Visiting Ford’s Theatre, Where Lincoln Got Assassinated

Ford's Theatre
On April 14, 1865, a few days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, John Wilkes Booth finally decided to do something for the Confederacy.

The famous actor had supported the South from the start, but he had spent the entire Civil War in the North, playing to packed theaters and making lots of money. Now that the war was winding down, he felt he needed to take a stand.

Booth and a small circle of conspirators had been planning to kidnap Lincoln but nothing much had come of it. On April 11, Booth attended a speech given by Lincoln in which the president said he supported giving blacks the right to vote. That was the last straw. Booth reportedly said, “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

On April 14, while Lincoln and his wife watched a popular comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, Booth appeared with a knife and pistol. The bodyguard that was supposed to watch over the presidential box had gone off to a tavern, and Booth was able to walk right up behind Lincoln unnoticed. He shot him once in the head, stabbed an officer sitting nearby, leaped onto the stage, and made his getaway.

The nation was stunned. Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day. It would be like if Tom Cruise shot Obama. The nation plunged into mourning and even many Confederates expressed their shock.

%Gallery-155130%Despite having broken his leg while jumping onto the stage, Booth was able to elude a giant manhunt for 12 days before being cornered in a barn and fatally shot. His fellow conspirators were rounded up. One had attacked and wounded Secretary of State William Seward. Of the eight conspirators, all were found guilty. Four were hanged, including the first woman to be executed in the United States, and the rest received prison sentences.

You can see the site of America’s first presidential assassination. Ford’s Theatre is both a theatre and a functioning playhouse. Some of the tours include a one-act play. Across the street is the Petersen House, a private home where Lincoln was taken and clung to life for a few hours.

Unfortunately, much of what you see is not original. Ford’s Theatre was turned into offices and had to be completely reconstructed when it became a National Historic Site. The Petersen House also contains many replicas, such as the bed where he lay and much of the furniture in the room, which are at the Chicago History Museum. The reconstruction is well done, however, and the two buildings manage to take you into the past.

Included in the ticket is a visit to the Center for Education and Leadership, attached to the Petersen House. There are displays on Lincoln’s presidency and his legacy, including many interactive exhibits. This really seemed to engage visitors and the kids especially appeared absorbed. Lincoln is an American icon and everyone wanted to learn more about him. People passed through this museum much more slowly than usual.

As I was walking out, I saw a black woman taking a photo of a giant copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. I was tempted to take a photo of her face, which bore an unforgettable expression that was a combination of pride, joy, and another emotion I couldn’t quite identify because, well, I’m white.

The fact that Lincoln can still provoke such emotions almost 150 years after his death is a testament to his greatness. He wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions on social issues and much of the public hated him for it. That didn’t stop him for doing what he felt was right, even if it meant losing his life.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

National Park Service Launches New Civil War Website

Artist rendition of the Battle of Shiloh in the U.S. Civil War.On April 12, 1861, exactly 151 years ago today, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina officially igniting the American Civil War. What followed was four years of brutal fighting that would not only decide the fate of over 4 million slaves, but also the very future of the nation. That war left an indelible mark on American history and culture that is felt to this day and many of its battlefields and important landmarks are still visited a century and a half later.

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, the National Park Service has launched a new website dedicated to the Civil War and the various locations from that conflict that now fall under NPS supervision. Places like Gettysburg, Antietam and Appomattox Court House to name just a few. The website provides travelers with tools to discover these destinations for themselves while providing a historical context for their significance. It also lists upcoming events for those places and provides insights into what to expect while visiting these important national parks and monuments.

The new website also features an interactive timeline that describes the significant events before, during and after the war. A series of detailed stories provide more depth on the background of the conflict, while profiles of the most important political and military figures from that era help to put a human face on the struggle as well. There is even a “civil war reporter” that delivers daily news about the war via Twitter.

Whether you’re a history buff or just a simple traveler looking for information on Civil War related destinations, you’ll find this site to be a great resource. The Park Service has done an outstanding job in bringing all of this online.

National Portrait Gallery Opens Two Civil War Exhibits

National Portrait Gallery, Civil War
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is commemorating the Civil War with two new exhibits.

The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck” looks at the work of a rebel dentist who became one of the Confederacy’s leading political cartoonists. Unlike most German immigrants, who sided with the Union, Volck was an active rebel who not only fought the Union with his pen, but also smuggled much-needed medical supplies to the South. The exhibit runs until January 21, 2013.

More famous is photographer Mathew Brady, whose portable photographic studio is shown above. “Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals” make up the second exhibition. Numerous high-quality images of the Union’s leading and lesser-known generals will be on display. The exhibit runs until May 31, 2015.

The exhibitions are part of a continuing series at the National Portrait Gallery marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

New Civil War museum at Appomattox features General Lee’s sword and uniform

Civil War, Robert E. LeeAs we reported a year ago, a new Civil War museum has been under construction at Appomattox, Virginia. It is a branch of Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy and will commemorate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the aftermath of the Civil War.

Now the Museum of the Confederacy-Appomattox is almost complete and will open March 31. Among the displays are General Lee’s uniform and gold ceremonial sword — the very same he wore and carried on April 9, 1865 when he met General Ulysses S. Grant to surrender.

More than 450 items will be on display in an exhibition space spanning 11,700 square feet. It’s located near Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, which includes the McLean House where Grant and Lee met.

The Museum of the Confederacy is planning more regional museums in order to make their large collection more accessible. Satellite museums are planned for Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass to be reenacted in New Mexico


The Battle of Glorieta Pass, the most important battle of the Civil War in the Southwest, will be reenacted this weekend in New Mexico.

This important battle took place on March 26 and 28, 1862, but the reenactment will take place on the weekend of March 24 and 25. A Confederate army under General Henry Hopkins Sibley had marched out of Texas to take what was then the New Mexico Territory. After defeating a Union force at the Battle of Valverde, Sibley marched north in the hopes of taking the rich gold fields of Colorado and ultimately opening a path to the Pacific.

A Union force under Col. John Slough met the rebels at Glorieta Pass. Slough and most of his men were Colorado volunteers who had marched 400 mountainous miles in only 13 days to stop the Confederates. The battle was a hard two-day fight. So hard, in fact, that both sides rested for a day in between.

The Union side won when a Colorado unit climbed a mountain to get behind the Confederates and destroyed their supplies. Left with virtually no food or water, Sibley had to abandon the invasion and his army struggled through the desert back to Texas. The defeat was so complete that the battle is often called “the Gettysburg of the West.”

The action will take place at the old battlefield, now the Pecos National Historical Park. You can see a schedule of events here. Highlights include a Spanish-language drill of the New Mexico Volunteers, black powder demonstrations and artillery. Park volunteers and reenactors will be on hand to give battlefield tours and lecture on various topics such as the Civil War in the Southwest and period medicine. There will even be drill instruction for kids.

Image painted by artist Roy Anderson — courtesy of Pecos National Historical Park.