“I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. I heard the man shout some word which I thought was “Freedom!” I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm…. the man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box….”
Major Henry Rathbone Describes the Assassination of President Lincoln
This was the testimony of U.S. Army Major Henry R. Rathbone describing the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at about 10:15 on the evening of today’s date, April 14, in 1865. Major Rathbone was in the box with President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. attending that evening’s performance of the comedy play “Our American Cousin.” Booth, an actor and a Confederate sympathizer had hatched a plot with several accomplices to kill Lincoln and other high officials. Secretary of State William Seward suffered a knife wound in his home from one of Booth’s conspirators, but the rest of the plot fizzled. Only Booth himself managed to follow through on the plan. His conspiracy has been the subject of countless books and films, including “Killing Lincoln”. the fascinating best seller by Bill O’Reilly. Mr. O’Reilly’s book is a page-turner that you won’t be able to put down. It details the conspiracy quite well. But what happened to our President that terrible night? As Major Rathbone further testified, Lincoln was gravely wounded:
“I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.”
Gideon Welles Describes Lincolns Death
President Lincoln had indeed been mortally wounded by a single shot to the back of his head. He was carried to a boarding house across the street from Ford’s theater, where the doctors who were present determined that his life could not be saved, and that he had but a few hours to live. Several members of Lincoln’s cabinet were present as he lay dying. One of them, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later described the scene:
“The giant sufferer lay diagonally extended across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the (bed) clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.”
The report in the New York Times on the morning of the 16’th:
“At 7:20 o’clock the President breathed his last, closing his eyes as if falling to sleep, and his countenance assuming an expression of perfect serenity. There were no indications of pain, and it was not known that he was dead until the gradually decreasing respiration ceased altogether.”
Booth is Cornered; the Public Reacts to News of Lincoln’s Death
President Lincoln lingered on into the morning of April 15, when his breathing finally ceased shortly before 7:30 a.m. John Wilkes Booth, who had broken his leg in his leap from the Presidential box at Ford’s Theater, escaped capture that night, and remained at large for some days before being cornered by an Army search party in a barn at Bowling Green, Virginia on April 26. There, with the barn in flames, he was killed by a gunshot by one of his pursuers which severed his spinal cord. Later on the morning of Lincoln’s death, Secretary Welles went to the White House. He was greatly affected by what he saw of the public reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death when he stepped outside:
“There was a cheerless cold rain and everything seemed gloomy. On the avenue in front of the White House were several hundred colored people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss. This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold wet day. They seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them.”
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“Eyewitness to America” Edited by David Colbert, Pantheon Books, New York, 1990. pp. 241 – 247.
“The New York Times Book of the Civil War” Edited by Arleen Keylin and Douglas John Bowen, Arno Press, New York, 1980