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The Last Days of Abraham Lincoln

Ford's TheatreOn the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot while watching the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The incident occurred at 10:15 p.m., during a moment when the audience was laughing as actor Harry Hawk performed on stage. Actor John Wilkes Booth entered the rear of the Presidential BoxPresidential Box (shown in the photo to the right) and shot Lincoln from behind before leaping out of the box and down to the stage. In all the confusion, Booth was able to flee from the theatre without being accosted or arrested.

When the theatre-goers realized what had happened to the President, doctors from the audience immediately rushed to his aid. Lincoln was taken across the Petersen House
street to the home of William Petersen (known today as the Petersen House, shown to the left). Here he remained for the rest of the solemn night, until his death on the morning of April 15 at 7:22 a.m.

Though the assassin had momentarily escaped and was on the run, he was found and killed in less than two weeks after the murderous act was committed. The surviving conspirators who had plotted with Booth to murder the President were arrested, and a trial was held from May 10 through June 29. During the trial, a testimony by William T. Kent on May 16, 1865 stated the following about the murder weapon:

About three minutes after the President was shot, I went into his box. There were two other persons there then, and a surgeon, apparently, asked me for a knife to cut open the President's clothes. I handed him mine, and with it he cut the President's clothes open. I then went out of the theatre and went down to call my roommate. I missed my night key, and thinking that I had dropped my night key in pulling out my knife, I hurried back to the theatre. When I went into the box and was searching around for it on the floor, I knocked my foot against the pistol, and stooping down, I picked it up. I held it up, and cried out, "I have found the pistol!"

  Ford's Theatre Museum

Photos of Ford's Theatre building and Ford's Theatre Museum by CNO, photos of the Presidential Box and the Petersen House by DLO.

Pictured immediately above: Ford's Theatre museum, with a display of artifacts from the scene of the assassination: a .44-caliber single-shot percussion pistol manufactured by Henry Deringer of Philadelphia; the door which served as a stretcher to bear the body of the President from the theatre to William Petersen's house across the street; and the coat Lincoln wore on that fateful evening.

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image of Lincoln   Even in death, Abraham Lincoln would live on as a noble leader and hero to thousands of American citizens, and was the subject of poems by notable poets of the age such as Walt Whitman who mourned him in passing as he proclaimed: "This dust was once the man, / Gentle, plain, just and resolute...". His most famous poems about Lincoln's death include "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd" and "O Captain! my Captain!" which reveal the shock and dismay he felt upon learning of the assassination.

In the following poem, Whitman contemplates the meaning of victory for the soldiers who had fought to preserve the Union, and the irony of the President's death after attaining this glory.

Image of Lincoln care of
Leib Image Archives.

   

HUSH'D BE THE CAMPS TODAY
(May 4, 1865)

Hush'd be the camps today,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander's death.

No more for him life's stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat—no more time's dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.

But sing poet in our name,
Sing of the love we bore him-because you—dweller in camps, know it truly.

As they invault the coffin there,
Sing—as they close the doors of earth upon him—one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.

- Walt Whitman

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