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]