been ornaments in any European capital, and although the promise of its future now seemed secure, by the spring of 1865 Washington, D.C., still remained a backward, rambling, shameless embarrassment on the world political map. Like a bejeweled but besotted harlot, the nation’s capital was at once both beautiful and ugly—desirable, yet repellent. From a pre-war population of sixty thousand, Washington had burst its seams in four years of war, nearly doubling in size to over one hundred thousand souls. Far from keeping pace with growth, city services had fallen well behind. The hideous smells from rotting animal carcasses, as well as the festering remains from the municipal and military slaughter yards, mingled day and night with the smoke from thousands of fires and furnaces. Stagnant, motionless canals and the sluggish Potomac served as sewage dumps where all manner of offal and filth fed the stench. Hogs wandered and wallowed in the city “as freely as dogs.” In the malignant Washington air, said one of those with a sensitive nose, there were “70 separate and distinct stinks.”1

 

5. The President and the Player

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IT WAS A BRIGHT AND BREEZY DAY ON Charleston Harbor. The sea was stirred and choppy. Those assembled inside and along the crumbling brick walls of Fort Sumter might have seen vistas of billowing whitecaps covering the blue water of the bay had it not been for the hundreds of naval vessels.

“A brilliant gathering of boats, ships, and steamers of every sort had assembled around the battered ruin of the fort,” wrote one amazed viewer. “The whole bay seemed covered with the vast flotilla.”1

The masts alone, said another witness, “was thick as A forest of trees.”2

Inside the shattered fort itself, gusts of wind drove swirling sand and dust into the faces of those in attendance.3 Few were discomfited. Instead, a thrill of high expectation stirred in the hearts of everyone. Today, the symbolic end of the war would be recognized on the very spot where it had begun full four years before. Adding to this startling significance was the breathtaking news of the evening preceding—news that had arrived from Appomattox Court House.4 For the estimated three thousand blacks and whites now seated around the Fort Sumter stage, no timing had ever been more perfect. Thus, the wind and sand and dust were small concerns to a gathering that sat this day, April 14, 1865, in the very center of the hearts and minds of all throughout the reunited nation.5

 

6. Sic Semper Tyrannis

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IF ANYONE HAD THE SLIGHTEST DOUBT that the Great Rebellion was all but over, the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue would have quickly cured them of their delusion. Cordoned by guards, more than four hundred Confederate officers captured in the recent fighting around Appomattox now trudged dejectedly through Washington.1 As word spread, hundreds, then thousands, of curious citizens lined the street to watch. In contrast to similar processions earlier in the war, which were greeted by hoots and jeers, only silence—solemn, even sad—now surrounded these prisoners, the pathetic remnant of a once mighty army.

“It was a sorrowful sight,” one federal soldier wrote. “No man with the heart of a man beating in his bosom could witness it without emotion. In their old tarnished and torn uniforms they marched erect and proud, with no semblance of bravado, and yet with no apparent sense of humiliation.”2

“Great God!” John Booth gasped to a friend as they watched. “I have no longer a country!”3

 

7. Towards an Indefinite Shore

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BY LATE AFTERNOON, THE WEATHER had taken a turn for the worse. When the couple had set out earlier, the day was sunny and the thermometer was reaching for seventy. Now a cold, raw wind came whistling down the streets from the north, and the dark clouds above portended rain.1 Nevertheless, little or nothing could dampen the joy of the carriage ride.

Following an inspection of the Montauk, a monitor gunboat that lay at anchor in the Potomac, and a jaunt to the “Soldier’s Home,” their summer retreat, Abraham and Mary Lincoln turned back toward the White House.2 As had been the case throughout the day, the president’s spirits were high. His goal had been reached. The weary load he had shouldered for the past four years was now about to be set down. And Abraham Lincoln felt relief.

“Dear husband,” Mary stared at her normally morose mate, “you almost startle me, by your great cheerfulness.”

“[W]ell I may feel so, Mary,” the president smiled. “I consider this day, the war has come to a close.”3

 

8. The Clown and the Sphinx

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Prior to the 4th of March last, he stood high in the esteem of the people of the United States. He was borne into the Vice Presidential chair by the votes of more than two millions of freemen; and up to the day on which he took the oath of office, not a word of reproach had ever been uttered against his character. But on the occasion of his inauguration. . . . [w]e all felt mortified and ashamed.1

SO WROTE A REPORTER FOR THE Chicago Tribune. As the journalist indicated, Andrew Johnson should have been one of the happiest men in Washington. Instead, the former tailor was perhaps the most forlorn and neglected person in America. Johnson’s accession to the second seat of power in the nation also proved his downfall. As Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 election, the former senator and governor of Tennessee was summoned to attend the inauguration on March 4 and take the oath of office. Despite illness, Johnson acquiesced.2

That morning, as he and outgoing vice president Hannibal Hamlin stood about in the Capitol waiting for the ceremonies to commence, the son of illiterate tavern servants was overcome by anxiety. Adding to Johnson’s nervousness was a bad hangover from the night before.3 According to one account:

 

9. One Bold Man

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LIKE THE MAN ON A MISSION, impervious to his surroundings, John Wilkes Booth moved swiftly through the crowded streets of Washington. As the afternoon deepened, every minute now mattered. The life or death of his beloved Southern Confederacy rested on his shoulders and his alone. Stopping here on the Avenue to whisper with an intimate, hurrying there to an apartment where last-minute details were sorted with those privy to the plot, the handsome, worried actor was an economy of grace and motion.1 Few who knew and saw Booth on this chilling afternoon of April 14 paid much mind to his frenzied actions.

“In looking back over the occurrences,” recalled Ford’s doorkeeper, John Buckingham, “I can see that Booth must have been under great stress of excitement, although his actions did not seem to me at the time to be at all strange. He was naturally a nervous man and restless in his movements.”2

Some of Booth’s actions were unusual, however, even for him. Wrote one Washington reporter:

 

10. A Night to Remember

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SHORTLY BEFORE 8:30 P.M., AS drizzle began to fall softly on Washington, a carriage halted outside the imposing facade of Ford’s Theater. Despite the weather, a large number of curious spectators were on hand, some to see the president, but most to view for themselves the man so much had been made of recently, Ulysses Grant. When the four occupants finally stepped down and into the light, however, the short, bearded general and his trademark cigar were nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the presidential party, in the “gayest spirits,” was imposing enough, and Lincoln himself was more than sufficient to write home about.1

“I had never been so near to him before, and I remember remarking how much taller he appeared than I had previously imagined,” wrote a man who boarded just across the street from Ford’s. “He was engaged in animated conversation as he passed me, and I was struck with the peculiar softness of his voice. . . . As he passed through the crowd he towered a full head and shoulders above them.”2

 

11. Terror on Lafayette Park

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AS A SERVANT IN THE SEWARD HOME, William Bell’s job was to ensure that the household ran smoothly. Among his many duties was screening those who called on the secretary of state. Since the carriage accident earlier in the month, the parade of friends, well-wishers, and the merely curious had been heavy, but with few exceptions most were turned away. Although he was slowly recovering, the secretary was in no condition to receive so many guests. Thus, when the young black man answered the doorbell at around ten this misty night, he knew that his response would be simple: The secretary was unavailable.

As the slightly built servant opened the door, he saw standing before him a tall, broad-shouldered figure in a light overcoat. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled low on the man’s head, partly covering his eyes. In a pleasant voice, the visitor explained that the small package he held was medicine from Seward’s doctor. The handsome stranger then added that he had orders to deliver the medicine and instructions to Seward in person. When Bell announced that this was out of the question, that he would deliver the packet himself, the huge man glared down at him. “Must go up—must see him—must see him,” the stranger mumbled as he stepped around Bell. Fearing that the persistent intruder might indeed be an important messenger, the little servant decided that he would at the very least escort him to Frederick Seward or George Robinson. Dashing ahead, the worried employee led the way up the stairs.1

 

12. The Last Bullet

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JAMES FERGUSON WAS UPSET. The saloonkeeper had not paid good money for two tickets to simply sit all evening and watch a threadbare play that he knew almost by heart—he had come expressly to see with his own eyes the hero of the day, Ulysses S. Grant. Thus, while his female companion watched the play, for most of the night Ferguson’s restless eyes peered through opera glasses at the box directly across the theater from where he sat. Throughout the evening, the anxious bartender kept his vigil, supposing that Grant—known for his aversion of the limelight—would try to slip in unnoticed. But the hours had passed, and it was now the third act of a three-act play and still no victorious general.1

Nevertheless, as Ferguson stared across the way, his eyes had more than enough to feast on. There was, of course, the gaunt, bearded president, at times happy, at times pensive, and at other times, as now, leaning forward with his chin on his arms as they rested along the rail, absentmindedly watching the crowd and the orchestra below. There was also the first lady, animated as always, laughing at every silly pun and jest, looking innocently to her husband to see if he was enjoying the humor as well. Increasingly, though, Ferguson’s attention was focused on the peculiar and perplexing actions of John Wilkes Booth.

 

13. Murder in the Streets

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ALTHOUGH WORD OF THE HORRIBLE DEED spread from Ford’s moments after it occurred, it was only when the soldiers forced the frenzied, wild-eyed audience from the building that the city felt the full, chilling impact of the assassination.

“Every man and woman in the theater rushed forth to tell it,” wrote a chronicler. “Some ran wildly down the streets, exclaiming to those they met, ‘The President is killed! The President is killed!’ One rushed into a ball-room, and told it to the dancers; another bursting into a room where a party of eminent public men were playing cards, cried, ‘Lincoln is shot!’”1

As one vast crowd surged up Pennsylvania Avenue shouting “The President is shot!” they were met by another sweeping down the street yelling “Secretary Seward has been assassinated in bed.”2

At Grover’s Theater, while the stage crew was behind the scenes preparing for the fourth and final act of Alladin, a special interlude of the new patriotic song “When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea” had just ended. The applause was so great that the young songstress was about to offer an encore.3 In addition to the Lincolns’ little boy, Tad, young James Tanner, a soldier who had lost both legs in the war, was also in the audience. Despite boarding just across the street from Ford’s, Tanner had made what was for him a long and difficult trip to the theater on Pennsylvania Avenue.4 Just as the singer was about to begin, from the rear of the theater the door burst open with a crash.

 

14. A Spirit So Horrible

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A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theater a half hour ago.1

THUS WROTE A DAZED NEW YORK REPORTER, trying to describe the devastation the human mind suffered when it was forced to shift from happiness and hope to darkness and despair in only a heartbeat. With thousands of candles, lamps, and gas jets still glowing fiercely from the earlier celebration, the murky conditions threw a surreal and sinister shroud over the whole of Washington.

“It was so light that one could see for blocks,” recalled Helen Moss as her escort hurried her home to escape the rising horror.2 Many of those the couple met moved slowly through the mist like sleepwalkers. Others sped silently along as though they were ghosts. Some were seen to stagger, as if intoxicated.3 Words were inadequate to describe one’s emotions.

“It was one of stifling, as though someone had gripped my throat,” Albert Boggs admitted when the full weight of the news finally sank in.4

 

15. The Darkest Dawn

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AS JAMES TANNER NEARED THE STREET his boarding house sat on, he found his steps increasingly slowed. Several hundred yards from the building itself, the twenty-one-year-old former soldier found his path blocked entirely. In contrast to the riotous mobs elsewhere, a ghostly silence pervaded the dense crowd that stood outside the Petersen house. Dismayed, yet determined to reach his room, Tanner edged and slid his way forward on his shaky artificial legs. At length, he reached the military cordon encircling the Petersen home. After some intense explanation, Tanner eventually convinced the officers in charge that his quarters were indeed in the adjoining boarding house, and he was permitted to enter the building. Upon reaching his room, however, the exhausted young man was in for another surprise.1

“There was a balcony in front,” he said, “and I found my rooms and the balcony thronged by other occupants of the house.”2

 

16. Hemp and Hell

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IRONICALLY, THE ONE MAN IN AMERICA whose job it was to have known of the tragic developments in the capital was one of the last to learn. While events swirled madly about him, newsman Noah Brooks lay in his room, oblivious to all, bedridden by a violent bout of flu. During the night, he and his roommate were aroused by the clatter of cavalry in the streets. Other than a dry joke about rebel raids and the capture of his friend Abraham Lincoln, Brooks paid no mind to the commotion and quickly dozed off again.

I was awakened in the early dawn by a loud and hurried knocking on my chamber door, and the voice of Mr. Gardner, the landlord, crying “Wake, wake, Mr. Brooks! I have dreadful news.” I slipped out, turned the key of the door, and Mr. Gardner came in, pale, trembling . . . and told his awful story. . . . I sank back into my bed, cold and shivering with horror, and for a time it seemed as though the end of all things had come. I was aroused by the loud weeping of my comrade, who had not left his bed in another part of the room.

 

17. This Sobbing Day

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WITH LITTLE OR NO RESPITE, the rain that came with Lincoln’s death continued throughout the day in Washington on Saturday, April 15. Despite the downpour, the streets of the capital were crowded with citizens. Little was said. Faces full of sadness said all.1 It was if the people were compelled by some mysterious force to join with others and mourn over a loss so profound that words were meaningless. Many moved about the city as if in a stupor. Few felt the loss more sharply than soldiers. Those who had fought for years and had grown fond of Father Abraham now reacted as if they had indeed lost a parent. “It probably means more to me than it does to you,” a cavalryman sobbed to a comrade. “He signed an order that saved me from being shot.”2

Returning to the army hospital soon after his nightmarish duty at the Petersen home, Charles Leale was concerned about the terrible impact the assassination would have on his wounded men:

One of my patients was profoundly depressed. He said to me: “Doctor, all we have fought for is gone. Our country is destroyed, and I want to die.” This officer the day before was safely recovering from an amputation. I called my lady nurse, “Please closely watch Lieutenant ———; cheer him as much as possible, and give him two ounces of wine every two hours. . . .” This brave soldier received the greatest kindness and skillful care, but he would not rally from the shock and died in a short time.3

 

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